Christians and the Law
A Sermon on Leviticus 17 to 20 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 01267
What are the characteristics of an ideal family?
Is an ideal family one in which the parents lay out a set of rules and the children obey them?
Suppose that I made a set of rules for my six children and achieved 99% compliance. That would be a miracle -- but would that necessarily make mine an ideal family?
No. Every family must have rules, but obedience to rules is not the essence of an ideal family. Love is the essence of an ideal family.
THOSE are the characteristics of an ideal family: Love. Respect. Honor.
Now, in this ideal family, will the children obey their parents? Yes! But their obedience RESULTS FROM their love and respect -- it results from the love-relationship between parent and child. Because the children know their parents' love, they trust them and love them, so they obey -- even when they don't understand exactly why a particular rule is made. Furthermore, because they love their parents, they will obey the spirit of the law, and not play semantic games showing how they really obeyed even though they seemed not to.
Last Sunday we began our discussion of Leviticus 17-20. We saw that our relationship to God's law is quite similar to the relationship of children to their parents' rules in an ideal family. In Leviticus, the law is NOT presented to us as a way to become right with God; the law is NOT a set of hoops that God sets up to test our willingness to obey. Jesus says that all of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commands: Love Yahweh your God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.
You see how those commands parallel the characteristics of an ideal family? Just as children in the ideal family love, trust, and honor their parents, so we must love, trust, and honor Yahweh, OUR God. Just as children in the ideal family love and encourage each other, so we must love our brothers and sisters in Christ -- and, similarly, love those outside the body of Christ.
Furthermore, there is a parallel between the love of the man and wife for each other in the ideal family and the love of God. In an ideal family, the husband and wife love each other sacrificially, building each other up -- displaying the type of love that their children then exhibit in their relationships with each other. Just so, the love within the Godhead, the love of the Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, both for the Spirit, is perfect; God IS love. As we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, we too begin to display this true love one for another.
An ideal family -- THAT is the picture God paints for us of our relationship to him. The law RESULTS FROM THE RELATIONSHIP. Because God is holy, because he in his very nature cannot tolerate evil, and because we are his own very precious possession, created by Him as the perfect bride for Himself, we too must be holy. Indeed, if you have received Jesus as Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, God Himself is within you, transforming you, empowering you to be holy. We in the end will have no spot or wrinkle or blemish. So through the power of the Spirit we obey -- not to earn his favor, not even primarily to gain his commendation, but we obey because of the love we have for Him, because of the love He so graciously shows toward us. The relationship comes first -- obedience follows.
Ray Stedman puts it this way: "Christian activity never stems from the imperative of a divine command, but from the impulse of an indwelling presence." We don't obey simply because God issued a command, and we fear the consequences of not obeying. That is not Christian obedience. We obey because we are in an intimate love relationship with our gracious Creator -- so intimate that He is in us. And if the perfectly holy God, the God who cannot tolerate evil lives within us, how can we use our bodies to perform evil? That is the essence of Christian obedience.
So true Christianity does not consist of "linism" Last week I defined "linism" as a rule-based morality governing our behavior, a morality that defines lines separating right from wrong. We may decide to keep on the right side of the line -- but then we move as close to the line as possible without crossing it. That is not Christianity! God calls us to pursue righteousness, to be perfect, to display the fruit of the Spirit. God calls us to the positive pursuit of goodness -- because we are His, we are to be like Him.
So for the rest of this morning we will look at some of the specific commands God gives in Leviticus 17 to 20. Always keep in mind that God gives these commands to his people AS his people -- He is THEIR God, they are His people. He is holy, they are to be holy because of their relationship to him.
Last week I indicated that we can classify the laws we find in Leviticus 17 to 20 into four categories. Some laws display God's character explicitly. God's people are to be like him, and these laws show the Israelites what that means. An example is Leviticus 19:18: "Love your neighbor as yourself." God is love; if we are to be like him, we too must show love.
Secondly, some laws are related to the pictures of our salvation in Christ that God paints in the first half of Leviticus. These are rich pictures for us to contemplate, but the specific restrictions no longer hold for us. For example, most of chapter 17, which regulates the Israelites' contact with blood, consists of such laws. Blood is a picture of life. There is nothing inherently evil, there is nothing that violates God's character in our eating blood. Rather, just as in the sacrificial system, God is teaching the Israelites about his plan of salvation and his plan for the life of his people through these pictures of blood.
(We will consider these two categories in greater depth during the course of the morning. These last two categories I will only mention:)
Thirdly, some commands are rules that help the Israelites to see how to love the Lord their God with all their hearts. The Israelites lived among an idolatrous people -- in order that they not be tempted, God restricts certain practices that are part of the idolatrous worship of other nations. For example, look at Leviticus 19:27-28 "'Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.'" Now, we are not tempted to idolatry by shaving the hair on the sides of our head. For us, the relevant question is: Are there things we should avoid, not bad in and of themselves, because they could lead us into idolatry? Are there activities we engage in that distract us from putting God first, from loving Him with all our heart?
Finally, some commands consist of the legal punishment for violations of laws in the ancient state of Israel. These picture the punishment such sins deserve; God hates these sins. But today such punishment is meted out not by a theocratic state, for God in the church age does not ordain theocratic states. Today this punishment is reserved for eternity, when all those not covered by the shed blood of Jesus will suffer for such sins. As an example of this, consider Leviticus 20:9 'If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him." In this case, the restriction holds -- we are to honor our parents, as our families are to exhibit the love relationship between God and His people. But the punishment in ancient Israel prefigures God's justice in dealing with this and with all sin.
In the limited time we have this morning, we will focus on two areas: The picture of blood found in Leviticus 17, and the ways that the law displays God's character. We will look into some of the tough areas in more detail during Sunday School, so please stay.
Blood and Guts
Please turn in your Bibles to Leviticus chapter 17. We'll read beginning in verse 3:
3 Any Israelite who sacrifices an ox, a lamb or a goat in the camp or outside of it 4 instead of bringing it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD-- that man shall be considered guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood and must be cut off from his people. 5 This is so the Israelites will bring to the LORD the sacrifices they are now making in the open fields. They must bring them to the priest, that is, to the LORD, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and sacrifice them as fellowship offerings. 6 The priest is to sprinkle the blood against the altar of the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and burn the fat as an aroma pleasing to the LORD.
10 ¶ "'Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood-- I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, "None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood." 13 "'Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, 14 because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, "You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off."
While the purpose of these regulations may seem obscure, the restrictions at least are clear: all animals that the Israelites slaughter for food are to be brought to the tabernacle and offered to the Lord. They are not to set up butcher shops, or slaughter the animals themselves, whether inside the camp our outside. Even when hunting, Israelites were to treat the blood in a special way, draining it and the blood out in the field. Never, never were the Israelites to eat any blood.
Before we consider the reasons for this restriction, please turn with me to John chapter 6. Given what we have just read - that no Israelites were to eat any blood - consider the impact of Jesus' statement, beginning in verse 52:
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (John 6:52-56 NIV)
Those of us who grew up in even nominally Christian homes have heard these words so often that they have lost their impact. Imagine what you would think if you had never heard the words surrounding communion previously. Eat Jesus flesh? Drink his blood? This sounds disgusting! Now multiply your level of disgust several times to get the Jews' response to Jesus. Most of us have no qualms about eating red meat; we don't drain the blood out of steak before we grill it. But these Jews had never in their life eaten meat containing blood. Moreover, this wasn't because of personal preference or because they thought it was unhealthy - God had commanded them never to eat blood. Now this Jesus is telling them to drink his blood and eat his flesh! "How repulsive! How absurd!" they must have thought.
I suggest to you that Jesus here is providing us with a commentary on Leviticus 17. The key to understanding these passages is found in two phrases: "the life of every creature is its blood. (Lev 17:14)" and "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53)." Listen carefully: God commands the Israelites not to eat the blood of any animal, but then commands us to drink the blood of Jesus. He tells us not to consume animal blood, for its life is in its blood - and then He tells us to drink Jesus blood in order to have His life.
Do you see what God is saying here? We are surrounded in this world with false approaches to life - Do this, and live!
The animal blood, the blood of the world, stands for all these false approaches to life, these false ways of finding joy. We belong to God - we are not to try to find true life, true satisfaction in the things of this world. All these things pass away, all are but for a moment - in contrast, God has chosen us for an eternity of intimacy with Him.
No. Christians cannot find true life via these paths. Consuming the blood of these animals was a picture of participating in these false ideas of life. God has something better for us!
So Jesus comes and says: "You Pharisees think that by avoiding eating blood you are obeying God. But you are to drink MY blood and eat MY flesh! This is the only way to true life - true joy, true love, and true peace. The only life worth having comes from Me! So drink up my life!"
What a rich picture for us today, at the turn of the 21st century America! These days there are so many temptations to put our relationship with God to the backburner, to focus on our career, our family, our entertainment - but God says, "Eat no blood of this world! Don't try to find life in anything but Me!"
Does the blood of Jesus, the life we have in Christ, satisfy you? Are you fulfilled completely by your relationship with God? Can you say with Paul that to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Can you say with him that you count all your worldly success as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ? That is the message of the blood. This is not some mysterious, obscure command; this is not some regulation to follow mechanically; this is an image of central importance to our life as Christians: Where do you find life?
God's Character in the Law
Let us now turn our attention to the revelation of God's character found in these four chapters. Remember, God wants us to become like him, and to be in a perfect relationship with him. So these laws tell the Israelites how to do both.
In the first several cases, I will simply state the characteristic and read verses that describe it (stay for Sunday School for more depth.) We will spend more time on the complicated issue of sexuality.
(i) God cares for the poor and disabled
19:9 "'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.
19:14 "'Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
(ii) God is just, and his justice is not affected by social standing
19:15 "'Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
(iii) God is love
19:11 ¶ "'Do not steal. "'Do not lie. "'Do not deceive one another. 12 "'Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. 13 "'Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. "'Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
16 "'Do not go about spreading slander among your people. "'Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD. 17 "'Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. 18 "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
. . . God's love extends to those who are different than you, and those you do business with
33 "'When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. 35 "'Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
(iv) (Listen carefully here) God the Son reveres and respects God the Father; so we too must give respect where that is due
19:32 "'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.
19:3 "'Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. 4 "'Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.
(v) Finally, our sexuality reflects God's image.
Chapter 18 prohibits sexual sins -- primarily incest but also others, including homosexual behavior. As we indicated last week, those churches that have adopted "open and affirming" stances toward homosexuality argue that this whole section of Leviticus is irrelevant for us today.
We have seen that at least chapters 17, 19, and 20 are quite relevant when properly understood. But how do we understand chapter 18?
First of all, note that God uses strong language in the condemnation of these sins. Consider verses 24 to 30:
24 "'Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 "'Everyone who does any of these detestable things-- such persons must be cut off from their people. 30 Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God.'"
Sexual sin was rampant among the Canaanites and the Egyptians; sexual sin was also combined with their religious idolatry. This sin was so great that the land vomited them out -- and the land will do that again if the Israelites engage in such sin. This is serious.
Why? Why does God take sexual sin so seriously?
This topic clearly deserves more than the five minutes we can devote to it this morning. In this brief time I want you to see two points:
To see the first of these, let us look briefly at the beginning, Genesis chapter 1, to see how this first holds. Look at verses 26 and 27:
26 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
As is so often the case in Hebrew, in verse 27 the author emphasizes a point by saying it slightly differently three times. The point: God made us in His image, and that image includes our sexuality. In some way, our sexuality reflects God's image. How?
I believe the answer is that our God is a trinity, three persons united in a single Godhead. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other, have a perfect intimacy with each other. There is a unity in their diversity. In marriage, two persons become one spiritual and physical flesh; in the Godhead, three persons are fully one. So God made us male and female in part to display the unity in diversity that exists in Him.
Secondly, our sexuality pictures the unity between Christ and the church, as we become His perfect bride. Paul writes in Ephesians 5 (first quoting Genesis 2:24):
31 FOR THIS CAUSE A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, AND SHALL CLEAVE TO HIS WIFE; AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
Christ and the church are intimate, as man and wife are intimate. The unity that we have in marriage is akin to the unity that exists now and will exist for all eternity between Christ and the church.
So our sexuality is key aspect of our becoming like Christ, of our taking on God's character. Once again, God is not setting up an arbitrary set of hoops that we are to jump through. God is revealing his character in us -- and that revelation of his character includes our proper use of the gift of sexuality God has granted us.
So the restrictions in this chapter still hold for us, including the restriction on homosexual behavior. There is only one exception to this. Leviticus 18:19 forbids sexual relations during the time a woman is unclean because of her period. The word "unclean" shows that this one restriction is related not to God's character, but to chapters 11 to 14 and the prohibition of contact with blood in chapter 17. The concepts of clean and unclean have a profound spiritual significance for us (see previous sermon), but none of those restrictions relating to uncleanness hold for us today.
So our sexuality reflects God's image; God created us male and female, that we may be one, yet different, as He is both one and different.
So what is your attitude towards God's law? Are you trying to find life in the blood of this world, in the attractions that this world has to offer? Do you feel that God is restricting you? Do you grudgingly obey because He says so, all the time thinking, "I sure would like to cross that line!" Do you keep nudging the line, moving it but not crossing it?
God has not set up a list of rules so he can punish you for breaking them. God is not trying to limit your pleasure, or your fulfillment. No. As Tony Evans says, "God wants for you what you would want for yourself if you had sense enough to want it!"
God is our loving Father, making us into his perfect likeness. He is preparing us for an eternity of joy in His presence: Listen to John's vision of the future:
1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." 5 And He who sits on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." (Rev 21:1-5 NIV)
In God's presence, as Christ's perfect bride, we will experience a level of love, joy, and peace that we cannot even imagine right now; we will love each other perfectly and be loved perfectly in return. God is transforming us into His likeness, and the law displays his character. May we obey and thus hasten our becoming like Him. Praise God.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 1/17/99. 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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