Leviticus is a book that most Christians understand is important but they aren’t sure why. I hope to fix that—a little bit—with this overview of Leviticus.
To understand Leviticus you must understand that God is holy and what that means for us. The basic meaning of holy is “to be separate.” God is holy in that he is completely separate from sinful mankind. His holiness is such that we cannot approach his presence without being destroyed. God told Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20).
But isn’t God loving and good? Yes, but God is also holy. Someone compared God to the sun. The sun is good, it gives light and life and warmth. But we cannot approach the sun—not by a million miles. We would be instantly vaporized. Such it is with God.
To those who demand that God change—make himself safe to be around—I ask, “What would happen if the sun changed so that it would be safe to be around?” It would cease to be a source of light and life and warmth.
God’s holiness is his core characteristic. Everything else that he is: loving, merciful, just, and so on flow out of his holiness. His love is holy. His mercy is holy. His justice is holy. No one in their right mind should demand or even suggest that it be God who changes to accommodate us.
Leviticus is the Old Testament answer to the question: how may we approach a holy God?
One outline of Leviticus that I found shows that there are three answers in the book: rituals, priests, and purity.
This is a little confusing to explain, but each of the three answers—rituals, priests, and purity—have a part in the first half of the book and a corresponding part in the last half of the book. Here’s the outline:
- Leviticus 1-7 talks about ritual sacrifices.
- Leviticus 23-27 talks about ritual feasts.
- Leviticus 8-10 talks about priests being consecrated.
- Leviticus 21-22 talk about the qualifications for priests.
- Leviticus 11-15 talks about ritual purity.
- Leviticus 18-20 talk about moral purity.
- Leviticus 16-17 are the centerpiece: the Day of Atonement.
Let’s get started:
RITUALS (1-7 and 23-27)
The first answer in Leviticus to the problem of approaching a holy God is that the people must make…
There are several types of sacrifices or offerings described in the first seven chapters: grain offerings, peace offerings, sin and trespass offerings. Chapter 1 describes the “burnt” offering—
Leviticus 1:3 If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD.
Leviticus 1:4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
Leviticus 1:5 And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
The sacrificial animal was to be a “male without blemish,” which points us to why it was important that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (thus breaking the passing of the sinful nature from parent to child). It also points toward the necessity that Jesus live a perfect, obedient life so that he could die for our sins.
Look at the very important word, “atonement.” What does it mean? Atonement is the act of God’s wrath on sin being turned away and the person’s sin being covered.
These Old Testament sacrifices, while covering sin temporarily, could never permanently take away sins. Hebrews 10 tells us that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
But these sacrificial rituals were pointing to the one that would—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When he saw Jesus, John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
In the last chapters of Leviticus, another ritual is given—
There are several feasts described here: the Sabbath year, the year of jubilee, the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Harvest, Trumpets, Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement (which we’ll look at a little later).
The purpose of these ritual feasts was to remind the people of what God had done on behalf of the nation of Israel—to set them free and to make them a nation.
How did the ritual feasts help people approach a holy God?
I think that the primary way was that they caused people to stop and face God. We get so wrapped in our lives that it’s easy for us to take God for granted. These feasts for the Israelites (as the Lord’s Supper does for Christians) caused them to stop and ponder the holiness and greatness of our God.
A second answer for the problem of approaching a holy God had to do with…
PRIESTS (8-10 and 21-22)
The Consecration Of The Priests
Chapter 8 describes the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests—
Leviticus 8:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Leviticus 8:2 Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and a bullock for the sin offering, and two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread;
Leviticus 8:22 And he brought the other ram, the ram of consecration: and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram. Leviticus 8:23 And he slew it; and Moses took of the blood of it, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot.
What does “consecration” mean? To set apart for service to God. It’s got the same idea as being holy.
In chapters 21 and 22 the qualifications of the priests are described—they could not be around a dead person (21:11), they weren’t to marry an unholy woman like a prostitute (21:7), and so on. Chapter 22 gives instructions on how a priest becomes clean again.
The consequences for not living up to the high standards laid down for the priests could be deadly. Look at chapter 10, and what happened to Nadab and Abihu—
Leviticus 10:1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.
Leviticus 10:2 And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
Leviticus 10:3 Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.
We don’t know precisely what they did wrong. We do see that the Lord said, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me.” Nadab and Abihu had been consecrated (set apart) to God as priests but they had not sanctified (set apart) the LORD in their hearts. We can see that the priesthood was to be taken seriously.
How did the priests help solve the problem of approaching a holy God? The priests were special men who were able to work close to God because they were held to higher standards of holiness. The priests were to be examples of God’s holiness, just as the sacrifices made were to be without blemish.
The priests functioned as meditators between the people and God. They were to represent the people to God and God to the people.
In the New Testament, there is no more need for human priests to stand between us and God. Why? Because Christ is our priest:
14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. 15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)
No one…no pastor or any so-called priest has the right or the ability to be your mediator with God. You need to depend on no one but Christ alone to approach God and, you can even approach him boldly because of Christ.
The third answer to the problem of approaching a holy God has to do with…
PURITY LAWS (11-15 and 18-20)
Chapters 11 through 15 talk about ritual purity laws. Before we get into these, please understand that these were for the Israelites in the Old Testament era. Don’t think that you have to do these to be pure. You are pure in Christ now.
Christians will sometimes cherry-pick a few laws from the Leviticus that they want to obey and want others to obey. But they ignore other laws, even in the same chapter and verse.
Generally speaking, if we need to obey a law, it will be repeated in the New Testament. If it’s not—you don’t need to worry about it.
Ritual Purity Laws
Certain foods were either clean or unclean to eat. We are most familiar with pigs, but the list includes animals from the sea and air and land. Here are a few: owls, eagles, hawks, weasels, lizards, and anything that does not have fins or scales.
We aren’t really told why some animals are unclean and some are clean. Perhaps it has to do with health issues, or maybe it had to do with what the pagans did with certain animals. The key issue is separation, which remember, is what holiness is.
Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Chapter 12 shows what to do after giving birth. The new mother was restricted from religious duties for 40 days if she had a son. She was restricted for 80 days if she had a daughter.
Here’s a good place to point out something about the ritual purity laws—they weren’t moral laws…they were ritual laws. Giving birth to a baby is not a sin! The mother was simply temporarily unclean in a ritual sense.
Chapter 13 and 14 are detailed instructions on what to do with leprosy.
Chapter 15 talks about reproductive fluids and sexual intercourse.
The ritual purity laws described what could make a person unclean for worship and prescribed what would make them clean again (usually just waiting for a period of time). (These are laws that Christ would violate…touching a dead person or a leper).
Moral Purity Laws
In chapters 18 through 20 we get more purity (clean/unclean) laws. Most of these are more along the lines of morality, rather than just being a ritual purity law. For instance, chapter 18 focuses on forbidden sexual relations:
In 18:6-18 we find prohibitions against sex and marriage with close relatives. The other parts of chapter 18 focus on other sexual prohibitions: during a woman’s cycle (18:19), adultery (18:20), and homosexuality (18:22), among others.
These laws reflected the holiness of God and called Israel to be separate from the other pagan nations. By the way, most of these you find repeated in the New Testament, so they are applicable to us today.
In chapter 19, we see moral laws concerning caring for the poor and loving one another. What does it mean to love thy neighbor? We get a list of ways to love your neighbor. Here’s a sample:
Leviticus 19:9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. Leviticus 19:10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19:16 Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
These laws are useful in showing a picture of how Jesus wants us, enabled by the Holy Spirit, to love one another. Also, they are laws that are repeated in some form in the New Testament.
How did these laws help the people approach a holy God? It reminded them that they were to be separate from the pagans living around them. You could say that they were to be better at loving than the pagans. Are we?
Now we come to the gem of Leviticus—the Day of Atonement described in chapters 16 and 17.
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT (16-17)
The Day of Atonement was a special day set aside once a year to make a special sacrifice for the nation (16:29-34).
This was the one day of the year that the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. He would go in and sprinkle the blood of a bull on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.
Jump ahead to chapter 17, which isn’t strictly about the Day of Atonement, but it emphasizes the importance of blood, so I put it here. In chapter 17, we learn that the Israelites were not to eat the blood of an animal. Why? Because…
Leviticus 17:11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.
The reason that sacrifices were necessary is because the life is in the blood. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), so the blood of animals symbolized the payment of those wages. Jesus’s blood would finally, once for all, pay for our sins (Hebrews 9:28).
The Day of Atonement was also the day that the scapegoat would be sent off into the wildness. This is an interesting and little-known thing, so let’s look at it. There were two goats (a goat that was going to have a bad day and a goat that would have a very bad day)—
Leviticus 16:8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. Leviticus 16:9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. Leviticus 16:10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: Leviticus 16:22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
The picture is pretty profound. God wants to remove sin from his people so that he can live with them. That’s what the scapegoat represents. Christ is our scapegoat now. Our sins have been laid on him. When we trust in Christ, our sins are taken away forever.
Christ gave us a ritual—the Lord’s Supper or Communion—to remind us that to approach a holy God today, we need to be in Christ. He is our sacrificial lamb. He is our high priest. He is our fulfillment of the law—he obeyed the law perfectly. When we are found in him—we can come boldly to the throne of God.