Living as a Holy People
Topic: Law Passage: Leviticus 17:1–22:33
When we began our study of Leviticus several weeks ago, I mentioned that the book is divided into two main sections that could be broadly defined as “worship” and “walk.” Throughout the first sixteen chapters we are given explicit instructions on how a people whom God had redeemed were to draw near to Him. In a single verse we are given the summary of the entire book, when God says to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
It is perhaps not surprising that there is a strong relationship between one’s “worship” and one’s “walk.” That is because the manner in which one lives his life is a reflection of his true devotion toward God. There is an inevitable consistency between the two.
This second half of Leviticus has been referred to as “the Holiness Code.” Until now we have been thinking primarily of the holiness of God. Remember, He has said—and will say again—“I am holy.” But beginning with chapter 17, the personal implications of God’s requirement of holiness for His people begins to be more clearly spelled out: “You shall be holy.” So, for the next three Sunday mornings you and I will be thinking about what it means to live as God’s people, those who have been chosen to reflect His holy character.
Today we will be considering chapters 17 through 22, another lengthy section but one that goes together. These six chapters can be divided into three smaller units of thought, which reveal God’s direction for living as His chosen people.
We will begin with chapter 17 and the matter of...
Holiness in reverence toward God (17:1-16)
We have already noted the precision with which the Lord directed His people to draw near to Him. The most fundamental way for His covenant people to honor Him was by offering worship to Him...to Him alone. From the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, they were to worship Him and resist every form of idolatry (cf. Exodus 20:4-6).
What this meant, first of all, was that they were to worship only at His altar. In the ancient world the place of worship was bound closely to the identity of the deity who was believed to live there. The revelation that God gave to Israel reflected that understanding. He provided for them a Tabernacle—a “tent of meeting”—which was a visible representation of the heavenly sanctuary, an emblematic “clone” if you will, of the real thing. It was a temporary provision where the Lord symbolically dwelt among His people.
All of the instructions for worship that we have seen in the first sixteen chapters presupposed that the legitimate worship of Jehovah would occur only at the place designated by Him. Sacrifices were to be brought there—and there alone—to be offered to the Lord. A measure of the legitimacy of the offering was in the worshiper’s obedience to that command.
But what about today? Where is the proper place of worship today? We may at first be inclined to say it is the church, and in part we would be correct. But let us not forget the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4. You recall that she raised this very issue with Him, saying, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” To which Jesus replied, “Believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:20-23).
And while the local church is indeed the place where God’s people collectively gather, our Lord does any longer not designate a particular building for Christian worship. That does not imply that there is not a proper “place” where worship is to occur, because there certainly is. That place is at the feet of the Lord Jesus. He is the true Temple today.
Verse 7 emphasizes God’s exclusiveness when it comes to worship. He will not tolerate worship of anything other than Himself. The ancient peoples were not atheists. There were many pagan deities to which they paid homage and their adherents are said to have gone “whoring” after them. Worship of anything other than the Lord is likened to “spiritual prostitution.”
In our culture, it is hard for us to conceive of someone worshiping a lifeless idol. Nevertheless the practice is not as remote from us as we might imagine. Idolatry is every bit as rampant today as it has ever been, and far more accessible. It is also far more subtle. Many who would never classify themselves as “God-rejecters” are just as culpable for being “God-neglecters.” How many of the empty seats in our churches this morning testify to the fact that people have made the deliberate choice to “worship” something else? Willful neglect or resistance to gathering with God’s people is decried in the New Testament (cf. Hebrews 10:23-25). “Do-it-yourself spirituality” was to have no place in Israel, and it is to have no place in our lives today.
Verses 10 through 16 of this chapter help us to better understand the nature of “blood,” and the importance it plays in the atoning work of the sacrifices. In verse 11 the Lord speaks, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” That is then followed by the prohibition against any member of the covenant community eating the blood. What this seems to imply is that eating the blood served to deny the gift that God had given for their atonement. That blood instead was to be returned to the Lord at His altar. It was not to be profaned or presumed upon. As verse 14 emphasizes, “the life of every creature is its blood;” and it was by means of this blood—this gift of life—that the sins of the people were atoned for.
The Old Testament Law may no longer be obligatory, but it is still possible for us to dishonor the blood today. In fact, there is simply no hope for the person who rejects, neglects, or ignores the shed blood of Christ, for there is no other means of salvation. Solely by the blood of Christ, the perfectly obedient Savior, is forgiveness of sin realized. Especially do we need to bear this in mind as we anticipate gathering around the Lord’s Table next Sunday evening. The Communion Supper which we celebrate as a church family is the time when we remember the Lord’s death by the communal taking of the Bread and the Cup. That commemoration is to be approached with utmost seriousness because it is the visible witness to our faith in Christ and His atoning death, as well as to “the blessed hope” (cf. Titus 2:13) that He will soon return to gather His Church to Himself.
Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 11(:27) that “Whoever...eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” So when you come to next Sunday evening’s service, please bear that in mind.
Growing out of our obligation to live holy in reverence toward God is the responsibility to maintain...
Holiness in relations with others (18:1-20:27)
In every expression of life, God’s people are to maintain purity and virtue. This is the subject of chapters 18 through 20. Content-wise, this is the longest section we will be dealing with this morning. The manner in which it is structured is interesting, because chapter 19 serves as a “hinge” between chapters 18 and 20 and holds this entire section together.
The overriding subject matter of these three chapters is sexual purity. Thirty five hundred years ago—long before Internet porn and the disintegration of the moral standards we see today—the Israelites needed to be reminded that holy people live morally pure lives. Repeatedly throughout this section, they were instructed not to behave like the nations that had inhabited Canaan before them. Twenty six times in these chapters we find God saying, “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God.” They were to live as God’s chosen people. Israel’s sexual purity here was to mark them off as distinct from their neighbors.
The manner in which chapter 18 is put together actually resembles the ancient suzerainty treaties that a conquering king made with a vassal state. In verse 2, we have the preamble: “I am the LORD your God.” In verse 3, we find the historical perspective: “Egypt, where you lived.” Then in verse 4, there is the basic stipulation: “follow my rules and keep my statutes.” And in verse 5 is the blessing: “if a person does them, he shall live by them.” That is followed by the detailed stipulations (or prohibitions) of the agreement, as well as the inevitable curses if these conditions are not met.
The prohibitions beginning in verse 6 covered a wide range of sexual offenses. The repeated phrase, “uncover the nakedness” refers to having “sexual relations,” which is how the New International Version consistently translates it. In fact, if you happen to have an NIV with you this morning, you will see that these sexual deviances are more clearly pointed out in the manner in which that text is arranged. There are no fewer than fifteen perversions mentioned in the non-exhaustive list found in chapter 18.
It is neither necessary nor wise for us to mention all of those sins in detail this morning. But that does not mean that we should minimize the instruction the Lord has for us to observe and to heed. Gordon Wenham, who has written the most helpful commentary on Leviticus that I have found, believes that the purpose of this section was to further delineate the boundaries of the marital relationship that God had established in Genesis 2(:22-25). All of these aberrations, therefore, represented deviances from the “one man and one woman”-principle that the Lord had set in place from the beginning.
Later in the New Testament—namely through the pen of Paul—we see that the significance of the sanctity of the marital relationship extended far beyond the union between a husband and wife. In Ephesians 5(:22-33), for example, we are told that marriage is a visible picture to the world of Jesus’ relationship with the Church. The faithful relationship that the couple enjoys is to reflect the love of Christ for His Bride and the Church’s submission to her Lord.
The foundation for our moral standards and our attitudes toward sexuality is not found with the ever-evolving cultural norms, but in the Scriptures. Many of us seem to have forgotten that. No findings of social or psychological studies or genetic research are able to trump the eternal Word of God. Yes, we may have questions...but no, we are never given permission to go beyond what He has decreed. In fact, throughout these two chapters the Lord employs a number of terms to emphasize how he views sexual perversion...using words like “perversion,” “depravity,” “abomination,” and “disgrace.”
The New Testament recognizes that sexual immorality as a lifestyle is characteristic of the person who is not fit for the Kingdom of God. Paul expresses it this way in 1 Corinthians 6(:9 and 10): “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality...will inherit the kingdom of God.” All of those sexual sins—and others—are referred to in Leviticus 18. It should be self-evident to Christians that God’s moral laws—unlike the ceremonial regulations—still apply today. We are reminded in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 that each of us must “control his own body in holiness and honor.”
Given our present culture, most Christians tend to highlight the prohibition against homosexual relationships, and rightfully so. But I need to point out that there is a difference between homosexual desires and homosexual practices. The former—commonly referred to as “same-sex attraction”—will admit that even Christians at times deal with this issue, just as others deal with strong temptations in the heterosexual realm. But that does not mean that any one must be enslaved to their sexual desires. All Christians are able to resist temptation by virtue of the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Our sexual struggles may be unique to us, but the cure is the same. It is only by God’s grace that any of us are able to gain the victory over sexual temptation. And as we do, He gets the glory!
What’s more, we should recognize that no sin—sexual or otherwise—is beyond God’s forgiveness if we confess it, turn away from it, and embrace the One who gave His life in order to set us free. Let us never forget that all of us have come to the cross with sin-stained hands. Not one of us is guiltless. Therefore, Christians above all others, having received the compassion of Christ’s forgiveness must show the same compassion toward those who have been stained by sexual sin.
In chapter 20 punishments are prescribed for those who violate God’s standards for sexual behavior. While we do not enact these judgments in the same way today, the Lord’s attitude toward sexual deviance has not changed. Sin never goes unnoticed by our God.
I would be remiss in not saying something about the references dealing with the offering of children to “Molech” in 18:21 and 20:3. “Molech” was an Ammonite deity to whom children were sacrificed in acts of religious devotion. That this abominable practice is mentioned within the context of sexual sins remains instructive for us today. Are not the millions of abortions in the name of self-worship in our day just as repugnant to a holy God?
It is helpful for us to realize that sexual infractions were never considered merely “private” matters between “consenting adults.” The moral behavior of every member of the covenant community impacted the entire community. The penalties to be enacted were to be carried out by the entire assembly. These punitive measures were not a matter of personal vengeance but of covenant necessity if the nation were to survive. We see this at the end of chapter 20, where we read, beginning with verse 22:
“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit the land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples.” (And verse 26) “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”
As I mentioned, chapter 19 is “parenthetical mortar” that holds chapters 18 and 20 together. Fifteen times in this single chapter alone we find God declaring, “I am the LORD.” What helps in understanding the content found here is that nearly every time that phrase appears it is at the end of a paragraph, as if to add the exclamation point to the precept that the Lord has just stated. As you read through this chapter you realize that most of these matters deal with the mundane affairs of life. That is not to suggest they are unimportant. Placed as they are between the two chapters dealing with sexual conduct, we are reminded that God desires holiness to permeate every area of our lives.
Chapter 19 is summed up in verse 18, where we read, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” You will recognize this as the second of the two “great commandments,” that Jesus referenced in Mark 12:30 and 31): “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Practically speaking, these two commands tell us that you and I are to live our lives in such a way that we show through our holy devotion that we belong to the Lord, and not to another. As this chapter points out, it is by our devotion to the Lord (verses 3-8), our responsibility to our fellow man (verses 9-18), and the various duties we are to perform in living life each day (verses 19-37) that we demonstrate Whose we are and are able to manifest His character for others to see.
Holiness is expressed as moral integrity in every area of life. When I read these three chapters together I am convicted. Most of us tend to define “morality” on the basis of Leviticus 18 and 20. If we haven’t lusted too much or if we haven’t viewed porn all week, we may think we have been “morally good.” But what about our worship lives, our relationships with family members, our concern for our neighbors and coworkers, and the investment of our time and resources in “Kingdom business”? Make no mistake, chapter 19 addresses moral integrity every bit as much as do chapters 18 and 20.
Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the “subtle” sins in our lives, as well as those most evident. I am not advocating one as more important than the other...rather I am pleading for consistency. Holy living before God and honest living before our neighbors must go hand-in-hand if our witness for Christ is to be credible. As citizens of the Kingdom we are commissioned to live holy lives, conducting ourselves in conformity with God’s moral standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus indicated that it is the quality of the fruit of our choices that will reveal the nature of the tree that produced it (cf. Matthew 7:16-20).
As we move from this section, let me remind you that the holiness that God calls for is both positional and progressive. Although we are declared to be “holy” from the time we turn from sin and declare our allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord, the process of conforming us to His image is a lifelong one. That is to say that even though our standing with God may be secure, our walk with Him is often faltering and weak. Christians will continue to sin, but no longer will they sin with impunity. They will be convicted of their sin and seek to turn from it quickly. One of the marks of being a follower of Christ is that you cannot Any longer be comfortable with sin.
In other words, our sanctification is a process that will not be completed until we find ourselves in the presence of God. Then and only then “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). For now we are to be faithful day after day in our quest to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). To assist us in that walk, the Lord has raised up those whose responsibility it is to guide us, at least in part, through their obedient example and clear proclamation of God’s Word. And that brings us to our final section of the morning.
Chapters 21 and 22 address...
Holiness in regulations for priests (21:1-22:33)
As we enter into chapter 21, I call your attention to verse 1, where we observe a shift in the audience being addressed. Here Moses is instructed to speak directly “to the priests.” Throughout the earlier chapters, his message was to “all the people of Israel” (cf. Leviticus 17:1). Now the spotlight shines upon those who are charged with leading the people along their journeys of holiness. In order to fulfill this responsibility, the priests must be living holy lives themselves.
The standard for a Christian leader is higher than for those whom he serves. The reasons for this are evident since the leader sets the pattern that influences others. Both the Old Testament and New Testament agree that a leader must show himself to be worthy of that position, and his worthiness is measured by nothing less than God’s established standard. It is not coincidental that the word “holy” appears twenty times in these two chapters, and “sanctify” (which is a form of the same Hebrew word, “qadosh”) another eight times.
Both chapters 21 and 22 command Israel’s priestly leaders to maintain ritual and moral purity. Since they stand in the place of God before the people they must avoid any compromise in their conduct and conviction. What was at stake was nothing less than the spiritual survival of those they served. A holy God must not be misrepresented to His people, and the people must not depend on a priesthood that is ritually unclean and morally impure.
The same holds true today. A church congregation’s spiritual health is greatly impaired when its leadership morally stumbles. The repercussions can be far-reaching and are at times irreparable. The content of these two chapters can be summarized under two general commands. In chapter 21, spiritual leaders instructed to avoid sacrilege, and in chapter 22 they are told to advocate holiness. Let’s take a moment to look at each of those.
Even though the word “sacrilege” does not occur in this passage, it is an appropriate synonym for “profane,” which is how the ESV translates it. That term is used nine times in chapter 21 and four times in chapter 22. According to one reliable source, the idea behind the word is “robbing sacred property.” Within this context, it can thought of as “soiling the reputation of God” or the holy things associated with Him, such as the sanctuary, the Sabbath, or His people. Chapter 21 tells us that God’s leader must be mindful to do two things if he is to stay away from religious sacrilege.
He must first avoid every form of religious pluralism. Verses 1 through 9 serve as warnings to the priests to not adopt the practices of the heathen nations around them lest they become contaminated by them. While many of these commands sound strange to our contemporary ears, they were critical if the nation was not to compromise its divine calling. In today’s pulpit, it is far more important for the pastor to be biblically clear than to be culturally relevant. His calling by God is to exhort and not to entertain those who hear him.
A second way that God’s leader can avert sacrilege is to avoid moral impurity in its every form. In verses 10 through 24, the word “blemish” is repeatedly employed in order to emphasize that a holy life is to be rightly expected of those consecrated to the service of the Lord. Those of us serving in the ministry ought to return often to the spiritual qualities for leadership that Paul laid in passages like 1 Timothy 3(:1-13). The call to ministry comes with a lofty standard, but a holy God deserves nothing less. The bar should be high for one who exercises spiritual authority in the local church. What’s more, churches must hold their leaders to a high standard of moral and ethical behavior, for its own good and for its survival.
Avoiding sacrilege may be viewed as the “negative” aspect of the leader’s responsibility, whereas advocating holiness is its positive counterpart. The priest was to advocate holiness in three ways.
He must, first of all, recognize that his calling was to a holy service. Repeatedly in verses 1 through 9, the priests are implored to be ceremonially “clean” in the performance of their duties. Their service, after all, pertained to “holy things,” a phrase that occurs time and again throughout chapter 22. While there was great joy in the special service they performed, priests also bore a great responsibility. As verse 9 indicates, their sin disqualified them from representing the people before Him.
But let us not minimize the fact that there were benefits to performing this holy service as well. Although the responsibilities of Christian leadership and service are demanding, the benefits can also be very rewarding. While most of those benefits are intangible, they are no less real. Verses 10 through 16 remind us how the Lord provides for the needs of those whose lives are devoted to serving Him in the sacred duties.
And then third, to balance the equation, there was a cost in performing this holy service. Verses 17 through 33 make this point. Anyone living in the family of Israel—priest, layperson, and foreigner alike—was to bring before the Lord only the finest specimens of animal sacrifice. Those offerings were to be “without blemish.” They were to be whole and sound, not bearing any physical defect. At the Lord’s holy altar only the “best” offerings were administered by those “best qualified” to serve. Because the Lord God alone is perfect, He deserves the “best” worship that can be given. That remains the case today. Did you come today prepared to give God your very best?
The priest did not enter his position by choice or because of any personal qualities he possessed. He was divinely chosen, and yet had to meet the stringent requirements set forth by the Lord. Chapter 21, verse 4 refers to him as “a husband among his people.” Other versions translate it “a chief man among his people,” emphasizing the great responsibility that was laid upon him to exemplify personal purity in his conduct and character before the people of God. If he disobeyed the divine regulations, it meant immediate dismissal from priestly service.
Our passage concludes with the Lord’s reminder, beginning in verse 31: “So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD, And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD.”
Earlier this year the highly respected Christian author and Bible teacher, Jerry Bridges, was called home to be with His Lord. He was 86 years old. Of his many books, the two most influential in my life have The Pursuit of Holiness and The Practice of Godliness. Interestingly those two titles reflect the outline of Leviticus that was suggested the first week we began our study. Our “pursuit of holiness” begins with our “worship” of God, and our “practice of Godliness” continues in our lifelong “walk” with God.
A few years ago, Bridges was asked to reflect upon the most important lessons the Lord had taught him throughout his Christian life. He cited five of them, placing them in the order that he learned them. I’ll mention them briefly:
- The Bible is meant to be applied specifically within the context of everyday life.
- We must remain united with Christ because He is the source of our spiritual life.
- We must not forget that it is God who chose us from before the foundation of the world. We did not choose Him; therefore, we have no reason to boast.
- There is need to preach the Gospel to ourselves and strive for holiness everyday.
- Fifth there needs to be an increased awareness of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
If there is anything we have seen after these past six weeks in Leviticus it is that holiness is not only important to God and imperative to us. The writer of Hebrews (12:14), has urged us, therefore, to “Strive...for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”