Who are You?
A sermon on Leviticus 26 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 3/14/99
I was taken aback. No one had ever asked me that question before, and I didn't know the answer. I am an economist. I am a runner. I am a Dean (whatever that may be). I am a father, a husband, a son; I am a Christian, a preacher, a teacher, an elder: am I a musician?
I avoided answering the question, simply telling Nat that I took piano as a child, still play occasionally, and used to sing choral music before so many kids came along. But the question bothered me: Am I a musician?
Later, I looked up the word "musician." Merriam-Webster says a musician is "a composer, conductor, or performer of music." Well, sure, by that definition anyone who sits at the piano and sight-reads some hymns while other people are around is a musician. But that's not the question I was trying to answer.
No. "Am I a musician?" means: Is making music important to me? Do I set aside time for music? Is making music part of who I am?
This morning we will conclude our series in Leviticus by examining chapter 26. We have seen that the book of Leviticus is not, as is so commonly thought, a book which lays down the law, saying, "Step over this line and I will zap you!" Instead the entire first half of the book details God's provisions for the Israelites, God's answer to every need of the Israelites, through the sacrifices and the priesthood. We have seen how God's plan all along was to create "a people for his own dear possession," a people to love and to cherish. We have seen that the sacrificial system is not a way of earning one's salvation, but rather God's gracious provision for dealing with the Israelites' inability to keep all the law. The entire system is a picture of God's grace, foreshadowing all that Christ accomplished for us on the cross.
That is the message of the first half of Leviticus: God has chosen you as his people, God has provided for your every need, he overcomes your every weakness, so that you might become his dear possession. The second half of the book asks: If this is so, if God has set us apart for this special purpose, how should we then live? And the answer is: This privilege is so great, that our character must become like God's character. He has chosen us, he has given us every provision to make up for our weaknesses. Our responsibility -- as pictured in the Sabbath -- is to actively depend on him so that we might become what he intends us to be. Rest in him, in his power, turning our thoughts and attention to Him, every minute of every day.
Like most of Leviticus, the passage we consider today is frequently misunderstood. A quick reading gives the impression that God is telling the Israelites, "Obey me and I will bless you; disobey me and I will curse you." But God here is not concerned with outward obedience to a set of rules. In this chapter, the Lord tells the Israelites who he is, and presents them with two choices for what they might become. Given all the provisions he has made, as detailed in the first 25 chapters of the book, he asks: "Are you going to be all I intend you to be, all I enable you to be? Are you going to be a holy, special people for my own dear possession? Or will you reject me and abhor me? The answer to that question determines your destiny."
Similarly, the question for us this morning is: Who are you? Who are you?
Outline of Chapter
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Leviticus 26. Before we start to read, let's consider the structure of the chapter.
The first two verses remind the Israelites of the prohibition against worshiping any other Gods, and the need to keep "my Sabbaths." Recall that all the festivals we have considered the last two weeks were special Sabbaths, so included in this command were the regular Sabbath, the annual festivals, the Sabbath year, and the Year of Jubilee. God is reminding the Israelites of his prominence, and their need to rest in him in all areas of their life, at all times.
The rest of the chapter follows a simple structure: God gives an "if-statement," followed by a consequence, concluding with a statement about who God is. Verse 3 is the positive "if-statement," and verses 4-12 give the results. If the Israelites act like God's people they will be blessed in certain ways. Verse 13 concludes that section, giving a statement about who God is.
Similarly, verses 14 and 15 provide a negative "if-statement:" "If you do not listen . . ." Verses 16-39 basically give the consequences of that "if-statement," although we will see later that the structure is somewhat more complex. Verses 40 to 43 promise that if the Israelites confess and turn to God, he will forgive. The chapter concludes with one more statement about who God is.
Rearranging the order of these topics clarifies the central point God is making here. So let us consider in turn these four elements:
Then we will consider how this chapter applies to our own lives.
WHO GOD IS
Look at verses 13, 44, and 45 of Leviticus 26. Recall that the word "Lord" printed in all caps is a substitution for the name of God, pronounced something like "Yahweh." This name connotes the covenant relationship between Israel and God, so permit me to make that substitution as I read:
13 I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high
44b I am Yahweh their God. 45 But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am Yahweh.
God here emphasizes his relationship to these people. He says, "I am your God. I remember my promises. I took you out of slavery, I broke the power of the forces that controlled you. So do not choose to be a slave again! I enabled you to walk with your head held high -- so don't return to the disgrace of your former life! You are mine, you are special -- so live up to that calling!"
Furthermore, note that God says he brought the Israelites out of Egypt "in the sight of the nations." God has chosen these people in order not only to save them, but also to display His glory, to show His character to all of creation. The actions of the people of Israel bring glory -- or dishonor -- to the very name of God! This is further incentive for the people to live up to their calling.
Our situation is similar. God says we are his own dear children:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1 NIV)
We belong to Him, we are his family. He rescued us from slavery, and enables us to walk with heads held high. We are the family of God! And he has done this, in part, to display his wisdom and grace to all of creation, including his enemies (Ephesians 3:10). What we do brings honor or dishonor to our God, our Father.
Let us now turn our attention to the "If-statements." Consider verses 3, 14, and 15:
3 "If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, (NASB)
14 But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15 and if you despise my statutes and abhor my judgments and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant
Note also verse 21: "if you remain hostile toward me . . ."
Consider these two alternatives. Is God saying here, "If you keep all the law, I will bless you, but if you violate even one commandment I will punish you forever"? In more technical terms, is God setting up a system of works righteousness?
That cannot be God's intention here, for those are not the two alternatives presented. Look at the second alternative. "If you . . . despise my statutes and abhor my judgments." God is not talking about slipping up, a sin that someone commits once. Instead, God here is talking about a condition of the heart. God is talking about characteristics of our life: Is covenant-breaking characteristic of us? Is breaking His commands characteristic of us?
I believe one key to understanding this entire chapter is assigning the correct meaning to the words "statutes" and "commandments" in verse 3. God tells the Israelites to "walk" in his statutes and keep or guard his commandments. The verb "to walk" is frequently used in Hebrew to mean "to live out every moment of every day." The idea is, "every step I take, I am living this out." For example, the same Hebrew word is used in Proverbs 10:9:
Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out. (NASB)
To "walk in integrity" is to live a life characterized by integrity at all times.
So what are the statutes that the Israelites are to live out every moment of every day? What should characterize the life of every Israelite? What will provide a fitting contrast to the "if-statement" of verses 14 and 15, the abhorrence of God's judgments?
The necessary answer is that "statutes" and "commandments" refer to all of the first 25 chapters of Leviticus. Unquestionably this includes the sections we tend to think of as law, such as chapters 17 to 20; but this also includes all God's gracious provisions for meeting man's weaknesses in chapters 1 to 16, and the resting in God so clearly taught in chapters 23 and 25.
So the Israelites are to live by loving God's law, for it reveals his character; they are to live by depending on His strength, as pictured in the Sabbath and the festivals; they are to live by offering themselves to God, as pictured in the grain or present offering; they are to live by depending on the gifted humans God provides for them, as pictured in the priesthood. All of this is included in the idea of walking "in my statutes" and keeping "my commandments."
In these two "if-statements," God says: "You are mine. I am giving you all you need to take on my character. Are you going to accept that gracious gift or not?"
So God here is not talking about a one-time decision to follow him. Nor is he talking about outward obedience to a set of rules. God is talking about character; he is talking about our hearts.
This is disturbing, because most of us picture ourselves as far away from verses 14 and 15 but not in verse 3. We won't admit to abhorring God's judgments or despising his statutes, but we don't always walk in those statutes, we don't always depend on Him. We like to think there is room to stand somewhere in between.
But God tells us here that, ultimately, all of us are in one camp or the other: we either love God, accept his provision for us -- or we hate Him and despise his laws, rejecting him. There is no middle ground.
With that understanding of the "if-statements," let us move on to consider the promised blessings. We'll start by reading verse 3 again:
3 If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. 6 "'I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. 7 You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you. 9 "'I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. 10 You will still be eating last year's harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. 11 I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. 12 I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.
How might we characterize these blessings? God here promises the Israelites five different types of blessing if they walk in His ways:
As is always the case in Leviticus, the Israelites are examples for us, "on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11)." There is a spiritual reality behind these (partly) material blessings. Abundance of food for us symbolizes God's provision for our spiritual health; we have received "everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), everything we need to grow in Him. He provides us with spiritual peace; we can be sure that he will rescue us "from every evil attack" (2 Timothy 4:18 -- note that Paul knew he would soon be executed when he wrote this. Question to contemplate: Was his execution an "evil attack?"). He provides us with the power to achieve victory over Satan, our enemy; we need not let sin reign in us, for God always provides a way out of every temptation (Romans 6:12 and 1 Corinthians 10:13). Furthermore, God declares that he will work through us to spread His word to the world; the gospel spreads, and the family of God grows, because of God's work in us. Finally, we share with the Israelites the promise of a close relationship to God: We become His family.
All this is promised to the man who walks in God's statutes, who leans on God and trusts in His understanding at all times. Unfortunately, the Israelites did not receive these blessings because they instead chose the other path.
Let us look at the consequences of abhorring God's judgments:
16 I, in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also, you shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies shall eat it up. 17 'And I will set My face against you so that you shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you.
How might we characterize the curses we find in these two verses? Note they are exactly the opposite of the blessings we found:
The Israelites suffer terribly when they turn their backs on God. They lose all the blessings they would have received, but God doesn't stop there -- they then reap the opposite!
The next verses show clearly that God gives the Israelites many chances to repent. Look at verses 18, 21, 23-24, and 27-28. In each case, God promises to see if the problems they face have caused the Israelites to repent. And if they don't repent, God promises to make their punishment seven times worse! God's purpose in this is redemptive; he wants Israel to turn, not to continue to reject him.
We will not read all of these verses, but I encourage you to do so. You will see that God's statements here closely parallel the history of the people of Israel. While there are individual exceptions, as a whole the Israelites reject God, they abhor his judgments, and so the nation lives through these horrible punishments.
Let us read again beginning with verse 27:
27 'Yet if in spite of this, you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me, 28 then I will act with wrathful hostility against you; and I, even I, will punish you seven times for your sins. 29 'Further, you shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you shall eat. . . . 33 'You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste. 34 'Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. . . . 38 'But you will perish among the nations, and your enemies' land will consume you. 39 'So those of you who may be left will rot away because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies; and also because of the iniquities of their forefathers they will rot away with them.
The Israelites did not keep the Sabbath. They did not keep the Sabbath Year, or the Year of Jubilee. They did not watch out for the poor. They did not keep the festivals. They did not offer sacrifices with right attitudes, or even right external actions. They did chase after idols; they did follow the customs of the people around them. And so all of these curses fell upon them. The Assyrians scatter the northern 10 tribes, effectively destroying them; in 586 BC the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. Later, in 70 AD the Romans destroy Jerusalem again after causing such a terrible hunger that the Jews ate the bodies of those who died in the city.
But remember, we started our exposition of this chapter by looking at who God is. And God is faithful even when his people are unfaithful. Let us keep reading:
40 'If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me-- 41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies--or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. . . . 44 'Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them completely, breaking My covenant with them; for I am Yahweh their God. 45 'But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am Yahweh.'" (Leviticus 26:40-42, 44-45 NASB replacing LORD with Yahweh)
God waits for the people to repent. And while most individuals will not repent, God will keep His covenant. To use terms employed elsewhere, he will keep a remnant, a faithful group in the middle of this general rejection of Himself. God will fulfill his purposes; He will make for himself a people for His own possession.
How does all this apply to us? Of what relevance is this chapter to Christians today?
C.S. Lewis addresses this question in Mere Christianity, where he writes:
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, "If you keep a lot of rules I'll reward you, and if you don't I'll do the other thing." I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (Book 2, Part 4)
You see what he is saying? We are all walking in one of two directions. Each choice we make, each step we take, leads us one way or the other. There are only two alternatives.
Let's return to the question Nat Parke addressed to me: "Coty, are you a musician?" After thinking about that for some time, I decided that music is important to me. Music is a part of who I am -- and I've been neglecting that part. So, yes, I've decided to set aside some time every day -- not much, given all my commitments, but a little time each day -- to playing music. And I've started to work once again on that Chopin waltz I abandoned more than 10 years ago, the last time I regularly practiced.
The book of Leviticus which we now conclude raises a similar question: Who are you? Are you a Christian? Is being a Christian an important part -- the most important part -- of who you are? Do you set aside time to put into practice your Christian beliefs? Every day, regularly, do you set aside time for prayer and Bible-reading? Are you walking, step by step, with the Lord? Are you displaying the love of Christ in all the small things you do each day?
What about your heart, and your thoughts? Inside yourself, who are you?
Many of you young people made commitments to the Lord two weeks ago at Snow Camp, the winter retreat. You know how pleased we all are with those commitments. But let me tell you: Those commitments are worthless -- indeed, they are worse than worthless -- unless you live up to them day by day. In school -- are you showing that you are a child of God? At home, with your parents, with your brothers and sisters -- are you living out the love of Christ?
Many of us as little children learned the song, "The wise man built his house upon the rock." You all remember that the rains come down and the floods come up, but the house on the rock stands firm. On the other hand, the foolish man builds his house on what? The sand. And when the rains come, the house on the sand collapses.
All of this is found in Matthew 7, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Who is it that Jesus says is like the wise man? Jesus says, "He who hears these words of mine" -- and makes a decision? And makes a commitment? No. Those are necessary steps but that is not what Jesus says. "He who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice." The wise man puts into practice the words of His Lord. Jesus refers to the foolish man in the preceding verses, Matthew 7:21-23. They foolish people may say to Him, "Lord, Lord. But:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21 NIV)
So who are you? Will you be like that foolish man -- coming to church, going through religious rituals, even supposedly making a public decision for Christ -- but then not doing the will of your Father? Do not deceive yourself; God will not be mocked.
Or will you be like that wise man, leaning on God and not on your own understanding, depending upon God's provisions, actively resting in Him?
Listen to the words of such a wise man:
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . . I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . . . 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. . . . 13b But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7.8.10,11, 13b,14)
Paul considers everything in his life rubbish compared to the greatness of knowing Christ. Rubbish! Yes, even being a musician or an athlete or an artist or a student -- all of these pale in comparison to the greatness of knowing Christ.
So who are you? Where is your heart?
What we do, the choices we make, make a difference -- not because we are saved by works but because of the nature of saving faith. True faith acts; true faith understands who God is, who Jesus is, and who I am as a Christian. True faith more than anything else wants to be like Christ, and thus turns the will to depend on the Spirit within, in consequence becoming more and more Christlike.
Every choice you make, every step you take, moves you closer to Christlikeness or Satanlikeness. And make no mistake: in the end you will be like one or the other. There is no middle ground.
Who are you?
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 3/14/99. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him
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