This sermon is part of the sermon series "R-Rated". See series.
Read (Leviticus 3:1-17)
I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess that not many of you are thinking at this point, Not another sermon on Leviticus 3, we hear about Leviticus 3 all the time, this is such a well-known passage in the church today. No, most of you are thinking probably thinking, Really, the Bible takes time to talk about how to present the innards of animals in sacrifice? If you're an ancient Israelite, this makes perfectly good sense. You're not surprised at all in hearing this description, especially in a book like Leviticus because Leviticus is a worship manual for the priests and the Israelites. Of course in Israelite worship, what was one of the things that they frequently did? They made sacrifices. If you're a priest, this is exactly the kind of thing you need to know in order to make the sacrifice in the correct way. So to us, totally bizarre; to them, it makes sense.
But there is a second question: What in the world does that have to do with me today? You might be thinking, Not once in the past week, month, or decade have I ever been thinking how sacrificing the innards of an animal would really help me this week. I mean, this just seems so unrelated.
I'm going to suggest that if we understand well what Leviticus three is teaching, it will actually lead to deeper joy in our lives and to deeper love for one another. In order to show that, I would like to simply ask four different questions of this text. Four different questions about this peace offering. How was it offered, how was it thought of, what did a meal mean in ancient Israel, and what does this passage mean to us?
How was it offered?
In ancient Israel there were different types of offerings. You might compare it to different types of steak, for example. You can get a skirt steak or a T-bone steak, or all sorts of different steaks. Well, in ancient Israel they had different types of offerings. So you had your burnt offering and your sin offering, and you had your peace offering. When you read through the Bible you see how these different offerings are presented, the peace offering is pretty similar to some of the other offerings but there are two distinctives, or at least two things in particular that this passage highlights.
The first is this: there is a focus in this passage on giving the fat of the animal to the Lord. If you just count up the words in this passage, forty percent of this passage is describing what pieces count as the fat of the animal.
For many of us, this is going to seem completely backwards. Because if you've grown up in the 21st century, especially in a Western culture, chances are you actually take a negative view of fat. We know today that if you have too much fat it's bad for you. Has anyone here been put on a diet by their doctor that is full of fat? No, we go for fat free diets. Fat can kill you if you get too much of it. In fact, we have to be careful today because there is so much fat in our food. If you walk down the aisles at the supermarket and a food does not have fat in it or is low in fat, it typically will put it in big, bold letters: "Fat Free." We take a very negative view of fat, but in Israel it was exactly the opposite. Israelites didn't have to worry about having too much fat in their diets. Their main food was grain. In Israel, unless you were very wealthy, meat was a luxury. Most Israelites didn't eat meat on a regular basis so they weren't worried about fat. They looked at fat very positively. They knew that was the best part of the meal. Why do we have so much fat in our foods today? Because it tastes so good.
In fact, in Israel, if you wanted to talk about the best of the wheat, you would literally say that's the fat of the wheat. Wheat doesn't have fat but it's the way of saying the very best part, and that means this: When the Israelites gave all of the fat to the Lord, they were giving him the very best part, the most costly bit of the sacrifice, and they were doing so as a way of saying, "Lord, you are the One who is worthy of the greatest honor. You are the One who is worthy of the greatest thanksgiving. You are the One who is worthy of the greatest praise."
If you were to ask an Israelite, "Why do you think that is true, why do you give him the costliest piece of the sacrifice, why is he a God worthy of honor and thanksgiving and praise?" They may have answered in many different ways but one of their responses would have gone like this: Do you know our recent history? Do you know that just a few months ago before Leviticus three was written that we were slaves in the land of Egypt with cruel taskmasters who oppressed us and who beat us, and we cried out to God for deliverance and he has rescued us and delivered us, and given us life? You may respond, "Oh, so you mean it's all a bed of roses"? The Israelites would answer, "No, it's not a bed of roses. We're in the wilderness. We're still going through trials, but even there, we've seen God is with us and he has not forsaken us, and because of that we can't help but give him costly praise."
Let me ask you a question: Have you ever been in a situation where you were in trouble, a trial, or difficulty and you could not get yourself out of bed, and someone else came along and in some way helped you, rescued you, delivered you? In fact, if they hadn't, to this day you would still be in the midst of that trial or that difficulty. What is your natural response when someone helps you like that? Is it not to say, "What can I do to thank you?" Do you not have a desire to give them something costly as a way of expressing the depth of your thanks and how much honor you feel they deserve? That's what's going on here. In fact, a Christian hearing these words can't help but think, Wow, if the Israelites felt that way for being delivered from Egypt, how much more should we feel that way, having experienced deliverance from sin through Jesus?See, the Christian knows what it is to have Jesus give fullness of life, peace, and joy, which is growing in deliverance from sin, shame, and guilt. So the Christian naturally responds, "Jesus, how can I say thank you? I want to give you costly sacrifice. In fact, I give you my all. All I have is yours, Lord. It's the only way, the only proper way to respond because of what you've done."
So how was it offered? Well, first of all, there is this focus on the fat by which the Israelites were giving the very best part to the Lord. But there is a second distinctive here. The second distinctive, and actually we learn this from a few chapters later in Leviticus, is that this is the only sacrifice from which every day Israelites ate. Burnt offerings, totally burned on the altar. No one gets a mouthful. Sin offerings, parts burned on the altar, part goes to the priest, Israelites don't get any. This is the one offering where the Israelites actually partake.
How was the offering thought of?
What metaphor could you use to describe the peace offering? The answer is very simple. The peace offering was thought of as a shared meal between the person and the Lord. The meal aspect of things comes through in this passage, specifically verse 11. It's called a food offering to the Lord. In other passages, in fact, we learn that when you would make a peace offering you would often also make a grain offering. Why? If you want a good square meal you've got to have a meal of meat and … potatoes, right? Well, in Israel you want a good square meal, a full meal, you'll have a meal of meat and bread. So often you would offer this peace offering together with bread because it was a meal. It was a shared meal between the person and the Lord.
This did not mean the Israelites were supposed to think, Oh, God must be hungry. The focus here, is always on a pleasing aroma to the Lord, never on a pleasing taste to the Lord. In fact, there is a verse later in the Bible where God asks, "Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?" And the answer is, no, he is not like the other gods of the ancient world, the other gods of the ancient world who actually need sacrifices to be sustained and for food. He was not asking them to make this sacrifice so that he could have food. God was asking the people to make this sacrifice so that they could have fellowship. Not for food, but for fellowship.
How was a meal thought of in ancient Israel?
Part of this we will understand really well. A meal was a time, then, as today, for fellowship. There is a big difference between sending somebody a text, and having them over to your home for a meal. I mean, both are fine. But it's around the table, eating together that there is this deepened level of intimacy and of fellowship. The same was true in ancient Israel. So this offering is sometimes actually called a fellowship offering. In ancient Israel, it actually went a step further than that. In ancient Israel the closest relationship that you could have with somebody was a family relationship.
We have the saying, "blood is thicker than water." Meaning your family is closer than anyone else. Here's the question: How do you enter into that kind of close relationship with somebody who is not in your family? How do you do it? Well, the answer is you make a covenant with that person. When you made a covenant with somebody, you were entering into this relationship of obligation with one another, a very close relationship. Can you guess how you confirmed the covenant? You didn't sign on the dotted line, you didn't shake hands. You had a meal together. It was your way of signing on the dotted line.
One of the best known examples from this in the Bible, actually happened shortly before Leviticus three. In the book of Exodus, chapter 24. Here is what has happened. The Israelites just come up out of Egypt. The Lord has redeemed them. They stop at Mount Sinai and enter into covenant relationship with the Lord. Moses comes down from the mountain, he's got the law, this represents the stipulations of the covenant. He reads it to the people, "Do you want to enter into this covenant?" The people respond yes. So what happens? Sacrifices are made including peace offerings. Moses actually refers to the blood as the blood of the covenant. After the sacrifices are done, Moses and the leaders of the people head up Mount Sinai and once they get up there we read that they saw the God of Israel, and then Moses and the leaders had a meal before him. You and I read that and we think, What? They went and they had a meal? An Israelite is thinking, Of course, these are our representatives and we've just entered into covenant with the Lord, and they're going on our behalf to sign on the dotted line to have that meal together. That's what a meal was, and that's what it is with the fellowship offering. And that leads to our last question.
So what does this mean for us today?
Let me answer that in two different ways. One is going to be in terms of our relationship with God, and the other is going to be in terms of our relationship with one another. First, in terms of our relationship with God. Do you know that every time an Israelite partook of this meal they were recommitting to their covenant relationship with the Lord and celebrating their covenant relationship with the Lord? They were recommitting to that covenant relationship and celebrating it.
It's kind of like when a couple, after 20 or 30 years of marriage, renews their vows. When a couple renews their vows, what is it that they're doing? Well, they're recommitting to that relationship and they're celebrating the relationship that they've enjoyed. That's what a peace offering was. It was a time for the Israelites to recommit in partaking of the food to say, "Oh, Lord, you are our covenant King. You are the one who we will follow and obey. Oh, Lord, we celebrate and rejoice that you care for us and will watch over us and bring us home." Now here is the key. Do you realize that Jesus has given us a covenant meal? He gave us the Lord's Supper. Do you think of that as a covenant meal?
Do you remember the story of Jesus inaugurating the Lord's Supper? In just a few hours he was going to be betrayed to the Roman authorities, arrested, beaten, and crucified. But just before that happens, he is having a meal with his disciples. He says to them during the meal—he takes the bread and the wine—"This is my body and my blood given for you." In fact as he describes his blood he says in particular, "This is my blood of the covenant." Now, if you're an Israelite hearing those words, "blood of the covenant," you can't help but think of what story? Exodus 24. With the Israelites entering into covenant relationship with the Lord, and making sacrifices, and Moses saying, "This is the blood of the covenant." And then taking the meat from those peace offerings and eating it before the Lord to confirm the covenant relationship. This is what the Lord's Supper is, it's a covenant meal. What that means for us is that every time we partake of it we are doing at least two things. We are recommitting to our covenant relationship with the Lord, and we are celebrating our covenant relationship with the Lord.
Think of each thing. We are recommitting. That's why this meal is actually for believers. It's kind of like a wedding ring. You only wear a wedding ring when you've already made a commitment to somebody. The ring is the reminder of that. That's how this meal functions. You partake of it if you've already made the commitment to Jesus, and the meal here is the reminder of that. It's a way of saying, "Oh, Lord, you are my King. Jesus, you are the one that I follow. You are the one that I give my life to." What often happens in the midst of partaking of this meal, we are challenged to think, Is that how I've been living this past week? When you renew your vows, you can't do it without thinking, Have I really lived up to these things? Do I really mean them? This is an opportunity given us by the Lord to remind ourselves, to ask ourselves, "Have I really been living for Jesus"? So often in partaking of this we might find ourselves saying, "Lord, Lord, please forgive me. There's this area of my life that I've been keeping back from you. Or there is this command you've given that I know I haven't been obeying. Would you strengthen me by this meal spiritually to obey? I need your help."
This is a time for recommitment, but it's also a time for celebration. When we partake of this meal we are proclaiming physically, we're acting out the gospel is what we're doing. We are saying, "We partake of this bread and this wine as a testimony to the fact that God himself has entered into human flesh in his love for us, to give us away, that we might be rid of our shame and our guilt. To heal our brokenness, to give us life." That's the best news there is. So what does this passage mean for us today in terms of a relationship with the Lord? Knowing that this is a covenant meal helps us to know it's a time for recommitment to the Lord, and to celebrate our relationship with him.
There is a second way that it helps us, and that is in our relationships with one another. Israelites never ate peace offerings alone. They always ate them with their family, with their friends, sometimes even with the poor, inviting them in to partake of this feast together. One commentator has called a peace offering a holy barbecue. That's how it functioned.
In partaking together what were they doing? They were, again, celebrating the fact that they were covenant brothers and sisters and recommitting to show one another covenant love. It's a celebration and a recommitment. This way is not vertically—relationship with the Lord—but horizontally—relationship with one another.
Think about the celebration aspect of things. When I was in seminary one Thanksgiving, several of my friends and I didn't end up going home for the holiday so we decided to have the meal together. This was in New England, it was cold outside, but we were inside in a warm apartment, a table filled with food. I remember saying to my friends as I looked around the table, "Do you know, I feel incredibly safe because I know that you're not just my friends, you're my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and that means you've got my back and that you've committed to love me." That's what we do together as a church. We celebrate that we're not alone, we're part of a family of covenant brothers and sisters who have our back, and who are going to love us.
Along with that celebration comes the recommitment. This is a time when we say we are recommitting to love you as a brother and sister in the Lord. One of the very practical applications of this is that you and I will be people who strive to keep very short accounts with one another. We will not allow things to build up. I'm familiar with one denomination that only celebrates the Lord's Supper two times a year. I'm not advocating for that, I love weekly celebration. But one thing that this denomination does, the week before they celebrate communion, they announce from the pulpit, that communion will be taking place so use this week, if you have wronged a brother or sister in the Lord, to go to them and to say, "I'm sorry, will you forgive me"? This denomination then says, "Do that this week because next week we are going to be eating around the table together as brothers and sisters in the Lord, and he has commanded us to do this in love and peace and unity."
In fact, if we are thinking, I refuse to repent before my brother or sister for how I've wronged them, I refuse to repent for that … I refuse to extend forgiveness to the person who has wronged me. If that's what our hearts are thinking and feeling, actually this meal is not for us today. It would be a lie to partake of it.
Going to that person to say "I'm sorry," that would be one of the hardest things to do. But if you are able to do it, then you can freely partake. Forgiveness is often a process, and it's often messy. It's not something that can all of a sudden be done just like that. But the question is, are you willing to begin the process? Are you willing to engage and to say, "I'm going to begin to take the step down the road to forgive that person and I don't even know what that's going to look like, but Lord, I know I need to forgive others as you've forgiven me. I don't even know if I can make it there this week but I need your help." Take and eat, be strengthened. This meal is for you, to give you God's grace so that you might love your brother and sister and so honor your Lord. This is a meal in which the Lord provides us these opportunities to recommit in our covenant relationship to him, to recommit in our covenant relationship to one another and to celebrate that because of what Jesus has done, we are in relationship with him and we are in relationship with one another, and that's the best news that our hearts could want.
Jay Sklar is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. He recently published a commentary on Leviticus in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series.