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

Ten Ways to Help You Read Leviticus

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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