On Reading Leviticus: Four Reading Strategies for This Glorious Book

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

With a new month (March) comes a new book in the Via Emmaus Reading Plan. This year I am reading Track 1 and listening to Track 3. And for those who are reading along this plan, or for those who are interested in reading Leviticus—“The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)Ever Read”—I offer this reading strategy with resources.

This year, we have read Genesis and Exodus, and now we come to Leviticus, which is arguably the centerpiece of the whole Pentateuch. As I have taught in this Bible Study, borrowing from the work of Michael Morales (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?) who cites many others, the book of Leviticus is the literary center and high point of the Pentateuch. Thematically, we might capture it this way:

Genesis begins in Eden, the Garden of God and ends in Egypt, a place of exile and death;

Exodus moves from Egypt through the wilderness to Sinai;

Leviticus is entirely written at Sinai;

Numbers moves from Sinai through the wilderness to the Promised Land (i.e., Israel sits poised to enter the land at the end of the book);

Deuteronomy prepares the people to move from exile in the wilderness into the Garden of God, the land of Canaan.

From this locational/thematic chiasm (and there are other literary clues that indicate an intentional shaping of the Pentateuch), we see that Leviticus is not a book we must “get through.” In the Pentateuch, it is the book we must “get to.”

We need Leviticus, so that we might learn what it takes to dwell near to God. This month, as we read Leviticus, we need to consider how this book gives us more than a detailed list of instructions for the priests of Israel. It invites us to approach a holy God and to do so through the finished work of Christ—the One who fulfills all the requirements of the Levitical system of sacrifice. In what follows I will offer a handful of resources to help you read this book, starting with four reading strategies for Leviticus. Continue reading

Seeing Leviticus with New Eyes: Understanding the Pollution of Sin and the Need for Sacrifice

steve-sharp-DmM6NQcavuI-unsplashOn Tuesday’s nights I teach a class on Leviticus, which I have affectionately entitled, “Leviticus: The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)ever Read). If you are interested in learning a thing or two about this vitally important book and how it teaches us about Christ, the gospel, and the logic of God’s atonement, you can find the lessons here

This week, as we considered the Reparation Offering—which if you will listen has some application for considering the modern question of reparations—I began with a discussion on the difference between this offering and the Purification Offering. On that point, I found the following explanation of sin as pollution helpful. In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham observes the way Moderns fail to understand the cultic idea of sin and pollution. This is one of many reasons why we struggle to understand Leviticus. But once we understand how Israel’s sin defiled the tabernacle and its various sections (i.e., the altar, the holy place, and the holy of holies), we begin to understand what the sacrifices did. This understanding of the sacrificial system, in turn, helps understand what Christ did in his atoning sacrifice, as well as what it means that Jesus is our propitiation.

Again, this is why we are looking at Leviticus. And to help us understand that book and the whole concept of sacrificial worship and atonement for our sin, I share these reflections from Gordon Wenham. Continue reading

Reading Leviticus Wisely: Moving from Israel’s Sacrifices to Christ without Allegory or Pure Historicism

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable . . .”
2 Timothy 3:16

This is what Paul says when speaking to Timothy about the origin of his faith, and this profitability is true for all parts of Scripture, including Leviticus. Yet, for Leviticus to be profitable, one must avoid pure historical interpretation, an approach to Leviticus that only discerns what priests did back then and what they should do today if the tabernacle was reconstructed and the old covenant were re-enacted. Similarly, for Leviticus to be profitable, one must avoid wild allegory, where every facet of the sacrifice becomes a token of some gospel truth.

Between these two poles, one must deal with the historical context of the book and yet see how the book draws us into a sacrificial system that leads us to Christ. Indeed, because Leviticus reveals to the “pattern” (typos) of worship that God commanded at Sinai (see Exodus 25:40), it is appropriate and necessary to see how Leviticus outlines a series of shadows (types) that find their substance in Christ (cf. Heb. 10:1). Continue reading

What Can We Learn from God’s Quarantine Laws? Four Truths for Today from Leviticus 13–15

cdc-jRI67r_u-Jg-unsplashSo here we are, watching COVID-restrictions fall into place like dominoes, and many of us are wondering if these are the best protocols or not. Since around March of this year, they have become a “normal” part of life in our state and around the world. Yet, it is worth asking, are they effective? Are they just? Where did they come from? Will they work this time? And what if anything does Scripture say about quarantines?

Earlier this week, I pointed to an article by Brian Tabb on a biblical view of diseases. If you haven’t read that, you should. Today, I want to follow up with a summary of an article from Old Testament scholar, Roy Gane. Gane has written extensively on the Old Testament, but especially on Leviticus and its purification laws. More recently, in response to COVID-19, he has written up a short piece (“God’s Guidance for Controlling Contagions“) outlining things we can learn from the Law of Moses regarding quarantine laws today. And it’s this piece that I want to consider today. Continue reading

‘Sin Crouching at the Door’ or ‘A Sin Offering at the Gate’: Michael Morales on Genesis 4:7

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If you do well, will you not be accepted?
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.
Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
— Genesis 4:7 —

In one of the best books I read last year—a biblical theology of Leviticus—Michael Morales (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?offers an alternative reading to Genesis 4:7. Actually, he recalls a traditional reading found in commentators like Adam Clarke (1762–1832), Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), Young’s Literal Translation (1862), Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (1877), and Matthew Henry (1662–1714) (p. 57n51).

Commenting on the way sin crouches at the door, he argues that the language could also be render “sin offering,” and that there is good reason for seeing the door, or gate, is the place where the sons of Adam brought their sin offerings—or, should have brought their sin offerings.

I appreciate this interpretation as it pays careful attention to the cultic themes of Genesis (i.e., temple, sacrifice, priesthood) and the way it explains in more objective terms why Cain’s offering is rejected and Abel’s is accepted. The reason? The former rejected God’s Word and Gods’ way; he brought a sacrifice of his own choosing, rather than the sin offering which God prescribed. Meanwhile, Abel brought a offering which responded to God’s Word in faith and sought atonement for his sin.

Read in the context of Moses’s five books, this seems like a superior interpretation, as Morales explains further. Continue reading

Adam as Prophet, Priest and King, and the Bible as the Story of ‘Three Sons’

leviticusWhat has been the best book you have read in 2018? For me, it has been a 300+ page study on Leviticus. Yes, Leviticus!

In Who Shall Ascend the Hill of the Lord? A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus, Michael L. Morales gives the reader a biblical feast. From considering the literary shape of the Pentateuch to the goal of the Yom Kippur (The Day of the Lord), from considering the typology of the tabernacle to the priestly role of Adam, Morales’ book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the system of mediation outlined in the books of Moses.

Even more, the whole book helps the Bible student to learn how to read the Bible and to understand God’s covenantal purposes for bringing his people into his presence. For these reasons, I would highly recommend this book. For now, let me share a quotation that demonstrates the richness of his study.

Adam as Prophet, Priest and King, and the Bible as the Story of Three Sons

Making a bevy of intra-biblical connections, Morales explains how Adam functioned as a prophet, priest, and king. Moreover, he explains how the whole story of the Bible can be explained along the lines of God’s Son—from Adam to Israel to Christ.

Without comment, I will share his words. I pray they stir up your affections for God as much as they did me.

Davidic kingship, then, is (1) rooted in YHWH’s kingship and (2) an inheritance of Adam’s roles as son of God. In reality, all three offices of anointing (prophets, priests, and kings) possess an Adamic role, and are oriented by the mountain of God. Indeed, as to the Adamic role, it is possible to comprehend the progress of redemptive history according to what we may call ‘God’s three sons’:

  • Adam was the first firstborn, who functioned as prophet, priest, and king.
  • Secondly, God created a corporate firstborn son, Israel. (Due to humanity’s estate of sin and misery there was a separation of powers, as it were, with the distribution of the offices of prophet, priest and king among the members of Israel distinctly.)
  • Finally, as the last Adam and true Israel, the Son of God dawned, as prophet, priest and king, now conforming humanity to himself as the image and likeness of God.

As to the offices being oriented by the mountain of God, we have already observed in a previous chapter how the high priest’s office is focused upon and validated by his annual entrance into the summit of the architectural mountain of God, the holy of holies, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Similarly, kings were enthroned upon God’s holy mountain, and prophets were sent from it. The king, at his coronation, was installed upon God’s holy mountain, reigning from the earthly Zion as a reflection of YHWH’s reign from the heavenly Zion (Ps. 2). And to become a servant of YHWH, a prophet had first to encounter him at the mountain of God and then be sent forth from it as a messenger (Isa. 6; Exod. 3:1-10). Since all three offices are cultic, functioning distinctly for the same divine goal, one may see how kingship in ancient Israel accorded with what I have argued to be the Pentateuch’s major theme: the Davidic king reigned to shepherd humanity to the house of God upon the mountain of God. (Who Shall Ascend the Hill of the Lord?, 235–36. Bullet points mine.)

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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. Continue reading

From Capital Punishment to Christ’s Propitiation: What Leviticus 20:13 Means for Christians Today

 

orlando-tragedy

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, our summer intern (Timothy Cox) and I drew up a biblical response for our church. Our hopes were to clarify the differences between the Bible and the teachings of Islam. Although one Bible verse (Leviticus 20:13), taken out of context, calls for the death of gays and lesbians, Christians should never accept this as a blanket endorsement for the violence we witnessed in Orlando. Rather, Christians must defend the poor and oppressed without running roughshod over the Bible. The fulfillment of the law is love (Romans 13:8), and thus as the sacrificial love of Christ constrains us to share the gospel of grace and truth with a lost and dying world, so it compels us to rightly interpret Scripture so that we may be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have in the gospel. That was the intention behind this article. 

May God use these words to clarify what Scripture does and does not teach about capital punishment, so that Christians would love *all* their neighbors. And may all our neighbors know the propitiating love of God promised in the Law and fulfilled in Christ.

**********

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us
and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
— 1 John 4:10 —

In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, where 49 people were killed and over 50 injured at a gay night club, Christians weep for the loss of life and are left wondering what to say or do. On social media, trending topics have included gun control, terrorism, homophobia and Islamic extremism. In light of the terrorist’s professed allegiance to ISIS and other radical Islamic groups, it is especially important for Christians to distinguish between the Quran’s teaching on homosexuality and the Bible’s. Now, more than ever, it is important we convey gospel-centered compassion, even as we hold firm to biblical truth.

In order to do that, we must look at Leviticus 20:13:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.”

Read by itself, this passage may seem to catch Bible-believing Christians red-handed with a verse that proves their Bible needs to be updated or abandoned. However, because the Bible is not a collection of individual sayings; Leviticus 20:13 must be read in light of its historical and covenantal context. Indeed, only a whole-Bible theology of sexual ethics and capital punishment can rightly explain this verse.

With this in mind, we will show why this verse does not permit violence against homosexuals, and why the Bible is fundamentally different than the Quran and Islam’s other holy books, which do endorse violence towards the LGBT community. In actuality, the command for capital punishment in Leviticus 20:13 becomes a pathway to Christ’s substitutionary death, not a harbinger of hate. Continue reading

Sermon Notes: How to Avoid Getting Lost on the Way from Leviticus 15 to Luke 15

On Monday, I suggested a five-fold system, a Gospel-Positioning System (GPS), to get you from obscure passages in the Law through the Prophets to Christ and the Gospel.  These five-steps are listed again.

1. Law
2A. Prophets: Judgment
2B: Prophets: Salvation
3: Christ
4: Gospel Response
5: Spirit-Empowered Action 

Today, I want to suggest four common errors that plague evangelicals today. Four ways we misread the Scriptures.

1. We skip from 1 to 5.  In pursuit of application and life-change, we read a command, a law, even a story, and we immediately move to application. Instead, of asking how the said pericope fits into the flow the Bible (i.e. textual, epochal, and canonical horizons), many of us move straight to activity.  This is wrong.  It misses the power of the law, the promise of the gospel, and the person of Jesus.  In effect, it makes the Bible about us, and no longer about Jesus.  The solution?  We must move from law through the prophets to Jesus Christ and then to us.  Personal application is vitally important but only after we encounter Christ.

2. We are afraid of 2A & 2B.  The prophets frighten us.  They are strange.  They don’t talk normal. They are hard to understand.  I get this!  I remember reading Isaiah 13-20 one time.  As I read the pronouncements against Babylon, Damascus, and Moab, I got upset.  Not because God was punishing these sinning nations, but because, “I needed a word from God, and this was not it”–so I thought.  I closed the Bible (for that day) upset, because I hadn’t seen how those words related to the rest of the Bible or my life.

If you have had an experience like that with the Prophets, it makes it hard to be a regular reader of that challenging genre.  Yet, to neglect the prophets is to neglect the greatest section of the Bible for fueling Christ-centered hope.

Maybe this will help: The prophets get a lot easier if we remember two things. First, they are speaking a word of judgment, based on the law against sinners like us.  Their words condemn covenant-breakers, social injustice, and unfaithful worship.  They speak to us about our sin.

Second, they are speaking a word of Messianic hope, based on the gospel. They give us glorious images of the Christ who is to come.  They offer salvation to sinful people, and the reality that God is going to bring recreate the world.  If we remember these two things and tie a rope from the law to the gospel, we can learn to walk thru these strange books.

3. We minimize 3.  This may sound strange, to minimize Jesus, but I have heard countless evangelical, Baptist preachers (and you have too) who preach and never mention Him.  Instead they list moral instructions from the life of Joseph or Caleb, and at the end say, “Unless you are Christian you cannot do what I just said.  So become a Christian.”

Friends, this is Christ-less preaching.  It has no power and I can hardly believe that a message without the content of Christ, will bring anyone nearer to our Lord and Savior.  In fact, it is disingenuous, to tell anyone to become a Christian after you have spent 40 minutes preaching moral lessons and not telling them about Christ.  Yet, this happens all too often.

4. We divorce 1-4 from 5.  If we are tempted to skip Jesus, we are more culpable of divorcing the gospel from application. In other words, we read the Bible for application, and we find all kinds of commands that say—Make disciples.  Love one another.  Be unified.  Forgive your enemies.  Turn the other cheek.

Yet, those commands have ZERO POWER, in and of themselves. These biblical commands are good, but in Scripture they are always set in relation to gospel promises.  To say it another way, imperatives are always grounded in gospel infinitives.  Why?  Because laws never produce godliness!  Grace produces godliness (Titus 2:11-13).

Jesus commands his disciples to be witnesses to all the nations, but he commands them to stay in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes so they will have power to do what he commands.  Paul tells us to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven you.  The power is in the gospel.  Failure to couple commands with Christ’s antecedent work, will lead earnest Christians to live the Christian life in the power of their own strength.

Instead, we must move to application and action, but as we do so, we must continue to walk in faith, loving others out of the love that has been poured into our hearts.

This is my prayer and hope!  That as we read Scripture, our minds are not just informed.  Rather, our eyes are opened to behold Christ and to become like him. Indeed, Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified by his word (John 17:17), and that comes to fruition when in his word, we see Jesus (2 Cor 3:18).

Open our eyes, Lord to see the wonder of Christ in the pages of Scripture, dss

Gospel Themes in the Book of Leviticus

Reading Leviticus can be heavy sledding, but once you get familiar with the terrain, it can be incredibly profitable and encouraging.

For instance, this morning I was reading about the Feasts recorded in Leviticus 23.  For New Testament Christians, you should be able to see how these feasts, which were a part of Israel’s yearly calendar, point the way to Jesus Christ.  He is the Passover Lamb and his death corresponds to the Passover; Jesus’ Resurrection corresponds to the Feast of the Firstfruits, and of course the outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurs on the Day of Pentecost.  Clearly, God was giving his OT saints spatial-temporal events to help prepare the way for His Son.

These events just mentioned have all been historically fulfilled in Jesus Christ and recorded in the Gospels and Acts.  However, we still look forward to the fulfillment of others, like the Feast of Trumpets and Jubilee (Lev 23-25).  Reading the account of the way that Jubilee initiates rest in the land and commands the restoration of all things, provides a hope-giving vision of what will occur at the end of the age, all things will be reconciled by Jesus Christ, things on heaven and things on earth (Col. 1:20).

So reading Leviticus typologically and eschatologically (e.g. with an eye towards Christ and all that he has done and still will do) makes the book come alive.  Here are a few other themes to look for in this rich book:

  • God’s holiness and mercy.  Leviticus 19:2 says, “Be holy because I am holy.”  Repeated throughout the book is this refrain that God is holy and he expects his people to be holy.  If any book in the Bible teaches the utter need to be holy, Leviticus is it.  To a Western Church today that minimizes holiness and maximizes assumed relationship with God, Leviticus is a helpful antidote.  The holiness codes and endless bloodshed teaches us that God will not relinquish his demand for our holiness.  He is just and cannot turn his back on our sin–consider the story of Nadab and Abihu.  Nevertheless, his mercy meets the demands of his holiness,
    and the book of Leviticus tells us how he does that–through the sacrificial system. 
  • Man’s sinfulness.  In the light of God’s holiness and mercy, we see mankind’s sinfulness and selfishness.  Nowhere is this more colorfully painted than in the death of Nadab and Abihu, two priests who offer strange fire and are consumed because they fail to treat God as holy.  The testimony of their death in Leviticus 10 along with all the laws required in Leviticus, should teach us that we cannot live by keeping the law (Lev 18:1-5), but rather we live by trusting in the mercy and provisionary grace of God himself.  He is our life, and his provision of a sacrificial system is the means by which we may live and relate to Him.
  • Man’s fallen condition.  We also learn about our own human nature in Leviticus.  For instance, it is not just sin that separates us from God, but our own corrupted physical bodies.  Leviticus 13 explains that bodily discharges make us unclean and consequently unacceptable to God, that is we cannot enter his presence with our uncleanness.  For human beings preoccupied with self–and we all are–this should humble us greatly.  Bad breath, body odor, diarrhea, constipation, skin lesions, dandruff, eczema and all other forms of bodily disfunction should remind us of our fallen condition, our imperfection, and our uncleanness.  Under the OT law, these sort of things would keep us from God, whose holiness and cleanliness is absolute.  He is pure and we are not.  Apart from Christ, even our humanness in its fallen condition separates us from God.
  • Blood.  We also see that blood soaks the pages of Leviticus.  So gory is the book, that it should be impossible to read Leviticus without coming away with a greater sense of our sinfulness before God.  At the same time, we should be struck by the way that all these blood offerings, where the life of an animal is substituted for the life of a man, remind us of the ultimate sacrifice and the blood that speaks a better word than all OT sacrifices.  Because of our sin, God requires blood, and yet he has not abandoned us to our own demise.  He has provided a way of re-entry, and every sacrifice is a reminder that God has made a way to be reconciled to him, through the blood of a sacrifice.  What is pictured in Leviticus is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

 

If you are looking for more help with Leviticus, I encourage you to listen to Jay Sklar’s seven-week study on the book.  It is informative without being unnecessarily heady.  It will give you a greater appreciation for Leviticus, but even more than that, it will help you better understand the work of Jesus Christ and the gospel that is foretold in Leviticus.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss