As we begin our trek through the Book of Leviticus, some of you might be excited. You might only be excited to see what in the world this preacher is going to say from the Book of Leviticus; and not just one sermon, but a whole series!
Others of you might be very skeptical that we might not get much out of a book like Leviticus. You remember the last time you tried reading through the Bible and Leviticus is where you got stuck. Genesis had a lot of stories, Exodus had some law stuff but it still had this overarching narrative you could track with it. But Leviticus has a lot of codes, a ton of regulations, loads of things we don't quite understand or grasp. It’s very different, very foreign.
This is not new. Places like this in the Bible have always given people a difficult time. Gandhi once tried reading the Bible. He committed to reading the whole Bible and he said he got a couple books into the Bible and the only reason why he kept reading was because he committed to it. He's Gandhi, right? That's the only reason why he got through it. He said he really disliked large portions of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. He particularly disliked the Book of Numbers. I can guarantee you he didn’t like Leviticus very much either.
One of my favorite commentators said he almost stopped writing his commentary on Leviticus because it is so heavy. It’s difficult and it burdened him. He wasn't sure if he could get through it, not because he doesn't like it but because of its weight. Even if you do feel like you can understand and get through the details and the minutiae of the regulations it can be weighty.
My hope in this sermon is that by getting an introduction to Leviticus we can appreciate it as we begin to savor it one piece at a time.
So Many Laws. Are They Relevant to Us?
Now, there’s plenty of weird stuff happening in the Book of Leviticus. Especially if you haven’t studied the Bible very much. There's all kinds of different offerings—you’re not sure why there has to be a burnt offering and then a grain offering. Why are there so many different rules for priests? If I'm not a priest, why am I even reading this? You’re not sure why crickets are okay to eat and lizards are not okay to eat. And the text doesn’t tell you. It tells you how to identify them, it tells you how many joints to count, it tells you whether an insect is edible.
Then you see a long list of things that you might find too obvious. Don't eat a mouse, don't eat a chameleon. Now this stuff is taking up precious real estate on the pages of God's holy inspired Scripture. The Bible has a limited word count and we’re seeing things like, “Don't eat a gecko.” I mean what do you do with that? If you pause there for your daily devotional time, how do you live in response to a verse that tells you it’s okay to eat grasshoppers? It tells you don’t shave your beard, it tells you don’t get tattoos. What do you do with that stuff?
What’s more, those laws are right next to other laws to which we would say, “Well of course they’re applicable: “Love your neighbor.” What’s applicable and what’s not? Over the years people have been a little confused as to how to categorize these things. Here is one approach that is popular.
We can divide the laws of the Old Testament into three groups: civil laws, ceremonial laws, and moral laws. The civil laws address how the people of Israel should act as a nation. The ceremonial laws cover the priestly stuff—the garments, the tents, the tabernacle, and all of those regulations. Then of course the moral laws would be like “love your neighbor” and “don’t kill them” and things like that.
Those three distinctions are used to say that the moral laws carry over—obviously you shouldn’t kill people and you should be faithful to your wife. But you don’t have to worry about your garments, you don’t have to worry about tattoos, don’t worry about shaving your beard. Don’t worry about those, because those are ceremonial or those are civil.
But these distinctions don’t hold up all that well. First of all, the Bible doesn’t lay out the laws in those three groups. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which one is civil. Is it civil to murder somebody? Or is that moral? Where is it civil and where is it moral? It’s hard to discern which laws fit into which category.
Then you have verses in the New Testament like 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is God-breathed and profitable.” So somehow that verse about not eating geckos is profitable to you. All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable not just for the original readers, but to New Testament readers, which is Paul’s point in that chapter.
So, we need to figure out what to do with Leviticus. We don’t want to divide them in such a way that we only take the ones we think still apply to today. We need to figure out how to respond to those that accuse us for hypocrisy: that we listen to the laws about sexuality, but we don’t listen to the laws about beards and tattoos, geckos and crickets. They will tell you that you cherry-pick Scripture. That you only want to use the verses from Leviticus that tell me how to live my life, but you don’t want to use the other verses in Leviticus that tell you how to live your life too. What do you do with that? How do you pick and choose? Are we picking and choosing? What’s happening?
We see these laws are supposed to be relevant. Our problem is we are not sure how they are relevant.
Context of Leviticus
I want us to begin with the first verse to orient us to how we should even approach the Book of Leviticus, to try to get through some of the confusion. But first we need to understand where we are.
Not only does Leviticus follow the Book of Exodus canonically, in the order of how the books are in the Bible, but it follows it chronologically as well. The Book of Exodus has just happened, and now Leviticus is given to us in light of that. Here’s how it starts: “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.”
The Book of Leviticus is about how God is going to relate to these people from this tent. You’ll recall from the Book of Exodus that the tent or tabernacle was how God was setting up his dwelling place. In Genesis they were with God in the Garden, they sinned, he expelled them from the Garden to communicate: “You cannot be in my sacred presence, you cannot be in my holy space.”
Now in Exodus God says that he is going to come over into your space. He is the missionary God. He takes the initiative to establish a relationship with them, even though they are alienated from him. The tent is God’s mission to establish a relationship with his people who are estranged.
So, the Book of Leviticus picks up on that idea of the tent where God establishes himself and it’s God telling Moses,
I am here. I am here to dwell with the people that are not able to have me. For this relationship to work there are going to have to be some regulations—I am not going to hang out in this tent while you all do whatever you want. The relationship has some guidelines to it. There are parameters to this relationship for me to give you the privilege of my being in this tent among you, for me to tabernacle among you. This relationship has to be regulated.
This is why the whole rest of the Book of Leviticus is replete with regulations.
The context is God establishing his relationship with his people. The first word of the first verse in the Hebrew is called. That’s the title of the book in Hebrew: Vayikra. “And he (God) called out.”
What Is God Communicating to Me?
It is this calling that the book is about. God called Moses and explains these regulations. He is calling his people to live a regulated life. He is calling his people to live according to rules, to be rule-keepers. Because you cannot think that whatever feels good to you in the moment is okay with God. Not necessarily. Regulation is needed for God to dwell among his people.
If we go to the Book of Leviticus for quick tips on how to live an energized life, Leviticus is going to be boring. If we come to the Book of Leviticus saying, “Let me see, what’s relevant to my life right now, my pressing desires,” then we’ve already inverted the purpose of Leviticus. The very purpose of Leviticus is to get us to live a God-centered life not an us-centered life.
We should approach the Book of Leviticus asking, “How am I relevant to God?” That’s different. It doesn’t mean that you don’t matter. It doesn’t mean you’re not important. Of course, you’re important to God’s plan. He would not be tabernacling among his people if the relationship wasn’t important to him. But it is important to him . He is the center of the relationship; we are not the center of the relationship.
So, when I read a verse about shaving beards or I read a verse about how wide or long the tabernacle should be back in Exodus and I see that as irrelevant, that’s my problem not God’s problem. If I don’t see how Leviticus is relevant because all I care about is what’s in front of me right now, what’s on my calendar, my goals, my cares—then I’d probably leave Leviticus on the shelf, when I realize it doesn’t really do that for me.
For Leviticus to be important to me I have to begin by asking, “What does God want to communicate to me? Does it have abiding relevance?” I need to come to Leviticus on God’s terms not on my terms. Let’s not disfavor a Book of the Bible, because we don’t see how fast we can squeeze relevance out of it. Some books ask you to linger, some books ask you to sit down for a minute before you get the deeper truth.
Parents come to realize there are some things you can communicate to your kids while you’re driving along the highway with music playing. But there are some things that demand you pull over. You’ve got something to say and you need to stop the car to look them in the face to say it. That is the Book of Leviticus.
Yes, it takes work, it takes time, it takes some grappling with the text. Good! Why is it important? Because God is calling you to something. That is why it is important. He is the center and he calls out because he needs us to know some things that make our relationship with him possible.
Leviticus is telling us through the revealing of God’s laws, that God is saying, “I am here. Here is how you live if you are going to live in my presence. If you are going to live as my neighbor, if I am dwelling among you, if you are going to have a relationship with me then here is how you should live.” The implication is, this is what I am like and therefore here is what you should be like.
Leviticus is a window into who God is. What does he like? What does he not like? What does he hate? What does he love? What will he not tolerate? What makes him clap and say, “YES!” and what makes him go, “No, stop that?” How do we know? Rules! His rules show that.
God’s Rules Tell Us What God Is Like
What if you invited me over to your house and I walked in and asked, “What are the top 10 rules in this house?” Or what if somebody asked your kids, “What are the top five rules right off the top your head that mom and dad say over and over again?” They either are the rules that most reflect what mom and dad emphasize or they’re the rules that most reflect what the children tend to disregard prompting the need to constantly repeat them. Those are the top rules they are going to remember. But it is one of the two.
Rules reflect the rule-maker’s attitudes, thoughts, and things that the rule-maker favors. Rules also reflect the misalignment that we tend to have and the corrections that we constantly need. Without those rules, we would veer off too easily, too predictably. If we didn’t have a misalignment on those things the rules wouldn’t be necessary.
God’s laws reflect what God wants, what he desires, and what he does not want, what he does not favor; which is also a reflection on where we tend to stray. Leviticus reveals that God is a certain kind of God.
It gives us a little more insight into why, in Exodus 20, we are told that God’s people are commanded to not fashion an image that is supposedly going to represent God. Which is a different commandment than don't worship another god. The first commandment is, “Don't worship another god.” The second commandment is, “Don’t worship any god including Me in the form of an image. I’m not a calf. I am not a frog. I’m not a pole. I’m not a flag. Don’t try to illustrate me, don’t try to dumb me down into a picture and make me into what you want me to look like. I am. No representations suffice. They will always be misrepresentation.”
What we get from Leviticus is God is shaping our minds, telling us what God looks like. Since, we are not allowed to shape him into what we want him to look like, God is giving us the shape. He's giving us his shape through his rules and his regulations.
God is not coming up with these things on a whim. He’s very serious about this. We serve a fiery, fierce God. We serve a God that is clear about holiness and that he is set apart. That is what “holy” means: He is set apart. He is unique. He is different, he is not like us. He is not mundane. He is very much other. We can’t relate to him like he is one of us.
I’m sure Jesus was very relatable in many ways. But when we have t-shirts with his teeth gleaming and thumbs up and he’s on a skateboard—for me that goes a little bit beyond my comfort level because Jesus is the exact representation of this weighty, glorious God. When you open the Book of Revelation, Jesus is the one exacting righteous wrath on God’s enemies. He’s not riding a skateboard, he’s riding a horse, he’s wielding a sword, and he’s cutting his enemies down. He is fierce with his fiery eyes and blood-soaked robe.
There is the first step in not making God into our own image or the image that we want God to be. Rather, we need to let God be who he is and figure out how we are supposed to relate to this hallowed, glorious God.
Thankfully, you don’t have to wait to get into the New Testament to discover that God is also a gracious God. He is a merciful God. He is a patient, longsuffering God.
How do we know that here in Leviticus? The fact that he’s even tenting among them. The fact that he knows they are going to break these rules. He still provides the rules. He sets up a priesthood that would ultimately fail, until Jesus. But he does it, because he wants to establish this relationship. He’s the initiator. We didn’t beg him into it. If God didn’t take the first step there would be no steps.
Abraham wasn’t looking for God. God plucked Abraham out of nowhere. From the very beginning, one of the things we see revealed about God is the order in which the relationship is established. God establishes the relationship first, then he gives us the responsibilities. God rescues first, then he makes clear the requirements. Not the other way around. He doesn’t say, “Hey, here’s what's required of you, let’s see what you’ve got, then I'll consider rescuing you out of Egypt.” He rescued them out of Egypt, then gave them the law, just like he called Abraham and then told Abraham to go.
God doesn’t even tell Abraham where he is going to go yet. “Abram, you’re going to follow me.” “Okay Lord, I’m following you.” “Great, here are the rules.”
Relationship, then requirements; rescue, then rules. That’s always been the pattern. Grace precedes obedience. Obedience, does not give you grace. There are a lot of clear New Testament verses on that. But you don't have to wait to get there for it, because that's the Book of Leviticus.
If you were to read the Bible from Genesis 1:1 all the way to Leviticus 1:1 you would go almost 70 chapters before you get to a code of law. That is Exodus 20. What do you have all the way up to Exodus 20? A big narrative where God establishes his relationship with a people that abandoned him. God establishes grace first, then there’s regulations.
We often think of the Old Testament as a time when we needed rules in order to earn God. No, the rules were put in place for people already in relationship with God. Rule-keeping was never about earning a relationship with God. Rule-keeping was always a result of it and that is true today.
As we walk through the Book of Leviticus, you are going to go, “Wow, we're going over a lot of rules and talking a lot about holiness. Are we being legalistic?” No, legalism is going around grace. But grace that doesn’t produce obedience, that’s cheap grace and it doesn’t exist. That’s not God’s grace. God’s grace frees us up to start living for him when we couldn’t before.
So, are we about rule-keeping? Yes. If there’s a book in the Bible that is all about rules that God establishes, should we be interested? Yes, especially if you have been rescued by grace, because now they are especially relevant to you.
Christopher Wright says, “When you read through the Old Testament you discover that worship is primarily a response to God, not a negotiation.” So, as we read through the Book of Leviticus we will see this as a theme, this call to holiness. God is a certain way and the way God is has implications for the way we should be.
One of our theme verses for this study will be Leviticus 19:2. It says, “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’”
There it is, there is the pattern. “I am a certain way so you should be a certain way. You need to live a certain way. Why? Because I am that certain way.” God is not inventing rules to make things difficult for you. God’s rules are a reflection of what he is like. If you are going to be in a relationship with him, you have to conform to him. He is not going to conform to us.
This means all these rules are relevant. We need them to image him. We are becoming little mirrors of him. We are supposed to reflect what he’s like. That was why we were created in the beginning—created in his image. We cannot be that image, so Jesus had to come be that exact image for us and he invites us into this relationship, and we are little-by-little made into Christ-reflecting, God-exalting mirrors. Our gunk is chipped away, and the glass is polished to more and more reflect what God is like and not what I want him to be like.
So why should we be concerned with holiness? Because God is holy. He is holy and his holiness demands our holiness.
God’s Laws Leads Us to Worship and Protect Us
What should be our response to Leviticus? Our response to Leviticus is God-centeredness. Conformity. Obedience. Our response to God is worship and we do that together—as we go through Leviticus, you’ll notice the emphasis on communal worship. We approach him together. That doesn’t mean you don’t have an individual identity in Christ; it means that individual identity should not be siphoned off from the gathering. The focus of the gathering is God’s holiness and our conformity to him. God’s laws are given to us because he loves us. He wants a relationship with us. For the relationship to work we need to live a certain way, so he provides rules.
Why does a professor lay out specific rules in the course syllabus? Why does a squadron commander regulate what Air Force pilots can and cannot do? Why should an executive chef care about how the line cooks operate? Hopefully, it’s because they care not just about the final product but that their subordinates do what’s best, safest, and most effective.
Rules feel burdensome but they limit damaging mistakes that pose threats to everyone. If the student fails a course, they wasted money or possibly put their degree in danger. If a pilot disregards regulations, lives can be lost. When cooks mishandle food, people get sick. When we are on the receiving end of rules, it might take us awhile to recognize why those rules are important. But they are. If God is our Father, and he's loving, of course there has to be rules. If there weren't any rules, he would be unloving.
Imagine if God said, “I'm going to dwell with you, but you need to do things my way, or I can't be with you and the relationship is broken.” “Well, how do we do things your way?” “Figure it out.”
No, he is not a passive-aggressive God. He is not crossing his arms hoping that you guess what’s bothering him. He wants you to know. Leviticus is God saying, “Here’s what it is, here is what I want. This is what is required.” He puts laws in place to insulate us and protect us from waywardness and corruption and doesn’t leave us guessing as to what those are.
Now, if God established laws that reveal to us what he is like, so that we know what we’re to be like, then how can Leviticus possibly be irrelevant to us? That makes Leviticus very relevant. It’s going to be hard work, like the lizard verses. I know it. But we know it’s relevant. We know why it is important. So, we dig in and we do our best. We may not be able to figure out every single answer to every question. But we can understand the principle that underlies what God is getting at in those verses. God gives us grace so that we can obey. When we are saved by grace we want to live holy lives unto God, and his rules help guide us.
Leviticus Projects Christ
If you read Leviticus thinking, I’m going to live a holy life, let’s do this, it’s not going last. You probably won't even finish getting through the Book of Leviticus. We cannot bear the weight of the law because we can't do it on our own. It is only by virtue of our union with Christ that we can respond to it rightly. Christ must be the context here.
Let’s look at four key verses that will help us read Leviticus through our New Testament eyes.
Law Is a Tutor
First up is Galatians 3:24, where Paul refers to the law as a guardian. When we think “guardian,” we might think someone standing at the gate, like an armed soldier. But that’s not what Paul means. His use is more like, if a parent isn’t around and the child is taken care of by a legal guardian. It’s more like a teacher or tutor. Someone that teaches the child the ABC’s, how to walk, how to tie their shoes. They’re not supposed to be around forever. Eventually that child is supposed to know how to walk, to know how to tie shoes, know how to read, how to go apply for a job, and all these different things that an adult should know how to do.
That's Paul’s point in Galatians 3. The law was like a tutor. The tutor says,
Hey, you don't know what God is like. Besides obvious things like his divine nature and power, you can’t really know God’s heart. Without guidance, the things that you think are right about him probably aren’t. The things you think are right to do are wrong. You get things backwards because your heart is messed up.
Now, aside from changing your heart, what can we do? We can build scaffolding around you to control your mess. And as we move you along, you’re starting to learn, “Oh God likes this, Oh, he doesn’t like that.” I am going to teach you.
We wonder why the law contains so many details, down to shaving and how to weave garments appropriately. Why were they counting joints on insects? Well, the tutor can’t just say, “Eat good.” Because a messed-up heart doesn’t know what “good” is. So, the law says, “Shave like this, keep your skin clean, wash yourself.”
Leviticus gets into the nitty gritty details because they’re hearts couldn’t conform. God had to reveal it in greater detail so that they could say, “Okay here’s the scaffolding that shows us Yahweh-likeness. Here’s the guardian that walks us through.” That was the law as tutor.
Now Paul is saying, we don’t need the guardian anymore, because we have Christ. He is not saying the law is irrelevant. He is saying now in Christ we see what the guardian was getting us to: maturity in Christ.
As kids we perhaps hated to clean our rooms or brush our teeth, we did it because those were the rules. Now as adults we have outgrown the rules—which doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned them, it means we live them out because we understand what they are getting at. We clean up and brush teeth for health and hygiene, not merely because mom said so. But mom still did say so and we appreciate it because we understand why.
In Christ we’ve outgrown the law, but we haven’t overthrown the law.
Jesus Fulfills the Law
This is why Matthew 5:17 is also an important verse. Jesus didn’t say, “I came to make you completely forgot about the law,” but “I came to fulfill it.” He came to fulfill it, not abolish it. We sometimes view things as if Jesus came on the scene like:
That law stuff, that was junk. Obviously, that was dumb. I don't know why the Father even tried that stupid system. This is relationship 2.0! This is the upgrade to your system. Forget the other system this is totally new!
No, Jesus is saying:
All that the law was pointing to, I’m it. All that the law was preparing you for, here I am. All that you couldn’t do under the law I’m doing. All that the law was trying to get you to do, I’m fulling it. I’m accomplishing it.”
That is far from saying, “Take the first half of your Bible and chuck it.”
Christ Is the Goal of the Law
Third, we have Romans 10:4. Paul tells his readers in Rome, that Christ is the goal of the law. He is the end of the law, the ultimate purpose of the law. As per Galatians 3, the law was a necessary guardian, a tutor, a nanny. To get us to that point where we're all grown up now. We know Christ. He was the ultimate purpose of the law the entire time.
Law Points to Worship
Finally, here’s a verse I want you to turn to: Romans 12:1-2. When I thought of this passage this week I thought, This is exactly Leviticus.
(Read Rom. 12:1-2)
You can take those two verses and put it right at the top of Leviticus. When you read through the Bible in a year, or you decide to be brave and do your devotionals in Leviticus for a while, if that verse is at the top it’s going to put it in context for you.
Paul, from Romans 12 to the end of the book, is telling the church how to live. And the reason why he waited until chapter 12 to start telling them how to live is because the first 11 chapters of Romans is setting it up with the gospel. We are sinful and rightly under condemnation. But what does God do about it? The gospel is what he does about it.
God establishes his relationship with us through mercy. So this is the transition verse. He’s saying, “Now I’m going to appeal to you to live holy lives in response to the first 11 chapters. The first 11 chapters made clear how you are in a relationship with God by his mercies.” Now look at 12:1. “Therefore,” he is looking back, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God.” Now he’s telling us what to do in light of who God is and what he’s done. What is our response? “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
We going to see a lot of sacrifice in Leviticus. We’re so far removed from it. But sacrifices were harsh reminders of the constant cost of mercy and grace. Paul is using that imagery to say, “We’re the living sacrifice now. Live in the light of the sacrifice that God has done for you in Jesus Christ and live holy lives because of it.”
Our bodies are a living sacrifice now. Not a dead sacrifice on an altar, but we get to live our sacrifice. And it is holy, and acceptable to God. That is the orientation of our life. Not what is fun, not what is easy. What is holy and acceptable to God, that is rule number one. That is your spiritual worship. Worship is what Leviticus is all about.
Then you get to Romans 12:2, the conformity piece. “Do not be conformed to this world.” That world is going to suck you into its own pattern. Don’t let it! “But be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” How do I get transformed by the renewal of my mind and why do I do that? So “that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
You want to live a holy life. How do you live it? You discern what God wants, what is acceptable to him, what he sees as perfect. The world may say, “No, no, this is perfect over here,” don’t listen to that. Do what God approves. Do what God wants. We can only do that in view of his mercy.
If you don’t know Jesus, you can’t do it. You’re not trying to live a life of sacrifice in view of God’s mercies. You’re trying to live a life of sacrifice in view of your ability to do it. But the ability is not there, not really, so therefore you can’t.
However, if you know Christ, if you have repented and placed your faith wholly on Christ then you understand the mercies that have gotten you to this point. This point is not a time to check out. This point is not a time to be lazy. This point is not a time to put the rest of your relationship with Christ on cruise control. Now is the time to get to work. Now it’s time to live holy lives.
As we move through the Book of Leviticus, it is going to make us uncomfortable at points. Because it’s calling us to holiness and we don’t like holiness. We like to protect our pursuits and the things that we want to do. We don’t want God to expose it or call it into light. The things that we do that displease him, he wants us to stop doing them. We might think we’re mitigating the damage by keeping it private. You are not going to mitigate damage by keeping anything private because it’s damaging you. God takes sin seriously because he knows what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
We are going to read through Leviticus and wonder why God is so harsh, so exacting, so demanding. Yes, it’s demanding. Because he is holy. We want to take that seriously.
But we are not without help. Let’s approach Leviticus asking,
God we want help to understand. I don't see my unholiness sometimes. I need you to reveal it to me. Then give me the heart to follow through when I see it. Is something not pleasing to you? Give me what I need to stop doing it. Is this what is pleasing to you? Give me the grace to live it. I'm often so tired and weak. I don't feel like I have the energy to pursue holiness. Would you give me the strength to do it? By your mercy that is available to me in Jesus Christ, would you give me the power to do it? I want to be a living sacrifice.
My prayer is that this ancient Book of Leviticus will move us along in that direction. The renewal of our minds to discern what is pleasing and acceptable to God. God’s holiness demands ours. We can live it through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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).