In Mark Dever’s sermon on Leviticus from the book The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made, he draws an illustration from Romeo & Juliet. There might not be a more famous play written in all of history than William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It’s a story that captures so many real human feelings, emotions. There is love. There is hate. There is tragedy.
In the last act of the play Romeo is going to buy poison so he can reunite with Juliet, who he thinks is dead. It’s illegal for the man to sell Romeo the poison, but the man is pretty downtrodden. Romeo offers forty gold coins and says, “The world is not thy friend or the world’s law, The world afford no law to make thee rich; Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.”
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law. It strikes me as we come to the book of Leviticus that, as Dever writes, “this world and its laws will give you no answer to life’s great questions.” So to find the answers to those questions we have to turn somewhere, or rather, to Someone otherworldly… Someone not subject to the world’s laws, but has His own.
Enter YHWH and enter Leviticus.
Leviticus ranks as one of the most difficult books of the Bible to read for most people, mainly because there is so little narrative. There are not many stories, but the ones we do have are very instructive. Most of Leviticus is instruction from God to Israel on how they are to live and worship Him.
However difficult the book may be to some of us, though, or how obscure we may be tempted to think it is, Leviticus has been a surprisingly influential book throughout history. Many of the laws we have today can trace their roots back to Leviticus. The Liberty Bell even takes its name from Leviticus. There is an inscription on the bell which reads, “Proclaim Liberty Lev 25:10.” Leviticus 25:10 in the King James reads, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
Still, the book can be difficult, cumbersome, yet all the same it is God’s revelation of Himself to His people, and thus in the book of Leviticus we discover the glory of God, and I hope to contend that, as we have seen in Genesis and Exodus thus far, the glory of God is revealed in Leviticus best in salvation through judgment.
We will discover God’s glory by looking at two main points. First, God is holy so His people are to be holy, different from the rest of the world. And second, God’s people are sinners, so there must necessarily be an atoning sacrifice. In me just saying those two points I hope you can already see how this difficult third book of the Bible, that some might even calling ‘boring,’ points us to Jesus Christ.
God is holy so His people are to be holy.
The book of Leviticus divides rather neatly into various sections. The first seven chapters describe the sacrifices people are to make. Chapters 8-10 speak about Aaron, Moses’ brother, as high priest and the priesthood in general. Chapters 11-16 talk about uncleanness and how Israel was to deal with it. And chapters 17-27 include laws about holiness. In all of this, just as we saw that the most important thing about the Ten Commandments was YHWH, we see that the most important thing about these laws and the priesthood and the sacrifices is also YHWH.
The thing that distinguishes YHWH from everything else is His holiness. His love is different from our love because He is holy. His justice is different from our justice because He is holy. His glory is different and greater than the glory of anyone or anything else because He is holy. And because He is holy, if He is to be with Israel – and remember, His presence among Israel was the defining characteristic of that nation – then they, too, would have to be holy. They would have to be separated from uncleanness in order for YHWH to abide with them.
The laws of Leviticus are therefore a judgment upon Israel. The Law wasn’t necessary in the Garden of Eden. The Law became necessary when sin entered the world. These regulations are a judgment; yet, through the judgment that will be meted out on the sacrificed animals, the people of Israel are saved and they remain in the presence of the glory of God.
In Leviticus one of the ways this plays out is in the fact that the priests were to be especially different. In chapters 8-10 we find all the ways the priests were to exemplify holiness before God for the people. Yet, it’s also in chapter 10 that we find one of the rare stories in Leviticus. Look at Leviticus 10:1-3:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who acome near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’ So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.”
We don’t know what about the fire of Nadab and Abihu made it strange fire, but the bottom line is that this fire was offered in such a way as was not authorized by YHWH. As priests Nadab and Abihu should have known that they were to be distinct. They were to set the example for all of Israel, yet they failed, and in times when God is doing something new among people He often responds with strong punishment for those who do not take His holiness seriously. Ananias and Sapphira are a New Testament example.
Nevertheless, the priests had special duties. Not only were they to mediate the sacrifice but they were to also teach. We often don’t think of them as teachers, but not every Levite was always required to be at the tabernacle. When we read about Samuel’s father Elkanah or John the Baptist’s father Zecharias going to the tabernacle or the temple for two weeks out of the year to do service there, what do you think they were doing for the other 50 weeks of the year? They were teaching.
That makes Nadab and Abihu’s transgression are the more sad, because clearly they should have known better, especially if they were charged with teaching others. They should have shown by example what obeying the Lord was all about; namely, that we cannot approach God on our own terms. We can’t approach God and treat Him however we might please. Nadab and Abihu failed in that regard. They failed to take God seriously so they were seriously judged.
And by way of application to us, the Bible says that everyone who trusts in Jesus is part of this “kingdom of priests.” We’ve seen this in our Sunday night studies in 1 Peter. We are called to mediate God to the world and to one another. We are to exemplify what it means to take God seriously and point people to the One the Bible calls our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
So while the priests needed to be especially distinct, God was calling all of Israel to be distinct as well, clean in a world of unclean, holy in a world made unholy by the presence of sin. The people of God must live holy lives, otherwise they are lying to the world about who God is.
The book of Leviticus deals very much with being clean before God, being ceremonially pure. In fact, of all the times we find the word “unclean” in Scripture, over half of them are in this book. God set Himself apart from the pagan deities that were worshipped by those who were, in reality, godless. The rituals for those gods involved idolatry, child sacrifice, sexual sins. YHWH has none of that. In fact, for the purpose of setting Himself apart, there were things that weren’t even sins that could cause uncleanness, such as a miscarriage or being a leper. Those aren’t sins, but they made you unclean for ceremony. You’d have to go through a process, which God explains in Leviticus, to be clean again, but until then, because the glory of the LORD dwelt among the people in the center of the camp, in the tabernacle, that which was unclean was to dwell outside the camp. If anything, the laws of Leviticus show us that there is absolutely nothing that God is indifferent about. Our entire lives, even the littlest things in our minds, must be done in a manner pleasing to God.
It should be noted that the Levitical law isn’t just about ceremony, though. In fact, it’s very clear that what we read in Leviticus sets the stage for Jesus’ own teaching. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was He didn’t quote from the Ten Commandments, but from Deuteronomy: Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Then He said that the second one is like it, but this time He quoted from Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that on these two commands rested the Law and the Prophets, the entire Old Testament essentially.
God is holy so His people are to be holy, and His people will be marked out from the rest of the world not simply by the holiness of what they don’t do, but the holiness of what they do do. And that brings us to something that needs to be made clear with all of this discussion about law. God’s people are sinners, so there must necessarily be an atoning sacrifice.
In all this talk about law it needs to be made clear that Leviticus is no way is teaching a righteousness that is achieved before God on the basis of things we do, by works. No, from time immemorial people who are saved by God have always been saved by grace on the basis of faith. To that end, the Levitical system is one that only works by faith.
It only works if the one following it believes that YHWH is in the midst of His people. It only works if the Israelite believes that He is holy. It only works if the Israelite believes that a sacrifice is necessary for cleansing, because we so often fail. And thus, it only works if the Israelite believes that, as a result of all of this, he must live in such a manner as to reflect those beliefs. In short, the Israelite is called in Leviticus to the obedience of faith.
In Genesis we saw time and again God’s glory in saving some by His grace while judging others. Noah and family were saved, and then everyone else was judged. Lot and his daughters were preserved and Sodom and Gomorrah had fire rain down. In Exodus Israel was saved through the judgment on Egypt. God’s glory was displayed and His people were then expected to obey Him.
But the Law in Leviticus wasn’t designed to be a ladder to heaven. In Leviticus 18:5 God says, “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am YHWH.” That sounds like a salvation by works on its face, but that’s not the point of what God is saying. Israel wasn’t to obey to be with God, they were to obey so that God could dwell with sinful people without killing them.
Leviticus is given to Israel so that they might obey in the God they believe in, so that He in His glorious holiness, might save them through the judgment rendered on sacrificed animals. The people of God need an atoning sacrifice because we are sinners who inevitably fail to be holy. We sin.
That’s why the first seven chapters of Leviticus outlined for Israel burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings. That’s why there was a set apart Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which the high priest of Israel would enter into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. It was the only day of the entire year that anyone would be allowed in this one sanctified room. This is all laid out in Leviticus 16. It was a special sin offering on behalf of the entire nation.
The fact that it was to be done annually was a reminder to the nation of Israel that ultimately no sacrifice described in Leviticus could fully and finally atone for sins. But it was on this holy day that the high priest, representing all of the people of Israel, would enter into the presence of God with the blood of a bull and a goat.
He would offer the bull’s blood to make atonement for himself. Evidence that no Israelite was sinless, even the High Priest. Then, he would offer the blood of the goat to make atonement for the sins of all the people. Strange? Yes. Different? Yes. But then again, who is like our God? When the high priest would come out he would place his hands on a second goat. Read Lev 16:20-22. That goat represented forgiveness and the freedom from sins because of the blood of another, the one who was sacrificed.
Of course, it was not full and final. Yom Kippur happened once a year, every year, like clockwork. God gave to His people a calendar for sacrifices, that itself a reminder to them they were always sinners, and that nothing described in Leviticus was a perfect sacrifice. Even the high priest’s atonement was insufficient. He had to atone for himself first! And it had to be repeated, year after year. God’s glory was indeed revealed in His salvation of Israel through the judgment on the animals, the fact that His presence would remain with them through the obedience of faith in keeping the sacrifices. Yet, it was not perfect. It was not complete.
And therein lies how Leviticus points us to Christ. Just as the Law reveals the knowledge of sin, according to Romans 3:20, it reveals our need for a once for all, perfect and complete atoning sacrifice, and that comes only in Jesus. Look at Hebrews 9:24-10:4:
For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.
10:1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Leviticus points us to the cross, where in one fell swoop the greatest display of God’s glory in salvation through judgment was wrought. Jesus bore the full fury of God’s wrath against all sin, for all time, for all who will ever believe in Him. He was judged, so that those who do believe might be forgiven their sins and not perish, but have everlasting life. It’s as if the book of Hebrews stands as the epilogue to the book of Leviticus, as if to say that this is what it was all pointing to… Jesus Christ.
Our purity isn’t found whether or not we’ve kept the Law. Our righteousness isn’t based on what we do or don’t do. It’s based on our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and what He has done for us. Only in Jesus Christ has God made a provision for salvation that is full and final, and if you are counting on some other way… well, just as in Leviticus there was no other way for Israel to live so that God could dwell with sinners, in Hebrews there is no other sacrifice that’s coming to atone for your sins. Leviticus screams at us, “Believe in YHWH.” Hebrews screams, “Believe in Jesus.” They are one in the same. Jesus is YHWH in the flesh.
How, then, do we live in light of the book of Leviticus?
First, we must praise God for giving us Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, who fulfilled the Law and provides for all of us who trust in Him freedom from having to perfectly fulfill it.
Second, we ought to be driven by what we have studied to consider the fact that God is not indifferent about anything we think, say, or do. Being a Christian has ramifications on every part of our lives, because the Bible says Christ now is our life. We are new creatures and the old has passed away if we are saved by Jesus. Are there any areas of our lives then where we who are suppose to live holy lives exclude God from our lives?
Third, Leviticus is so much about how the people of God, Israel, were to worship God. God cares very much about how He is worshiped. Are we as individuals, and even as a church, approaching Him in worship in a worthy manner? That’s something to ask ourselves and give serious consideration to.
Father, we thank You for the book of Leviticus. We thank You that You saved our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt and gave them Law, communicated through this book, to reveal Your holy character to them, and tell them how they should live. We thank You that, even though now You have sent Christ, Your Son, into the world, and He is the once for all sacrifice, putting an end to the system of sacrifices described in this book, Leviticus is by no means irrelevant to us today, but it shows us our own need for Jesus the Savior. We thank You, Father, that our sins are forgiven through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, and that through His shed blood we are freed to roam clean in the wilderness of this world. We pray now, Father, that our lives might match our beliefs, that our practice might reflect our faith, that we might live holy because have been declared holy and righteous by You, Father. Guide us and direct us through Your word. Show us how we are to be distinct from everyone else, a people for Your own possession. May we not approach You on our own terms, offering our own versions of strange, unauthorized fire, but sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts, render You in our lives as the Holy God You are, and worship You in the obedience of faith. This we will do by Your grace and for Your glory, if You permit. We ask this in the name of Jesus, who did this. Amen.