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Preaching on Leviticus

An overview of the historical background and theology of Leviticus to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Leviticus
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Historical Background

Leviticus takes the form of instructions from the Lord given to Moses for the people. God’s people were chosen to be a holy nation (Ex. 19:6) and they need to learn how to reflect God’s holiness—to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 19:2).

Holiness is a prevalent theme throughout the book which is fitting because this is how the law serves us. It teaches us what God is like and what he expects of us as we conform to him. Thus most of the book comes in the form of rules and regulations. There are only two narrative portions (6:8-10:20 and chapter 24).

The Israelites were likely quite familiar with much of the cultic practices explained or assumed in Leviticus, but through this book God re-shapes those practices into worship that is devoted solely to himself. The book is a call to holiness.

Sermon Series

The following is a series through Leviticus in 18 sermons. The book provides literary headings in the form of “the Lord spoke to Moses saying …” throughout its pages. These function as natural section markers and, for the most part, I followed these breaks in determining the preaching units with some exceptions. Sometimes I did not create a break when I saw that marker (like at 21:16 and 22:17, 26). Toward the end I determined a preaching unit without the familiar heading (at 26:1).

Literary markers are helpful, but they were not put there to help preachers determine homiletical units. So you must exercise wisdom and not make your decisions too simplistically. There is no real right or wrong here—you need to decide what constitutes a thematic section such that two back-to-back sermons do not have essentially the same thrust.

You can break the book down into many tiny units if you are willing to see applications in minute details, but you have to ask yourself, “Is this really what the text is driving at or am I just searching for varied application material?” Conversely, if you are going to resist the urge to foist applications onto these passages that are not really prompted by the text, then you will have to get comfortable preaching larger units than you might be accustomed to. This is a good discipline for preachers!

Text: Leviticus 1:1
  • Title: Appreciating Leviticus
  • Big Idea: This sermon can establish an over-arching theme that prepares the congregation for the message of Leviticus: God’s holiness demands ours.
  • Preaching Tips: Show how the focus of Leviticus is not for quick tips on better living. Rather it inverts our focus from how God is relevent to us, to how we are relevant to God. We conform to him.
Text: Leviticus 1:1-3:17
  • Title: God’s Pleasure Toward Us
  • Big Idea: The Lord is pleased when we demonstrate our penance and gratitude with our best.
  • Preaching Tips: Sacrifice has always been foundational to worship. There is a lot of ground to cover here but explain why God demands sacrifice. As you describe the offerings you can point out their two-fold purpose: acceptance via substitution and demonstration of gratitude.
Text: Leviticus 4:1-5:13
  • Title: How God Deals with Unintentional Sins
  • Big Idea: Sin is absolutely pervasive and corrupting but forgiveness is always available.
  • Preaching Tips: From unintentional sins to sins “with a high hand,” iniquity sperates us from God. But after each section in this unit, the avilability of forgiveness is emphasized (4:26b, 31b, 35b; 5:10, 13).
Text: Leviticus 5:14-6:7
  • Title: Repentance & Reparation
  • Big Idea: Reconciliation with God requires seeking reconciliation with neighbor, offering reparation where possible.
  • Preaching Tips: Reparation is not always possible, but this pericope bears out the idea that when it is possible there is an obligation to do so. The key is how our vertical relationship with God is inextricably tied to our horizontal relationships with others.
Text: Leviticus 6:8-10:20
  • Title: Strange Worship
  • Big Idea: When God’s expectations of holiness are dismissed, especially with regard to atonement, we incur his just wrath.
  • Preaching Tips: There are not many narrative portions in Leviticus so this will feel like a change of pace. You can point out how the infraction is specifically related to a marring the picture of atonement.
Text: Leviticus 11:1-47
  • Title: Living Clean
  • Big Idea: God’s people from every age are to imitate his holiness in their separateness from the world.
  • Preaching Tips: While the dietary laws do not transfer to today and it is difficult to determine why each regulation was given, we can see it was about separateness (e.g. 11:44, 45, 47 “make a distinction” and the theme of “detesting” in 10, 12, 13, 20, 23).
Text: Leviticus 12:1-15:33
  • Title: Finding Hope in Distressing Verses
  • Big Idea: The profound scale of our separation from God prompts a deeper longing for wholistic renewal in atonement.
  • Preaching Tips: God continues to communicate our distance from him but the issue is pushed further in things that do not seem to be the Israelites’ fault (childbirth, disease, dishcarges). God communicates a defilement of his holiness that goes beyond just personal, active sin. It is our cursedness/fallenness.
Text: Leviticus 16:1-34
  • Title: Why We All Need a Scapegoat
  • Big Idea: God provides atonement that removes sin-guilt totally, for complete access to himself.
  • Preaching Tips: Where the previous unit focused on our distance from God, this unit focuses on the solution—atonement which grants access to God. The concept of access is a highlight here as well as the exhaustive coverage of atonement.
Text: Leviticus 17:1-16
  • Title: Life Belongs to the Lord
  • Big Idea: We must honor life because it is sacred.
  • Preaching Tips: The passage relates the sanctity of blood (life) to idolatry. You will be pressed to think of ways this connection rears its head today. Perhaps abortion is a glaring example.
Text: Leviticus 18:1-30
  • Title: Counter-Cultural Obedience
  • Big Idea: We must honor God’s statutes, not culture’s, especially with regard to sexual behavior.
  • Preaching Tips: The broader focus of this chapter is to curtail conformation to surrounding pagan cultures. Given today’s climate, you can move from this broader theme to a tighter focus on more specific sexual issues.
Text: Leviticus 19:1-37
  • Title: The Law of Love
  • Big Idea: God’s people must conform to holiness by loving neighbor without conforming to neighbor.
  • Preaching Tips: While vv. 1-18 focus on the returning theme of loving neighbor, the succeeding verses highlight the need to resist conformation (not “mixing”).
Text: Leviticus 20:1-27
  • Title: Important Lessons from Harsh Penalties
  • Big Idea: Without holiness we will not experience eternal life.
  • Preaching Tips: This chapter may feel like a review of sins already covered but the focus here is the severe penalties. Don’t rush too quickly to relieve the pressure; let the text have its way. But eventually show how this passage projects forward to our hope in the gospel.
Text: Leviticus 21:1-22:33
  • Title: How God Restores Us to Himself
  • Big Idea: God makes a way for separated people to be restored to himself in wholeness.
  • Preaching Tips: The gap between us and God is communicated not only through the handling of the deceased but also through the topic of deformities. Not many passages address this! Use it to communicate how our damaged world yearns for a wholeness that only God can offer. You can use the theme of marriage later in this unit to communicate the picture of the gospel.
Text: Leviticus 23:1-44
  • Title: God Grants True Rest
  • Big Idea: What we ultimately learn in the principle of the Sabbath is that we cannot work our way to God’s rest – it is provided in Christ.
  • Preaching Tips: Preach the principle of rest to your work-weary listeners. The Sabbath was always a forward-projecting picture of an ultimate rest provided by God. Thus the habit of taking one day a week to stop work is still a valuable way to remind ourselves we cannot manufacture what ultimately only God can provide.
Text: Leviticus 24:1-23
  • Title: The Blessing of God’s Name
  • Big Idea: We honor God’s name when we continually value his provision for us.
  • Preaching Tips: Besides 6:8-10:20, this is the only narrative in Leviticus and the two accounts are parallel. Here, lex talionis applies to blasphemy but the fitting punishment is death, since God is the provider of life. We must honor him for it (symbolized in the lamp and the bread).
Text: Leviticus 25:1-55
  • Title: Freedom
  • Big Idea: Freedom from debt should prompt our mercy toward those less fortunate, especially in our own church community.
  • Preaching Tips: The Sabbath Year increased dependency on God and the Year of Jubilee emphasized freedom from debt. An expected outcome of this freedom is to “strengthen” our neighbors.
Text: Leviticus 26:1-46
  • Title: Blessings & Consequences
  • Big Idea: God’s grace always demands obedience.
  • Preaching Tips: God saved his people from Egypt in order to take them to the land of promise but they don’t get to enjoy it unless they obey. You see here the tension between grace and obedience. The way they work is that one precedes and produces the other. Grace prompts and demands obedience.
Text: Leviticus 27:1-34
  • Title: Vows & Dedications
  • Big Idea: God requires faithfulness in anything we commit to him.
  • Preaching Tips: You will need to work through whether vows or special commitments are valid today. If you see Jesus as condeming only frivolous vows (Matt. 5:33-37),then you can demonstrate that there may still be times special commitments are made (Acts 18:18; 21:23) but God expects us to stick to them.

Theological Themes

Some of the prominent motifs that you will be challenged to grapple with throughout this series include:

Obedience: The theme of holiness is still applicable today. We are to strive for it, conform to it. You will explain that it is a result of grace, so this is not merit-based worship. Remind your listeners that obedience flows from grace not toward it, but do not be afraid to put the accent on obedience and conformity to God’s standards.

Sin: The heavy theme of our depravity is repeated. You might consider taking a break in the series here and there if you feel your congregation might need it – for example, perhaps between the sermons on 12:1-15:33 and 20:1-27 since both these units hit hard. But resist the urge to soften the darker sections or preaching sermons that mute their voice.

Sacrifices & Offerings: Each kind of sacrifice and each type of offering provide varying nuances to worship. While there is great overlap between them, tease out the differences by pointing out the emphases that make each required ritual special.


As you move through the book, you will see the same few themes arise repeatedly. Rather than wedging in ideas that are not really there for the sake of variation, think of different ways the same truths might apply. Once you have your units mapped out with their respective “Big Ideas,” you can determine in advance how one week’s pericope can apply a repeated theme one way, and how another unit with a similar thrust can be applied a different way.

Here are some examples:

Sacrifice and Worship: In 1:1-3:17 you can emphasize the role gratitude plays in what God is looking for in his worshipers, and at 16:1-34 you can focus on our need for a sacrfice that provides complete atonement. One prompts us to think about how grateful we should be before the Lord, the other focuses on how complete the atonement is for us—praise God!

Clean and Unclean: In 11:1-47 the availabitliy of forgiveness is a prominent feature, but in 12:1-15:33 you have the unclean status given for reasons that do not seem to stem from personal cuplability. Thus your focus here can be on how profound our separation from God really is—it goes beyond intentional actions and goes to the root of fallenness. Sometimes application can be mere reminders: that God makes real forgiveness available or that our need for it is deep.

Law-keeping: 18:1-30 focuses on various laws but you can focus on the sexuality laws given our current climate of confusion on such matters. Then at 19:1-37 you can show how these laws are meant to regulate our actions toward neighbor. The former lends itself to application that helps the listener unravel knotty issues. The latter allows you to get really practical when it comes to living among unbelieving neighbors without “mixing” with them.

Separation from God: With 20:1-27 you can show the text’s burden to demonstrate the severity of sin. Application can focus on how easily we can dismiss sin and how we must remain alert with regard to obedience. With 21:1-22:33 the theme of separation is still there but the unit climaxes in priestly marriage laws. You can use that as leverage to talk about what marriage represents (Eph. 5:32) which points to our hope in the bridegroom. Even singles in the church can see the rich symbolism of marriage and how it billboards the gospel.

My Encounter with Leviticus

This series at our church was titled, Leviticus: A Call to Holiness. The first word of the book in Hebrew is the same as its Hebrew title: the word for “call.” The book emphasizes holiness and I did not want to shy away from it. Being saved by grace does not conflict with Scripture’s demands concerning conformity to God through Christ.

I used the first sermon to let my congregation know that this journey through Leviticus is going to beckon us to live in obedience to God and the book is going to lay it on thick. But doesn’t this demonstrate just how gracious God is—that he would not leave us guessing as to his wants and desires for us? He communicates to us through harsh images, strict regulations, and difficult rituals, so that we might worship what we know in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-24).

Preaching through Leviticus was a challenge, but the benefits were obvious. We mined a portion of the Bible that is often ignored, maybe even feared. We got to take material that many regard as boring and see it come alive. We took passages that seem off-putting at first, and saw how God graciously uses warnings and laws to show how much we need him. He provides guardrails for living.

As a preacher, I was forced to flex theological muscles that would otherwise atrophy: how to handle laws that do not transfer immediately to our context today, how to see Christ projected in ancient rituals, and how to preach about the deep problem of sin even in the presence of first-time visitors.

As a church we got to visit important topics as well: sexual immorality that the world says is normal, the sacredness of blood and its connection to abortion, and living for holiness when surrounded by cultures antagonistic to it to name a few. As a result, our church was stretched in fresh ways from a sometimes neglected book.

Recommended Commentaries

John D. Currid, Leviticus (EP Study Commentary), EP Books, 2007.

Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus, Baker Academic, 2006.

Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament) rev ed, Eerdmans, 1979.

Lucas O’Neill is a Clinical Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). He has pastored Christian Fellowship Church (Itasca, IL) for over ten years, and is the author of "Preaching to Be Heard" (Lexham Press, 2019).

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