The LORD Speaks to His People
NOTE: Due to technical difficulties, the first part of the sermon audio was not captured. Full manuscript of the sermon below.
This morning we begin a new series of messages from the Book of Leviticus. By way of introduction I would like to read just three brief passages. One comes from the opening words of the book, one from the middle, and the other from the book’s conclusion:
:1 The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them...”
:45 “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
:34 These are the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses for the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
“Leviticus!” The very title evokes a variety of responses. And unless I miss my guess the response of most of us is not overwhelmingly positive. Why is that the case?
Well, perhaps once upon a time you decided that you wanted to read through the Scriptures. You were very sincere about it. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution that you had made. Opening your Bible you began with Genesis. You discovered that it was a lengthy book, but its narrative flowed rather smoothly and you made it through with a sense of accomplishment that motivated you to venture on into Exodus. You found the first half of Exodus similarly interesting. But somewhere after God had given His people the Ten Commandments you began struggling to understand the various laws and detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle and the Priesthood. But you persevered and completed that second book of Scripture as well. You were well on your way.
Then something happened. Something called “Leviticus.” At best your progress likely slowed, and at worst it may have stalled altogether. I can only imagine how many well-intentioned Bible reading plans have crashed and burned in the early chapters of this much misunderstood book.
In the author’s preface to his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham alerts us to the fact that “Leviticus used to be the first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue. (But) in the modern Church it tends to be the last part of the Bible anyone looks at seriously.” So again, I ask, why is that so?
I suppose the neglect of this book is somewhat understandable, because Leviticus is largely concerned with subjects that seem incomprehensible and irrelevant to those of us living in the 21st-century. In our day, Leviticus is frequently the target of mischaracterization and much lampooning. Even among many Christians it is considered irrelevant and “out-of-step” with contemporary norms. That being the case, why would you and I devote the next two months of Sunday morning sermons to this strange book?
The reason is because Leviticus is “God-breathed” Scripture and is, therefore, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). To ignore it is to disregard a part of God’s Word that He has given for our benefit. This morning I want to reintroduce us to that book and help us to get our bearings so that we may understand its relevance for our lives through the messages that follow. I also hope that your appetite will be whet sufficiently so that you will want to spend time over these next several weeks reading Leviticus for yourself and discovering through its pages truths about God and yourself that you may have until now avoided.
Before we dive into its content, let me to begin by asking a...
“Why is Leviticus such a hard book to understand?” There are a number of reasons but they can be grouped into three main categories, all of which deal with context.
In the first place, the cultural context of the book is so different from our own. You and I don’t live in tents as the early Israelites did...we live in houses or apartments. We don’t go to an open-air courtyard to meet with the Lord and the Lord’s people...we go to a church building for our worship services. Add to that the God-ordained system of animal sacrifices and ritual purity, and you can readily see that we are dealing with a far different world.
A second reason that Leviticus is difficult to comprehend is the literary context. Leviticus is actually a continuation of or a sequel to the Book of Exodus. Chapters 25 through 40 of Exodus focus primarily on instructions regarding the Tabernacle and the Priesthood. Leviticus continues that theme. The material tends to be tedious. It is joked that as many readers of Leviticus “fall in the wilderness” as did an entire generation of Israelites on their trek to the Promised Land. Even those who persevere find it challenging to understand how Leviticus fits into the story of God’s people today.
A third reason that Leviticus is so hard to understand is because of its legal context. That is, it deals almost entirely with law. Let’s face it, most of us don’t find the reading of legal documents nearly as interesting as reading stories. Stories have tension that draws us in as we watch the plot unfold. Law doesn’t do that...it is more “cut and dry.” And if that law doesn’t apply to us directly—or appear not to apply to us—then it just doesn’t “grab” us the way a good story does. But there is something else at play here as well. Most of us tend to look at law negatively, as something restrictive and nongracious. Even though your initial impressions may lead you to approach Leviticus that way, I trust that you will be able to look at it differently by the time we are finished.
All of these reasons are understandable, but they need not inhibit our reading the Leviticus in a beneficial way. You and I have to be able to view this book in its original context or we simply won’t be able to apply it today. So let’s go back and re-examine the three areas of context just mentioned.
Regarding the cultural context, there are any number of classic examples that might be cited. Although it may not always appear to be, Leviticus is first and foremost a book about grace. Think of it this way...if God had not stooped to reveal Himself, how would any of us know anything about Him? But He did. Just how does the infinite One make Himself known and understood? He must do so through images and symbols that can be understood and point to realities that are greater than themselves.
Take Leviticus 19:19, for example. That verse includes the very strange command that says, “Nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” This seems so bizarre to us in our day of mixed fabrics and polyester blends. But earlier in Exodus 28(:3-5) we read that the priestly garments were made from mixed materials. Since non-priestly Israelites were forbidden from doing priestly duties (cf. Numbers 3:10 and 38), this prohibition seems to have been a reminder that there was to be an authoritative difference between those who served the Tabernacle and those who did not. The New Testament makes it clear that every Christian today is a “priest” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Because that is so, we too have been called to be different, distinct, and unique. In other words, the followers of Christ are to be “separate”...or to use the biblical word, “holy,” set apart for Him and for His service. Even though those clothing distinctions no longer remain, the principle of spiritual separation and authority remain.
What about the literary context? It is vital to remember that Leviticus is part of a much larger story, particularly the one told in Exodus and carried on through Numbers and Deuteronomy. You recall that the Lord delivered His people from slavery with mighty signs and wonders (Exodus 1-15) and brought them to Sinai (Exodus 16-19), where He gave them the Law. He reminded them that they were His “treasured possession...a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). He confirmed their status by entering into a covenant with them as their King and giving them Kingdom laws to obey (Exodus 20-24). But there was more! He told them that He was a Sovereign King who would not only enter into covenant with them, but be near to them and dwell in their very midst. It was a unique privilege, and this is why He gave them such specific instructions regarding the Tabernacle and the Priesthood (Exodus 25-40).
All of this leads to the burning question, “How is it possible that the holy and pure King of the universe could dwell among a sinful and impure people without His holiness utterly consuming them?” There are several answers, which taken together provide the outline to the book.
• The first seven chapters of Leviticus instruct and explain the sacrifices which address the problem of sin and reveal how one is to approach this King and worship Him properly. As we will see next week, these sacrifices foreshadowed and anticipated the ultimate sacrifice offered by our Lord Jesus Christ when He surrendered His life on the cross as an offering for sin, as well as to demonstrate the life that God’s people are to live.
• In chapters 8 through 10, priests (or mediators) are provided who will intercede on behalf of the people and lead them in worship before the King.
• In chapters 11 through 15, laws of cleansing are given in order that the people will know how to deal with their inherent impurity.
• Chapter 16 stands by itself and addresses the matter of atonement or how sin can be paid for and forgiven.
• In chapters 17 through 22, laws of holiness are addressed that are intended to direct these chosen people to live as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
• Chapters 23 and 24 discuss the feasts or festivals that the people are instructed to faithfully keep as object lessons of their relationship with the King.
• And chapters 25 through 27 conclude with specific laws that were to be observed, especially when they entered into the Land of Promise.
This is not only the outline that we will be following over the next several weeks, but each section points to New Testament realities. As we proceed, we will see how the first four of those sections describe worship before a holy God, and the final three deal with one’s walk of holiness before God and others. Although Leviticus may seem laborious for us to read and study, we need to keep in mind that to the Israelites this book was a “life preserver.” It was the very thing that taught them how to live in relationship with this Sovereign King who had graciously entered into covenant with them and agreed to dwell in their very midst.
That brings us to the legal context. There are two basic interpretive guidelines to keep in mind. The first is to recognize—and this is critically important—that the redemption or deliverance of God’s people occurred before the Law was given. The Exodus from Egypt took place in Exodus 12, but it was not until Exodus 20 that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. What this communicates to us is that the Law was not given to the Israelites so that they may be saved. God had already delivered them before He gave them the Law. That is important because it tells us that Leviticus deals moreso with sanctification than it does with salvation. It teaches how a holy people are to relate to a holy God.
In his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright has written,
“The sequence of events in the biblical story is very important. God did not reveal his law to Moses...when he first met him there at the burning bush. He not send him down to Egypt with the message, ‘This is God’s law, and if you keep it fully from now on, God will rescue you out of this slavery.’ Israel was not told they could deserve or hasten their own deliverance by keeping the law. No, God acted first. God first redeemed them out of their bondage, and then made his covenant with them, a covenant in which their side was to keep God’s law, as their response of grateful obedience to their saving God.”
A second interpretive guideline to keep in mind is that laws reflect the values of the Lawgiver. In other words, the Book of Leviticus reveals a great deal about the character of God. And because that is true, we learn not only what the Lord is like, but also what it means for us to live as His people. While it is true that many of these specific laws no longer apply today, the underlying ethical principles behind them do. This is summarized so well in what may appropriately be considered the key passage of the entire book:
Leviticus 11:45, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God, You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
In a word, “holiness” is the theme of this book. Apart from the recognition that God is a holy and righteous God far beyond any degree that you and I can even imagine, we will never be able comprehend why our need for Him is so great. How holy is this God? God is so holy that sinful man cannot approach him without risk of dying. What’s more, He requires similar holiness on the part of His people. This, of course, raises the dilemma of how an unholy people can ever hope to abide in the presence of such a holy God. This book thus becomes much more practical for us than we may at first glance imagine. As we enter into this study, we must keep in mind Paul’s words that “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
There remain a few additional...
...that we need to consider before digging into the book itself. Backdrop is critical in the interpretation of any piece of writing, and that is especially true with regard to a book of Scripture. For example, knowing who wrote it, when and to whom it was written, and even why it was written can provide valuable keys to unlocking its intended meaning. Furthermore, noting some of the key features allows us to observe common themes. So before we conclude this introductory message, allow me to briefly mention a few additional items that we should be aware of if we are maximize our understanding of Leviticus.
Let’s begin with the background of the book. It is helpful for us to remember that God chose Israel from among all the nations on the earth to be the people with whom He would enter into covenant relationship. It would be a covenant distinct in content but not unique in form from the agreements entered into by greater kings (known as suzerains) with weaker kings (known as vassals). These were not merely legal contracts but involved deep affections, in which the suzerain was loved, revered, and recognized as the legal lord of the realm. Yahweh or Jehovah is, of course, the truly Sovereign Lord, and yet by virtue of this agreement He willingly entered into covenant relationship with His people. While it is perfectly appropriate that we think of Leviticus as “law,” we must not overlook the fact that it is even more an expression of “grace” whereby a holy and righteous God condescends in order to instruct a people who are sinful by nature how they might draw near to Him and enjoy fellowship with Him.
What about the authorship of the book? The matter of who wrote Leviticus is seldom debated, except by the most liberal Bible critics. Approximately three dozen times the phrase, “The LORD spoke to Moses,” is found in Leviticus. In fact, twenty of the 27 chapters of Leviticus begin with that expression. Clearly, God’s Word was given to Moses and he recorded it. What’s more, because we are able to approximate the time in which Moses lived as well as the Exodus from Egypt, we can place the date of the book from the 15th-century before Christ.
The name “Leviticus” means “pertaining to the Levites,” suggesting that this book was intended to serve as something of a manual for the priests as they carried out their duties in serving the Tabernacle. But it was more than that. The purpose of the book was to remind all Israelites that their approach to God was to be done according to His prescription and with absolute holiness.
It cannot be stated emphatically enough that the theme of the book is threefold in nature: the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the provision of atonement. That is the theme that runs throughout the entire Bible. It is, in fact, the essence of the Gospel itself. For unless we begin with a clear and correct understanding of God’s holy character, we will never see ourselves as depraved and lost sinners in need of the provision of His saving grace. There is no possible way that we could ever bridge the gap that separates us from God, which is why we must humble ourselves before Him and avail ourselves of His atoning sacrifice for sin on our behalf through the death of His beloved Son. Therefore, though it may at times seem veiled, Leviticus is first and foremost a book about salvation and sanctification.
I have already suggested the outline of the book. As I mentioned earlier, Leviticus may be divided into seven major sections. These divisions will provide the content we will be studying over the next seven weeks. On some weeks we will be biting off rather large sections, while at other times our portions will be smaller. In either case, you are encouraged to read in advance those chapters that we will be discussing on each particular Sunday. As is always the case in any study of God’s Word, you will get as much out of it as you are willing to invest. My prayer is that you and I both will invest much.
In his introductory comments on the Book of Leviticus, Eugene Peterson, has written that...
“One of the stubbornly enduring habits of human nature is to insist on domesticating God. We are determined to tame Him. We figure out ways to harness God to our projects. We try to reduce Him to a size that conveniently fits our plans and ambitions and tastes. But the Scriptures are even more stubborn in telling us that we can’t do it. God cannot be made to fit into our plans...we must fit into His. We can’t use God—God is not a tool or appliance or a credit card.”
The most important word that the Bible uses to describe God is “holy.” It is a word that sets Him apart and above our attempts to enlist Him in our wishful-thinking fantasies or our utopian schemes. “Holy” means that God exists on God’s terms, and He does so in a way that far exceeds our experience and imagination. “Holy” refers to an intense purity that transforms everything it touches. I hope through this study we will come to see that.
Because the core of life itself is God, and because God is a holy God, we all need to be taught and trained regarding how to respond to Him as He is, and not as we want Him to be. Leviticus has been described as “a narrative pause in the story of a people as they are on their way, saved out of bondage and on their way to the Promised Land.” It stands as a kind of extended “time-out” of instruction, a detailed and meticulous preparation for living “holy” in a culture that doesn’t have the faintest idea what “holy” is or means. In summary, Leviticus is a book that aims at forming a saved people to live as He created them to live...“holy,” just as He is “holy.”
There are a number of initial observations that strike us as we begin to familiarize ourselves with the Book of Leviticus:
In the first place, we discover that this holy God is actually present with us, and virtually every detail of our lives is affected by His “holy” presence. Nothing in us--our relationships, our environment, our ambitions—is omitted. Nothing about His people ever escapes God’s omnipresent and omniscient scrutiny. As Francis Schaeffer has said, “God is here, and He is not silent.”
Secondly, we learn that this holy God provides a way to bring everything in and about us into his “holy” presence. This is what all of the sacrifices, cleansings, feasts, and Sabbath days symbolize and are designed to teach us. They give us the key to our approach or drawing near to Him. We must come His way and not in a way of our own making, or else we will never know Him as He truly is.
And finally, we discover when we see how this book is cited in the New Testament we learn that this holy God no longer dwells in a tent, but He makes His habitation both individually in us as Christians and collectively among us as His Church. Should not this alone compel us to take seriously what He tells us about Himself and our duty before Him? “For I am the LORD your God,” He continues to say to us. “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
• It is only when we understand the sacrificial system of Leviticus that we can adequately understand what it means when the author of Hebrews writes that the Lord Jesus Christ made “purification for sins” (Hebrews 1:3).
• It is only when we understand Leviticus that we can understand that His atoning sacrifice wipes away every vestige of sin and impurity so that we can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19).
• And it is only when we understand Leviticus that we can understand that the purity and power of Jesus, the Great High Priest, are immeasurably beyond that of any Levitical priest who ever lived (cf. Hebrews 7:26-28).
When I mentioned to a fellow pastor several weeks ago that I would soon be starting a preaching series in Leviticus, he smiled and jokingly asked if we would be erecting a sacrificial altar in the front of the church. Aren’t you glad that such an altar is no longer necessary in our approach to God? Just as the early Israelites read Leviticus in the context of the Lord’s redeeming work in the Exodus, Christians can read it in the context of His redeeming work through Christ at the cross. And that should lead us to worship the God who has made it all possible.
other sermons in this series