This sermon is part of the sermon series "R-Rated". See series.
For me, because I didn't grow up in the church, when I first started reading the Bible I was reading it as a skeptic. Even after I got saved, I remember reading the Old Testament and still being completely skeptical about all of it. So as a seeker and as a learner, I was constantly trying to understand, what does this mean and why is it there? Then I started thinking, Well, how do I explain this to somebody, and how would I explain this in a way that would make any sense to anybody. As I was doing that with Leviticus 17, I was arrested in my heart about how important this really is, not only for the children of Israel at that time, but how important the reality of chapter 17 is for you and I on this side of the finished work of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Leviticus 17 is all about how people are to deal with blood. There are literally five laws that are articulated here. So to put the cookies on the bottom shelf, the truth statement up front is this: a low view of Leviticus 17 makes our faith in Jesus make no sense. In order to truly grasp the reality that you and I are transferred from being against God to being for God and received by God and beloved of God, all of this has to do with the principle that is laid down in Leviticus 17. God's truth is good, but all of this is because of the reality about how blood functions, both from a health perspective and from a spiritual sacrificial position. So this chapter is important.
The book of Leviticus, like a lot of the other laws in the Old Testament, was a type of health code for the children of Israel. We have to remember that in the environment that they lived in there was not health inspectors. I mean, imagine if when you wanted to go to get a burger at your favorite burger joint, they just threw the thing in the basket with the dirty mop water then threw it on the grill. Would you guys like that if you found that out?
The children of Israel didn't live in a day and age where people washed their hands before they went back to work, or regulations on the temperature in the freezer because they didn't even have freezers. So there was no Costco, there was no used by dates for food, and food was extraordinarily scarce. It was an agrarian society, people didn't have ice boxes stocked up with meat for the apocalypse. If you were lucky you could leave it for a little while.
So you would imagine that as we are going to see that people would find a dead animal and that's some food right there. Before everyone knew what grew on dead animals, that was food and that may be the only sustenance you found. So there are all these different things going on and God loves his people enough to say there are certain things that you just shouldn't do. We might say, "Well, come on, everybody knows this." No, not everybody know this. We know it now, but you've got to think that this is was 4,000 years ago.
At this point these laws were unique for the children of Israel in the context in which they lived. We're going to see this on multiple levels. We're going to look at the spiritual, the reality of how blood atones. We're going to see it on a health perspective. We will first see though that there is a jealousy in the heart of God for the tabernacle worship system.
(Read Leviticus 17:1-9)
Laws regarding sacrifices
We have two laws in this section. The first law, verses 3-7, is the law against non-sacrificial slaughtering. The second one, in verses 8-9, tells us in effect that you are not allowed to offer sacrifices outside of the tabernacle area. The theme of these two laws is you're not allowed to subvert the work of the tabernacle. There shouldn't be slaughtering of animals going on outside of the tabernacle area, and you should definitely not be sacrificing outside of the tabernacle. Which I think is fascinating because imagine if a pastor came and said, "You should not worship the Lord except in church." What would you say? You would probably think that pastor is nuts.
Remember that God's first commandment was there were no other gods before him. Then God says, you can only worship me, and then you have to worship me in the right way. No worshipping idols. The children of Israel, like you and I, were given to idol worship. The nations around them all had all these different worship ceremonies and it was easy to grab that stuff and bring it into your life. So God gave an elaborate system, the tabernacle system which gave way to the temple in the time of Solomon with all these sacrifices, to say, "This is my prescription." Then he says, "Listen, you're not allowed to do it anywhere else."
How often do people say, "You know, I like Jesus but I don't like the church." That's a common phrase. You can't have Jesus without the church because think about it: "A man will leave his father and mother and the two will become one, one flesh." Jesus and his church are one. So the application for us is this: Don't ever forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Don't ever say, "I'm going to do my Christianity on my own." Because you know what happens when you do that? When you take a piece of the body and separate it from the body, it might be fun to look at but it's absolutely of no functional value. If you cut your finger off and stick it on your mantelpiece, that's just nasty. You're not going to be doing any pointing, you're not going to put any rings on it. You're not going to get anything done with it except gross some people out.
Life is messy because people are messy, but Jesus is real. We need to learn how to fight within the family of God in a way that is constructive and unifying and not destructive and dividing. Because God's bride is one bride, and we have to be part of her. I think that in this day and age we need to value the local expression of it. Because I'm here to tell you, as technology continues, as people build higher fences, larger yards, as we start to get our food delivered because we can't find our way to the store, as everything is done via technology I believe that the church of Jesus Christ will be the last bastion of true relationship in the world. Where people not only come together but actually grow together. But, we need to fight for the people of God, the local expression of church, because God's passionate about the gathering of the people together.
I say all that because it's interesting that God proclaims that you can't do sacrifices anywhere else. Sacrifices are centered on the communal aspect. No "I'm going to do my sacrifices on my own because I like my way of doing it." It was, "This is the way I want you to be together, and I want you to be together." Sacrifices are to be done as a community so everybody is there, nobody is excluded.
The focus of the first law is on whoever kills an ox. The Hebrew word literally means to slaughter and to slaughter sacrificially. So the idea is you are not allowed to hold your own sacrifice anywhere in the camp or outside the camp. It has to be done within the tabernacle precept. It says in verse four, "And does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord. The guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among the people." This verse is saying if you slaughter sacrificially an animal outside of the tabernacle that not only are you now guilty of that but you should be separated from the people.
It's interesting that in the law God deals quite severely with rebellion. I've heard it, and before I got saved I used it as a reason not to believe. "How could you believe the Bible because if a child is disobedient to his parents then that child should be killed? What kind of an archaic law is that?" That seems pretty intense, right? But you know what the problem with that position is? We look at it through the lens of what seems humane, not through the lens of what holiness really means.
Think about where your Bibles begin. God gives Adam and Eve one prohibition. Sets them up in the Garden, pretty good. It would be like God set us up in a mansion surrounded by free grocery stores. He says you've just got to do a little work while you tend to the Garden. But it's already beautiful. So it's not like you've got to make a beautiful garden, it's already beautiful, just don't mess it up. He gives them one prohibition: Don't eat the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So he gives total liberty first, and then one slight stipulation. And of course what would happen if they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? "You will surely die."
The nature of holiness is that anything less than perfect holiness is a death sentence. The reason we might think this is really extreme is we're thinking about it as a human, we're not thinking about holiness. Because unholiness equals death—spiritually, eternally. Not just physically. Don't miss the fact that, if you've put your faith and trust in Jesus, we believe in a crucified, a murdered Savior. And you and I are the murderers. Jesus died because of our disobedience to our parents, or our judgmentalism. So it's not like God lightened up. Jesus received that for us. So God is severe because the wages of sin are more severe. God's grace is profound, the fact that we deserve the death sentence. Not only do we get life, we got life more abundantly.
Notice in verse seven, at the end of this first law, there is also part of the reasoning why it couldn't be anywhere else. "They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons after whom they have played the harlot, this shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations." Not only is the concern about the necessity of the temple and the tabernacle, but now it's about idol worship as well. No longer shall you sacrifice to demons. I've said it already, idol worship was a big problem. What did they do with the demons? They played the harlot. Now, that's a pretty profound biblical statement, isn't it? To update the language he called them sluts. That's what a harlot was, it was a prostitute, somebody who strayed.
He's saying, "Look, you played the prostitute with the demons." Why? Think about the imagery. Everything in the Bible when it relates to God and humanity is relational. It's all relational. The idea that Jesus is the husband and the church is the bride of Christ, the spouse. So the idea is of a covenant relationship that marriage—the marriage between a man and a woman—is a picture of. So if you are in a covenanted relationship and you stray away, that says a lot about you, doesn't it? So when God says you played the harlot, you cheated on him with these other sacrifices.
Now, you might say, "Okay, pastor, I get it all, but listen, when was the last time I went and played the harlot with demons?" Listen, in 21st century America, we have just as many idols, they just seem a little bit more sophisticated. Things like materialism, money, sexuality and sensuality, position, power. The list goes on and on. The only difference is we don't believe that they are little idols made of wood, but they may be plugged into our walls. Little numbers on a screen, movies that we watch. Listen, we have just as many idols today, they just seem less like idols.
So you've got to realize that the idols that the people worshipped back in the day were all related to their daily needs like the sun god, the gods of the harvest. They relied on the harvest for their food. So the thought process was, If we give a sacrifice to the wheat god we're going to have a huge thing of wheat, we're all going to have a huge thing of wheat, we're all going to be able to eat. We have a tendency to think we'd never do that, but we totally do that. We have idols in our hearts. Part of what the Holy Spirit is doing in each one of us is coming into our hearts like a laser and saying, "This is an idol, this is an idol."
I say all this because we are all a bunch of stinking idol worshippers, but God is not finished with us yet. We have to say, "Holy Spirit, come and shine a light on my heart and show me where I want to bow my knees that isn't you. And, Lord, when you reveal those things to me, I'll apologize and I'm going to ask you to grow me through it." As we do that, God works mightily in and through his Spirit in our lives. We have to be willing to ask the question, "Lord, what are my heart idols, what are they, and Lord, will you help me by the power of your Spirit to do battle against them?"
(Read Leviticus 17:10-12)
Life is in the blood
Now, in verses 10-12 you have the third law which is a general blood prohibition, and then the fourth law, verses 13-14, is no blood ingestion. Now, you see why this is important, because the writer of the book of Hebrews picks this up. The apostle Paul in his writings focuses on the forgiveness that comes through the blood of Jesus. The entire foundation for that theme is right here in these verses. Look at what it says, "If you eat any blood I will set my face against the person who eats blood and will cut him off from among the people." So God is saying you're not even allowed to play with the blood. You're going to find if you kill an animal you've got to drain the blood. Why? Verse 11, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement for your soul."
Why is the life of all flesh in the blood? It's a great question. If every part of your body worked well and your heart stops beating what happens? You die. Why does that happen? What is the heart's job? To pump blood throughout your body. Blood brings all different things to the different parts of your body, to your brain, everywhere, so all of it works. Without the blood going to those body parts, they die, they can't work. So everything could be great, but if blood is not getting to different organs your body stops working. So the idea that the life is in the blood is that the continual circulation of blood through your body keeps you alive.
Notice what he says, "And I have also given that blood be used to atone for your souls." If the wages of sin is death, if when you eat this you will surely die, then God is accepting sacrifices instead of our own death. When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, what died that day? The animals that they got clothed with. I hope you realize how powerful that is.
God says, "When you eat of it you will die." Adam and Eve ultimately died, but it was not an immediate death. But on that day, remember they covered themselves with fig leaves. Because they realized that they were naked and they were ashamed of their nakedness. So all of a sudden they're covering up, they were feeling a little awkward, and they were self-aware. So what did they do? They grabbed fig leaves. It doesn't sound like it would be all that comfortable. But they were trying to self-preserve. That's religion. It's man's attempt to cover their shame. But then God says, "No, no, listen, those things aren't going to last. I'm going to provide." The very first death happened that day when those animals died to make coverings. But notice, they were coverings given by God to cover shame. So the wages of sin is death, and if life is in the blood then the reason blood is given to bring us back to God is because God takes a life for a life, because that, my friends, is justice right there. A life for a life.
What is amazing about God's grace is he doesn't ask for our death, he says, "Look, I am going to provide a temporary system of animal sacrifice until I ultimately bring the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." That is why this is so important for us. Because when we see the importance of blood for atonement, you realize that when John the Baptist said, "This is the Lamb of God," when it talks about the blood of Jesus cleanses a man from all unrighteousness, this has its roots right here. Because the life of God in human flesh was in the blood of Jesus, and that's what atones for our souls. That's why we, without any reservation, proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, and him resurrected. I pray that we are unashamed to say, I am not trying to put on some fig leaves and cover my shame. I'm willing to accept God's provision on my behalf, and that's Jesus.
We should be completely unafraid to say, "I am so thankful for Jesus." We've all tried the fig leaf style with a million different things. Those fig leaves, they wear out; they don't really cover our shame. So it's important for us to be unashamedly say, "I believe in Jesus, I believe his blood forgives my sins. He died in my place. Because that's exactly what happened."
Don't drink blood
In verses 13 and 14 we are told that you are not allowed to drink blood. This is important because I know we don't see a lot of that, but that has always been a pagan ritual. The idea is that you become one with something when you drink its blood. Now, some of you young people, you guys think you're kind of cool and you go hunt and drink that blood, and think I've got bull in me. That's just gross and it's completely unhealthy for you. Because the blood carries all sorts of biological matter. Diseases, the worst diseases are passed through blood and bodily fluids, and blood's the worst of them. So there was in the day pagan rituals, they would drink blood. For the average American that's probably a repulsive, disgusting thought, but it's important. That stuff was going on back in these times. And in Jesus' time.
Don't eat meat found dead or torn by beasts
Now finally, verses 15 and 16, our fifth and final law. The fifth law is you're not allowed to eat meat that you found dead or was torn by beasts. So remember I said that food was scarce, meat was even scarcer, so if you would have come upon a dead carcass and you touch it, and find it's still a bit warm, you eat it. If you did that you need to go take a shower because that's nasty, you need to change your clothes because that's gross. And you're not allowed to be around people until evening to make sure that that stuff has time to be digested, and if you get deathly ill, everyone else doesn't have to be around it. And that's really the prohibition.
We live in a day and age and in a community where there are people without homes. They'll go through garbage cans and they'll take food and they'll just eat it. In the wealthiest culture in the world, we have that situation. You could imagine that if you found an animal, and it was dead; you're thinking, Hey, that thing probably hasn't been dead so long, I'm just going to eat it. Not just eat it raw, but I'm going to take the meat and I'm going to cook it. That is a health problem and that is something we've seen all the way through the book of Leviticus. God is concerned with the health and wellbeing of his people. So if one person partakes of something like that, it could run very, very quickly through an entire community because people lived in close quarters together. So God is concerned. We would say that this was simply good nutritional decisions, but in that culture you have to realize that this was completely novel.
I want to encourage you with this. First, God cares that you and I are healthy, physically, emotionally, spiritually, because we don't live in vacuums. We pass that stuff around. So God wants you to take care of yourself and your brothers and sisters around you by being healthy, by being safe. Also, when we think about Communion, we consider the bread, the broken body of Jesus, when we think about the cup that's symbolic of the blood of Jesus, I always want you to remember that the life is in the blood. No one took his life, he gave it for you, for me, for all who would believe. That's how much God values you. So much that God gave Jesus, who is the most precious to God, so that you and I may come boldly to God, may walk with him, and may respond to Jesus at every turn. The life is in the blood. Find it in the book of Leviticus.
Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.