What is the Bible about?
Well, if you are reading through the Bible this year, during the month of February, the Bible is all about food laws, leprosy inspections, and instructions about bodily discharges. Exciting stuff!
For twenty-first century readers, understanding the significance of Leviticus, the book of the Bible where these things are found, can be difficult. In fact, I am sure the book of Leviticus has been the rocky coast on which many Bible-reading plans have crashed. Nevertheless, the book plays an important role in the life of the Christian, even as it played an important role in the lives of Ancient Israelites. Granted, we live in a different redemptive era (post-Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection/Ascension/Pentecost), but the truth is, to understand any of these NT events requires a general familiarity with the Levitical laws.
So, with the aim of reading the Bible better, I want to suggest 10 things to keep in mind as you read Leviticus, 10 things that you may find helpful as you make your way through the Bible in 2010.
- Pray. Ask God to help you understand his Word. The same Holy Spirit who dwells in you, if you are a believer, inspired these words. He will guide you into all truth, just the Bible promises (John 16:13; 1 John 2:27). He illumines our eyes and he bears witness to Christ and he will show you how Leviticus points to Jesus, if you will ask him (and then read).
- Remember that this is God’s word. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful. The truth about Leviticus is: IT IS USEFUL. You just have to sort out how. While it is true that not all sections of the Bible carry the same kind of “devotional punch””–compare Leviticus 1-7 with Isaiah 53–every word is inspired by God and necessary to complete his perfect revelation. Moreover, every word carries precious truth that believers need, which leads to our next point.
- Recall that all Scripture is inter-connected. Thus, a passage like Isaiah 53 with it address of sin, its sacrificial imagery and intercessory prayer requires the background that Leviticus provides. Without Leviticus, Isaiah 53 is almost unintelligible. In the NT, Leviticus is sixth on the list of books quoted by NT authors. Excise Leviticus from the Bible, or your Bible reading, and it is impossible to understand what Jesus is saying when the Greatest Commandment includes loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). See also Rom 10:5’s use of Lev. 18:5, and 1 Peter 1:16 quotation of Leviticus 19:2). Practically speaking, if reading Leviticus fails to stir your soul, read a chapter or two and then turn to Hebrews to see the fulfillment of Leviticus in Christ.
- Recognize the symbolism. The book of Leviticus is filled with symbolism. God’s OT instructions are physical, tangible, and visible means of introducing himself to his people. These sacrifices picture the kind of penalty sin requires, just as they demonstrate the kind of love that God has in providing a means of atonement and reconciliation. In other words, read Leviticus typologically, looking for the types that find their antitype (i.e. fulfillment) in Jesus.
- Read with Christ in view. Many if not most of these symbols prefigure the life and death of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the law that Christ fulfills, the cross on which Jesus bleeds, and the Spirit that he pours out at Pentecost all find significant explanation in Leviticus. If you want to know more about the gospel, the laws of Leviticus are a good instructor.
- Look for themes. There are tremendous gospel themes running through Leviticus. Take out a pen or a colored pencil (if you are into that) and mark up the places where these themes irrupt. Tomorrow I will list a number of helpful themes to pick up, but for now look for things ‘atonement,’ ‘blood,’ ‘holiness,’ the work of the ‘priest.’ By keeping your eyes open (figuratively) looking for themes, it will help you keep your eyes open (literally) when you read through this unfamiliar book.
- Look for purpose statements. For instance, Leviticus 15:31 concludes a long section on cleanliness laws saying, “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” Here Moses records the YHWH’s reason for the meticulous laws about bodily discharges and other matters of cleanliness. By noticing these purpose statements, you can discern why God requires Israel to do all these things. (See also Leviticus 9:6, 22-24; 11:46-47).
- Read with imagination. As you read about the sacrifices, imagine what that must have looked like, sounded like, smelled like. Our worship services today are very, very sanitary. Even the food we eat at the Lord’s Supper is package so that we do not stain the carpets or our clothes. This is entirely different from the OT> In in the OT, without blood stains, the people would have perished. So read with imagination as you encounter the elaborate descriptions.
- Read with others. Talk about what you are reading with others in your church. Ask your pastor or Sunday School teacher to teach through the Bible. Look for ways to walk through the Bible together. Reading the Bible is personal, but it should never be private. Recruit others to read with you.
- Invest in a Study Bible. As you read Leviticus or any other book of the Bible, you will inevitably have questions. Or at least, you should. Is the leprosy described in Leviticus the same as today’s leprosy? (No). Why is it always a male animal that is sacrificed? My personal suggestion is the ESV Study Bible. That is what I read, and it has many, many helps for discerning the historical and cultural significance of what I am reading.
- Read in small doses and with other books of the Bible. Okay, so I said ten, but here is one more. Like the Big Ten which has eleven schools, so our list includes an extra idea for those who still struggle. If all else fails, read Leviticus in small doses, maybe even in smaller doses than your Bible reading plan suggests. If it takes 13 months to read the Bible, that’s okay. The point is that you are enriched by God’s life-giving word. Even if you have to treat Leviticus like eating vegetables–mixing it in with other foods or in small portions–the point is that you take God at his word and benefits from this book, because at the end of the day it will help you know and love Jesus Christ more for the high priest that he is and the sacrfice that he made.
These are just a few suggestions to aid your reading of this important book. I hope you see that the gospel of Jesus Christ depends on our understanding of God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, the need of sacrifice and atonement, and the work of a life-giving high priest; and that no book is better to teach you about these things than Leviticus.
If you have other suggestions on reading this book, please do share.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss