Studies in Leviticus: Reading the Old Testament as a Christian

LeviticusThere is a way to read the Old Testament that completely misunderstands it. Jesus makes that abundantly clear as he rebukes the religious leaders over and over again. “Have you not read,” he says to those who most surely had read (Matt. 19:4; Mark 2:25; Luke 6:3). In Matthew 22:29 he’s even more pointed, saying, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” In John 5 Jesus tells them that their search of the Scriptures has proved fruitless because they fail to see how all the Scriptures point to Jesus (v. 39). To read the Old Testament rightly, then, it must be read through the Jesus-lens.

To read the Bible through the Jesus-lens is to read the Bible backwards. The Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New. So that how we understand and relate to the Old Testament depends first and foremost on how we see its content in relation to Jesus. The content of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, Michael Lawrence observes:

Jesus is repeatedly presented as a second Adam (Romans 5), a second Moses (Mark 6; John 5), a second David (Matthew 12), and a second Solomon (Luke 11). The salvation he brought is described as a second Exodus (Hebrews 12) and a return to from exile (Luke 4); and the church is described as a living temple (1  Peter 2) and the Israel of God (Galatians 6). (Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 65).

Jesus himself states that the whole Old Testament, Moses and the Prophets, are about him (Luke 24:27). All this means that as I study the Old Testament I must read it in light of Jesus and His finished work on the cross, His resurrection, and His ascension. This is particularly pertinent for how we read Old Testament law, like what we find in Leviticus.

It would be a great mistake to read through Leviticus and think, on the one hand that the believer today must live up to all its demands. Paul tells us that the law was our “guardian,” “steward,” or “teacher” until Christ came (Gal. 3:23-25). Now that Christ has come we no longer need the guardian. Paul is urging the Galatians not to return to bondage to the law, stating that the age of the law has come to an end. Jason Meyer understands this point in Paul when he writes, regarding these verses:

The “guardian” is given authority over a child for a specific duration of time (usually until adulthood). The key event for Paul is the coming of “that faith”. The dawning of this age brings the age of the guardian to an end. “That faith” clearly refers to a salvation-historical epoch, not a subjective experience. (The End of the Law, 172)

The believer is not bound to this law. We are not expected to bring sacrifices to worship with us, to remember the memorial feasts of Israel, to uphold the civil code of their theocracy. The law has been fulfilled in Christ and we are no longer under the Mosaic law, but instead under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).

On the other hand, however, we must not read the book of Leviticus and think, it is completely irrelevant to my life. The temptation for believers today is to either read the Old Testament without Christ, exactly as it was originally read, or to take Christ without any interest in the Old Testament. Yet, Leviticus was part of Jesus’ Bible, and the New Testament authors held it as equally authoritative. Allen Ross notes this dilemma that modern readers of the Bible face; he writes:

Here then is the crux of the matter for the modern expositor. On the one hand the New testament tells us that the law has been fulfilled in Christ, but on the other hand it tells us that all Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. Or, Peter tells us to be holy because the Lord is holy, and in telling us that he quotes from the Book of Leviticus. But since Peter saw the vision of unclean animals, he knew that what holiness meant under the old covenant was not exactly the same as what it meant for the new, even though the words of Leviticus remain authoritative as Scripture. The exposition of the law must be able to make this kind of distinction, or to put it another way, the exposition must be able to identify abiding theological truth revealed in the law without settling back into a literal application of the regulations of the law. (Holiness to the Lord, 62)

So, while we may not be bound to the exact literal application of the holiness codes of Leviticus and the sacrificial system, it is still relevant and authoritative for believers today. It remains relevant, however, only as we read it in Christ.

This year I am studying through the book of Leviticus. To say that it has been slow-moving would be an understatement. I was shocked at how detailed and monotonous the book is. How it is seemingly obsessed with the minutia of rituals. Yet it has also been fascinating. I have been blown away both by God’s grace and mercy, and by His extreme holiness. Both subjects ooze forth from the pages of Leviticus, both find a focus in the sacrifices mandated by God. As I read Leviticus, then, I am immediately struck by the need for Jesus. It is Jesus who makes grace and holiness possible in my life. It is Jesus who comes as the true sacrifice. It is Jesus who perfectly fulfills the Old Testament law, and all its weighty demands. Leviticus, like all the Old Testament is about Jesus. We will fundamentally misunderstand it, then, if we read it apart from the gospel. But in the reverse fashion, we must also misunderstand Jesus if we do not see his work in relation to the testimony of Leviticus. So, Gordon Wenham writes:

We are interested in the sacrifice of Christ, not in animal sacrifice. But in another sense the Levitical rituals are still of immense relevance. it was in terms of these sacrifices that Jesus himself and the early church understood his atoning death. Leviticus provided the theological model for their understanding. If we wish to walk in our Lord’s steps and think his thoughts after him, we must attempt to understand the sacrificial system of Leviticus. It was established by the same God who sent his Son to die for us; and in rediscovering the principles of OT worship written there, we may learn something of the way we should approach a holy God. (Leviticus, 37)

We need Leviticus because Leviticus is ultimately about Jesus. It is through this perspective that I will begin my study of the book and I hope you will join me in it.


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