The Approach to God
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: Leviticus 1:1–7:38
Leviticus can be a difficult book to get a handle on. In our introduction to this often neglected portion of Scripture last Sunday, I pointed out that any valid interpretation must begin with an understanding of its cultural, literary, and legal contexts. Jumping into the book apart knowing the background of the book can be like going deep-sea diving without the proper equipment. You will soon need to come up for air.
Leviticus was written long ago to a people far removed from our way of life, separated not only by time but by perspective of life in general. Particularly is that true in the terms of how one is to relate to God
I remind you that it was the Lord who initiated a personal and direct relationship with Israel, calling them out to be “a people holy to the LORD...chosen...to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). He vowed to be their God, enter into covenant with them, and dwell among them.
But in order for a holy God to abide in the midst of an unholy people, He had to provide for them instructions and stipulations. As a holy God, He could not and would not dilute or compromise His righteous standard. Because He was holy, they too must be holy (cf. Leviticus 11:45). And that is what the Book of Leviticus is about. It addresses the dilemma as to how a perfect and holy God is able to dwell among a people saturated by sin and impurity without their being consumed by His holiness.
As we saw last Sunday, the Lord did not give His Law to a people in order that they be saved. They had already been set free from their enslaved bondage in Egypt under Moses. The Law, including the elaborate system of sacrifices, was given to a redeemed and covenant people. Its intent was not to provide a way for Old Testament Israelites to attain salvation. Instead it was the means by which the people of God might draw near to Him and His relationship with them might be visibly displayed.
Before we look at that system of offerings, we need to remember that those of us who know Jesus Christ as Lord are the elect people of God today. We are the “new Israel,” if you will. The coming of Christ has made all of the Old Testament sacrifices “obsolete” (cf. Hebrews 8:11) because of His perfect obedience to God’s Law and the offering of Himself as the final offering for sin. But that does not mean that we have nothing to learn about sin, its effects, and its remedies. First Peter 2:9 tells us that we the followers of Christ “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that (we) may proclaim the excellencies of him who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light.” So there is much for us to see and to understand in Leviticus.
I mentioned last week that we would at times be biting off some rather large portions of this book as we make our way through it. That is certainly the case this morning as we dive into the first seven chapters and consider the...
Institution of the sacrificial system (1:1-6:7)
We have time to just briefly survey the five sacrifices that are described for us here. I have no intention of being exhaustive, and even if I could it would still be incomplete. Therefore, I hope to provide us with a brief overview that will encourage us all to dig a little deeper on our own. A quick look at this chart may help get us started:
|Burnt Offering||1:1-17||without blemish||consecration of self*|
|Grain Offering||2:1-16||unleavened||consecration of service*|
|Peace Offering||3:1-17||without blemish||fellowship, reconciliation*|
|Sin Offering||4:1-5:13||without blemish||atonement^|
|Guilt Offering||5:15-6:7||without blemish||restoration, restitution^|
* = voluntary ^ = mandatory
We can begin by noticing that a main characteristic of each of the offerings is that the sacrifices are to be in accordance with the Lord’s specific instructions. We see that most clearly in the descriptions, “without blemish” and “unleavened.” In addition, you will notice that the first three of these offerings—the burnt, the grain, and the peace—were all voluntary, whereas the last two—the sin and the guilt offerings—were mandatory. In other words, some were required, and others were “freewill” in nature.
The purpose of the sacrificial system was to make possible the continuing presence of God among His people. We must not overlook the fact that it is the Lord Himself who provided this means of approach. It was He who paved the way for His people to have access to Him, without which they would have continued to stumble in the darkness. In so doing, He prescribed the proper gift that was to be brought, the proper place it was to be offered, the frequency with which it was to be given, and the proper way it was to be presented.
What’s more, the object of a sacrifice was in providing a substitute for the offending sinner. The reason that was necessary is because no person is able to be his own savior or mediator before God. His holy standard is just too high for anyone to attain. A substitute was required to stand in the place of the sinner if an ongoing relationship with the Lord was to be obtained and maintained.
As mentioned, a characteristic of each offering to the Lord had to be perfect...“unblemished,” if you will. In this way, each time a gift was presented the worshiper was reminded of God’s purity and untarnished character.
Something else that we notice with regard to these offerings is that provision was made for the worshiper based upon his financial ability. We see this, for example in chapter 1 with regard to the burnt offering. The initial prescription found in verse 3 is for the people to bring an “offering from the herd...a male without blemish.” For those unable to bring such an expensive gift, verse 10 makes allowance for them to bring a sheep or a goat from the flock. But it still had to be “without blemish.” But for the very poor, one might substitute a turtledove or a pigeon. To this day, God’s people are to give their best offering to the Lord “according to their means...according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:3).
So let’s take a brief look at the individual sacrifices as they are described for us here, beginning with the burnt offering in chapter 1. In verses 3 through 9, we read...
3 If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 7 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.”
Quite an elaborate process, isn’t it? The “tent of meeting” was, of course, the Tabernacle. It was within this portable enclosed area that all of the sacrifices were carried out. Its entire courtyard measured roughly 50 by 150 feet and included a covered structure called “the Holy Place” (Leviticus 6:30). By placing his hand “on the head of the burnt offering” when it was presented, the worshiper identified completely with the animal being offered in his place. It was to be unblemished or without defect of any sort. The animal would be killed, flayed, and burned in its entirety, symbolizing the voluntary presentation of one’s entire self to the Lord. Later on in Hebrews 10:5-7), we learn that the burnt offering anticipated and typified Jesus’ offering of Himself unto death.
A burnt offering was given for all Israel every morning and again in the evening. On the Sabbath the burnt offerings were double (cf. Numbers 28:8-9), and there were additional offerings on the various feast days. And while burnt offerings are no longer required, the pattern of Old Testament sacrifices provides for us a model of truly Christian worship. This is spelled out for us in Romans 12:1, where Christians are instructed “to present (their) bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is (their) spiritual worship.”
As with all of the voluntary or freewill offerings, the burnt offering resulted in “a pleasing aroma to the LORD,” signifying its acceptance by God. It is a rather interesting phrase, and it finds a New Testament parallel in 2 Corinthians 2:15 and 16. There, Paul writes of dedicated Christians, “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”
That brings us to the grain offering in chapter 2. It is at times also referred to as the “meal” or “cereal” offering. Beginning in verse 1, we read...
1 When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it 2 and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. 3 But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the LORD’s food offerings.”
Whereas the burnt offering symbolized the consecration of one’s self to the Lord, the grain offering was a recognition of the Lord’s sustenance and provision. What’s more, it represented one’s commitment of service to the Lord. It is the only one of the offerings that did not involve the sacrifice of an animal. Instead it was offered alongside the bloody sacrifices. Again, because of its freewill nature, the portion that was burned was accepted by the LORD as “a pleasing aroma.” The remainder was left as a provision for the priests.
You will notice in verse 13 that the worshiper was carefully and specifically instructed to “season (his) grain offering with salt.” He is told to “not let the salt of the covenant with...God be missing.” Because salt is frequently used in Scripture to denote “preservation,” it is believed that the intention here is to stress the permanent and inviolable nature of the Lord’s covenant pledge with His people.
The third of the voluntary offerings was known as the peace (or fellowship) offering. It is described in chapter 3, where we are told in verses 1 through 5...
1 If his offering is a sacrifice of peace offering, if he offers an animal from the herd, male or female, he shall offer it without blemish before the LORD. 2 And he shall lay his hand on the head of his offering and kill it at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall throw the blood against the sides of the altar. 3 And from the sacrifice of the peace offering, as a food offering to the LORD, he shall offer the fat covering the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, 4 and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys. 5 Then Aaron’s sons shall burn it on the altar on top of the burnt offering, which is on the wood on the fire; it is a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.”
The peace offering was presented not in order to “make peace” but rather to express the peaceful relationship that already existed between the worshiper and the Lord, as well as with his fellow man. In contrast with the burnt offering, the peace offering could be either male or female, but it too must be “without blemish” or defect.
Furthermore, it was the only offering in which the worshiper shared by eating a portion of the sacrifice. As such it served as a preview of the New Testament understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Because many of us will be gathering at the Lord’s Table next Sunday, this may be a good place to pause and point out something significant so that we may be better prepared to receive the Bread and the Cup at that time.
Just as the peace offering spoke of the reconciled relationship that God has with His redeemed people, so the Lord’s Table is a “reserved” place for those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is because only those who have been “justified by faith...have peace with God” (Romans 5:1) and are invited to sup with Him. The Lord’s Table signifies a holy communion with Christ and with others who are a part of His Body, the Church. We do well to remember that the God who directed Old Testament saints in their approach to Him is the same Lord who instructs us with regard to drawing near to Him today. Insisting on coming to Him our way instead of His trivializes the death and resurrection of Christ. That is why Paul cautions us by saying “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28).
As we move along to the final two of the sacrifices, we cannot help but observe that they are discussed in greater detail. That is because they are mandatory rather than voluntary offerings and both deal specifically with sin in the life of the one who would approach the Lord. The Old Testament scholar C.F. Keil explains that the sin and the guilt offerings were instituted for the purpose of “putting an end to the separation between man and God that had been brought on by sin. They were meant to restore the worshiper to the unimpaired enjoyment of the benefits of God’s covenant of mercy and salvation.”
We look first at the sin offering, at times referred to as the “purification offering.” It is described in detail in chapter 4 and into chapter 5.
Right away we observe that this sacrifice was for “unintentional sins”...in other words, sins committed out of weakness or waywardness, in contrast to sins of presumption done in defiance of God’s laws. The opening verses of chapter 5 provide examples of some of these “inadvertent” offenses. What is necessary for us to see is that there was no provision made in the sacrificial system for sins that were willfully or deliberately committed. Consider that for a moment, especially when you think about the number of your sins that are committed willfully. While you and I may be tempted to take our acts of sin lightly, God’s wrath is kindled against them. Numbers 15:30-31) expresses it this way:
“But the person who does anything with a high hand (which is an expression for defiantly ‘shaking one’s fist in the face’ of God) ...reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
Throughout the passages dealing with the sacrificial offerings, emphasis is continually placed on the fact that sin offerings were valid only if the transgression was “unintentional,” meaning that there was no presumptive motive on the part of the offender. Ignorance of God’s Law did not exonerate him—sin is still sin, whether intentional or not—but there was provision made for seeking forgiveness and being restored if sin was inadvertent. For sins committed defiantly, however, no offering would avail. The guilty person, in such cases, was “cut off” from his people, which meant not only banishment from the community but the death penalty...which would be carried out either by the people or by a direct act of God.
The difference between unintentional and willful sin was not so much in the sinful act per se, but in the attitude of the offender toward his sin. The person who sinned in ignorance, confessed it, and sought God’s forgiveness in God’s prescribed way received forgiveness and was restored. For God’s people today, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was the full and final sin offering. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
But let none of us be presumptuous in this matter. Let these New Testament words from Hebrews 10:26-31) serve as both a reminder and a caution for us all:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
As we discover repeatedly throughout this section, the purpose of the sin offering was to provide “atonement” for the one who had sinned inadvertently or without premeditation. It is important for us now to pause and realize what “atonement” means and why it was—and remains—necessary. We pointed out last week man is separated from a holy God by his sin, creating a huge gap that can only be bridged by God Himself. Even the best of men, because of their sin, continually “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It took the gracious act of God, by providing an “atoning sacrifice” in order for sin to be dealt with.
It has been suggested—based upon the Hebrew word for “atonement” (“kapar”) that the Old Testament ritual provided merely a “covering” of sin until it was finally dealt with by the once-and-for-all ultimate “atoning sacrifice” (cf. 1 John 2:2, NIV) of Christ. It is probably better to understand that the sin offering did not just “cover” sin, but actually “cleansed” the worshiper, thus providing him with “forgiveness.” Where that sacrifice was deficient, however was that it lacked a “permanent” quality. In other words, it needed to be continually repeated, offered again and again.
But now that the final sin offering has been made through the sacrifice of Christ, you and I do not need to follow the Levitical pattern of repeatedly bringing our animals to the priest to be sacrificed on our behalf. All of our sins—both “intentional” and “unintentional” have been paid for “in full” by means of His shed blood. And because of that, you and I now are able to lay claim to the amazing promise of 1 John 1:9, that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Of a truth, “It is finished” (cf. John 19:30). But let us not be tempted to take that truth lightly. If anything, it should compel us to greater devotion than any Old Testament saint ever had.
The sin offering is generally considered the most important of the sacrifices. It is closely linked with the guilt offering, which is also known as the “trespass offering.” Its description begins in chapter 5, verse 14 and is discussed through chapter 6, verse 7. Keep in mind that both the sin and guilt offerings were mandatory, and that neither is said to be a “pleasing aroma.” The reason is because sin is never a sweet savor to the Lord.
The guilt offering specifically applied to those who committed “a breach of faith” by sinning “unintentionally in any of the holy things of the LORD.” This would seem to refer to specific commands regulating worship, such as neglecting to pay a tithe, eating parts of the sacrifices that were designated the priests, failing to redeem the firstborn, and similar inadvertent infractions. Not only was restitution required in such cases, but a twenty-percent (or “double-tithe”) penalty also had to be paid. Whenever a person suspected that he may have committed a violation in these “holy” matters, he was able to humbly bring a “trespass offering” in order to atone for his guilt.
Having come to the end of the description of the five sacrificial offerings, we have time to only briefly discuss the...
Instructions for the Levitical priests (6:8-7:38)
...beginning in verse 8 of chapter 6, and extending through the entirety of chapter 7. Much of the material found in this section will sound familiar because it reintroduces the various offerings we have just considered. The difference here is that what is addressed are the specific directions given to the priests regarding their proper administration and disposal. It is significant to note that—as verses 9, 12, and 13 of chapter 6 point out—the fire on the hearth of the altar was to be kept burning perpetually. It was never to go out.
We also observe that the peace offering is mentioned last of offerings found in this section. What’s more, it is given the most thorough description, covering verses 11 through 36 of chapter 7. It is placed there not as an afterthought, but for emphasis. The fellowship meal associated with it would serve to remind the people of the communal nature of the sacrifices. It should also serve to remind us that worship of the Lord is never a private matter. We are together the people of God.
Throughout Leviticus, the Lord repeatedly reminds His people, saying, “I am the LORD...You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). How the gap that existed between a holy God and a sinful people could only be bridged if God was willing to condescend and make the possible man’s approach to Him.
As we have seen, the Levitical sacrificial system was elaborately designed and carefully enacted. These laws of sacrifice underline the fact that scrupulous attention to detail and painstaking obedience to God’s instructions were expected from both priest and worshiper alike. If that didn’t happen then even the most well-intentioned offering would not be accepted by the Lord. Commenting on this John Calvin wrote, “Since God prefers obedience to all sacrifices, He was unwilling that anything should remain doubtful as to the external rites, which were not otherwise of great importance; that they might learn to observe precisely, and with most exact care, whatever the Law commanded, and that they should not obtrude anything of themselves.”
To be sure, many instructions and rules and religious practices and rituals from the Old Testament are no longer to be practiced. But this is not because these practices and rules got it wrong. In fact, quite the opposite is true. But they were temporary, pointing forward to the day when Jesus Christ would fulfill them and thus make an end of them. It is important to see that the coming of Christ did not abolish them, but it did render them obsolete (cf. Matthew 5:17). His death has purified those who are His from the pollution of sin in a complete and absolute way that never needs to be repeated.
As for today, the new people of God—the followers of the Messiah, the true Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ—is not an ethnically, politically, geographically defined entity. Christianity has no geographic center. It has no single ethnic identity. It has no system of sacrificing animals, no Tabernacle, no succession of priests, no divinely authorized feast days, no dietary particulars. All of these Old Testament patterns were temporary. Jesus has fulfilled them and brought them to an end. All that we have just rehearsed with regard to these offerings has been accomplished in Him.
Paul addressed every true believer in Colossians 2:10 when he reminded them, “In Him you have been made complete” (NASV). And the writer of Hebrews (10:10 and 22) has added, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all ...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
What is left for us is to believe this truth and to receive by faith what Christ has accomplished. Praise God! Our Lord Jesus has fully satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God with respect to man’s sin so that now He is free to act on our behalf.
In James 4:8 we read, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” If you study that verse with some care, you will discover that the verb “he will draw near” is in the aorist tense and active voice, which means that a more accurate translation of that phrase would be, “Draw near to God for He drew near to you.” In other words, the Lord has paved the way by making the approach to Him accessible for us.
What remains to be asked is simply this: Are you still insisting on coming to God on your terms or are you willing to come on His?