Finding Life in Leviticus 19: Ten Gospel Notes for Social Justice Warriors

commandments-311202__480The Ten Commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament—once in Exodus 20; once in Deuteronomy 5. They are also explicated at least twice. After each list (Exodus 21–23 and Deuteronomy 12–25), Moses specifies and applies the Lord’s “ten words.” This means that we do not need to wait for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) to get an inspired interpretation and application of these commands. There is, within the Torah itself, explanation and application.

In fact, there is one other passage on the Ten Commandments which stands between Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Leviticus 19 Moses records the holy standards of God and makes personal application to the people of Israel. In reading this chapter recently, I took note of ten observations related to the content and context of these laws. I share them here to help us to better understand the good purposes of God’s Law, and specifically to show how many modern desires are best fulfilled by God’s all-sufficient Word.

In short, Leviticus 19 is not an archaic list of do’s and don’ts; it is actually a personal application of the Law which deals with so many of the issues Social Justice Warriors seek out. Only because these “laws” are grounded in the personal, holy love of Israel’s God, they retain their life-giving shape—something that no human set of ordinances can ever do.

Take time to read Leviticus 19 and consider how these laws give life by leading members of God’s covenant to trust in him.

1. Every command is duplicated or explicated in Leviticus 19.

In one chapter, every one of the ten commandments is either cited explicitly or by implication. For instance, the reason why Israel is commanded to obey any of the commands id because of the first command: “I am the Lord (your God)” repeats more than a dozen times, thus indicating the relationship between covenant obedience and covenant identity. Because Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egypt and made them his people, they are now obligated to fear, love, and serve him. All the other commands flow from this first command, as can be seen in the following list.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. (“I am the Lord” = vv. 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 37)
  2. You shall make no graven images. (vv. 4, 26–28, 31)
  3. You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. (vv. 36–37)
  4. You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. (vv. 3c, 23–25, 29)
  5. You shall honor your mother and father. (vv. 3b, 32)
  6. You shall not murder. (vv. 13–14, 33–34)
  7. You shall not commit adultery. (vv. 19, 29; cf. Leviticus 18)
  8. You shall not steal. (vv. 9–11a, 13)
  9. You shall not bear false witness. (vv. 11b–12, 15–16, 35–36)
  10. You shall not covet. (vv. 17, 20)

Again, some of these commands are found by way of implication. Leviticus 19 doesn’t say “don’t covet,” but it does address matters of the heart (v. 17) and give instructions regarding “property” which Exodus 20:17 lists as potential temptations for covetousness. All in all, the chapter is strikingly comprehensive in explicating the ten commandments.

2. Commands are motivated by a personal, covenantal relationship.

As already mentioned, the grounding reason for obedience is Yahweh’s personal, covenantal relationship with Israel. This chapter, like all of the Law, is not merely judicial. It is intensely personal. When Israel breaks the law, they are sinning personally against the Lawgiver. Likewise, the motivation for keeping the Law is not simply to avoid punishment; it is to love the God who first loved and redeemed them.

In this way, Leviticus 19 anticipates two New Testament realities. First, one infraction of the law breaks the whole law. As James says just before quoting from the Decalogue: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (2:10). The reason for this comprehensive rupture comes from the personal nature of the Law. Whereas modern people conceive of love apart from the law, Scripture never does. The Law is given by a personal God who gives stipulations for ongoing personal communion with the people whom he loves.

A second reality is like the first, namely that true love obeys the law. Jesus says in John 14:15, 21, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Truly, Jesus did not come up with this idea of law-keeping love. This is what covenant love is. This kind of love is engrained in the law itself. Obedience to the law is a manifestation of love, and love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8). This idea of loving obedience may seem like a New Testament creation, but it’s not. It is found in chapters like Leviticus 19.

3. Commands reinforce and specify Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.

Furthering the connection between love and law, Leviticus 19 shows how God’s redeemed people are to live in his presence. In this way, these stipulations reinforce and specify Israel’s relationship with God. In the ancient Near East, covenants often had general statutes and specific statutes. The Decalogue functions generically to give 10 memorable categories for obedience—one for every finger. Leviticus 19, by comparison, illuminates various kinds of obedience. It takes the general commands regarding honesty (“do not bear false witness”) and pushes them into the areas of commerce (19:36) and the courtroom (19:15–16).

So too for us, Leviticus 19 helps us begin to apply God’s statutes to all areas of life. It is not enough to know the commands of God, wisdom comes when we know how to apply them without adding to them or subtracting from them.

4. Worship is conjoined with social justice. (vv. 5–8 + vv. 9–11)

Careful attention to the contents of Leviticus 19 shows us that obedience to the law conjoins worship and social justice. While individuals and churches may often veer towards pure worship or social action, the Law gives instruction towards both. For instance, verses 5–8 address acceptable peace offerings and verses 9–11 follow up with the way in which Israelites harvested crops. What’s the connection?

The poor in Israel depended on gleaning in the fields after the harvest had been completed. God commanded farmers, therefore, to (1) not pick the edges of the field and (2) not the fields completely. This ensured the poor had food to eat and food to offer at the temple. With wisdom, justice, and compassion, the Lord designed an economy that promoted hard-work and mercy, liturgical worship and social justice. Perhaps by considering the Law of Moses we too might find a greater balance of these principles.

5. Commandments are lived out in a covenant family. (v. 17)

The Law of Israel was to be lived out in covenant. These commands were not simply principles for living in the world; they were stipulations for living in covenant with God and one another. Importantly, these members of the covenant were also family. As verse 17 indicates, “you shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor.” In Israel, as descendants of Abraham, someone’s neighbor was literally their brother.

We can surely apply these neighborly commands today to our physical neighbors, but even more in the church. In Christ, the church is our family and there we are to live in covenant with one another. Because the new covenant is for all nations, we should look to extend our family to our physical neighbors. But in applying the Old Testament to us, we should remember the original, covenantal context of these commands.

6. The Law is a matter of the heart. (v. 17)

In the same verse (v. 17) we learn that law-keeping was a matter of the heart. Don’t let someone tell you that the Old Testament was entirely external. The tenth commandment—“Do not covet”—aims at the heart. Likewise, God who looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), gave laws to expose the heart and to show its wickedness. While much of the Law does deal with external behaviors, God has always intended his Law to be written on the heart (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6).

7. Atonement is built into the commandments. (vv. 5–8, 20–22)

If the Law aims at the heart and exposes the hearts sinfulness, the Law also makes way for atonement. Leviticus 19 reveals this commitment. First, verses 5–8 give instruction about peace offerings, such that God’s people might enjoy fellowship with God through right sacrifices. Next, verses 20–22 speak of the forgiveness that is possible, even after sexual sin. While it is the Apostle John who says, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1–2), we can say the same thing about Moses.

While the law gives hundreds of commands for purity and holiness, it also gives hundreds of instructions for the forgiveness of sins. If we only understand the Law as a rule-giving document, we miss the gracious provision of God in the sacrificial system. Thankfully, Leviticus 19 gives us a snapshot of the whole Torah, and reminds us that atonement is built into the Law.

8. Creation is esteemed and improved by the law. (vv. 23–25)

Not only does the Law address human sin and forgiveness, what we properly call redemption; it also considers creation. Building off a principle of Sabbath, where God’s people must trust the Lord and let the land rest, Moses says in verses 23–25 that the Israelites, when they enter the land, must wait for five years before eating from the trees. Until the fourth year, the food is unclean. And in the fourth year, when the fruit is holy, it is to be dedicated the Lord as food offering.

Such instruction reminds us how God orders all of life. As Creator of all things, God desires that every part of life be lived Coram Deo (before God). Moreover, God uses every arena of life to teach us about himself. In this instance, he is teaching Israel to trust in the Lord for provision and to see food as first and foremost a gift to be received and a piece of creation whereby they can worship him. In our food-craving culture, there is much for us to learn here.

9. Rules are for the sake of blessing people.

Sadly, there is a general disinterest in laws and law-keeping today. The lie has been believed that life comes by defying the law; love finds freedom outside restraint. Leviticus 19 shows the opposite. It tells us when rules are kept, people are protected, justice is done, and all parties flourish. By applying and specifying the Decalogue, it shows a multitude of blessings, namely

  • how sinners find peace with God (vv. 5–8),
  • how the poor find genuine welfare from thoughtful land-owners (vv. 9–11),
  • how workers receive their wages (v. 13),
  • how the physically impaired are protected (v. 13),
  • how courts retain justice (v. 16),
  • how neighbors combat violence (vv. 17–18),
  • how the public destruction of sexual sin is ameliorated and the private guilt is forgiven (vv. 20–22),
  • how the land is cultivated not exploited (v. 23–25),
  • how daughters are protected (v. 29),
  • how evil is abated (vv. 26–28, 31),
  • how the elderly are honored (v. 32),
  • how refugees are well-treated (v. 33–34), and
  • how commerce is regulated with honesty (vv. 35–36).

What’s so striking about this list is how many of these laws address the hot-button topics of our day. Social Justice Warriors rage against the evils of our modern culture, but they do so without giving any place to God and his law. Tragically, any form or justice devoid of a holy God is only a human fabrication, destined to oppress someone. Only Yahweh can write a law that protects and serves all parties. And this is what we find in Leviticus 19—a set of rules which if obeyed would not constrain human freedom, but rather protect and promote human freedom.

In this way, these rules are not heavy-handed and harsh. They are a gift from God, intended by God for Israel to take and give to the world.

10. The Ten Commandments display the beauty of God’s holiness and the need for the gospel.

Altogether, if obeyed, the commands in Leviticus 19 (along with the rest of the Torah) would create a beautiful people. And at certain times in Israel’s history, we have seen glimpses of this (see e.g., 1 Kings 1–10). When joyfully obeyed, the Law of Moses makes visible God’s own holy love. In them we find compassion, justice, wisdom, patience, forgiveness, and every other beautiful manifestation of God’s holiness.

Sadly, it is one of the Devil’s chief designs to make us question the goodness of God’s law. But from a close inspection of Leviticus 19, we find a remedy to so many of the world’s problems. Even as the law is powerless to change hearts, it leads us to the God who can—this is what it means to read the law lawfully (see 1 Timothy 1:8–11).

Therefore, take up the law and read. Marvel at its wisdom, justice, and compassion. Grieve over the ways we its righteous standards. And look to the Christ who perfectly obeyed its every rule. See in him the perfect reflection of the law’s holy compassion and generous justice. Let his beauty transform the way you think of the law. And ask that the God who wrote the law on tablets of stone may write it on your heart.

This, after all, was always the grand design of the law—to make a planet full of people who love the law and sing praises to omni-benevolent Lawgiver.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds