Studies in Leviticus: “Be Holy as I am Holy”

LeviticusIf there is one book in the Old Testament that seems like it would be the least relevant to contemporary Christians it would be the book of Leviticus. Believers today rarely (if ever) read the book, pastors never preach through it, and on the rare occasion that it is referenced it seems so antiquated as to be both uninteresting and useless to the Christian life. The apostle Peter, however, did not feel that way. He quotes the book in his first epistle urging the believers to live lives of holiness. That concept of holiness is foundational to understanding Leviticus, and it is, in part, what continues to make it relevant to readers today.

Leviticus aims to answer a question set up by God’s promises to the people of Israel in the book of Exodus. The starting conjunction in verse 1 of chapter 1 (“And”) shows its connection to Exodus. The two books were meant to be read together, as a unit, a whole. In particular it seeks to resolve the dilemma of how a holy God can dwell with a sinful people. So, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi writes:

Leviticus is based on the promise of the Lord’s dwelling in the midst of the Israelites (Exod. 29:45-46). It addresses the question of how humans can live in proximity to the holy God. (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 152)

The book, then, develops a thorough theology of holiness, complete with holiness codes, sacrifices, and warnings aimed at cultivating a people set apart for God. This theology of holiness can be explored under three headings: Sacrifices and Offerings, Cleanness and Uncleanness, and Holy Living. A quick survey of each will benefit us.

Sacrifices and Offerings. One particular way that God answers the question of proximity is by establishing the practices of sacrifice. Leviticus discusses five types of sacrifices, each uniquely designed to maintain the holiness of God’s presence and the people’s relation to Him. Some are designed simply to establish a relationship (the burnt offering), others to dedicate all of life to the Lord (the Grain offering), other emphasize communion with the Lord (Fellowship offering), and others expiate inadvertent sins and finally transgressions of God’s law. God made a multiple was for His people to access Him and maintain covenant unity with Him. Along with the sacrifices the priests helped to maintain holiness within the camp. They were responsible for holding up the covenant obligations before the people of Israel. Yet, even the priests needed to make atonement for their own sins. Ultimately, of course, the sacrifices point forward to the work of Jesus. The practices of holiness in Leviticus aim to provide an illustrative basis for understanding the redemptive work of Christ. In addition, in the New Covenant the ritual sacrifice is a “spiritual sacrifice” offered to God through Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2:5). These sacrifices include:

  • Generous and cheerful giving (Phil. 4:18)
  • Worship, especially praise and thanksgiving (Heb. 13:15-16)
  • Prayer (Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4)
  • Evangelism (Rom. 15:16-17)
  • Selfless service to Christ – even to death (Rom. 12:1-2; Phil 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6; Rev. 6:9) (Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 109)

Cleanness and Uncleanness. It’s important to understand cleanness as a ritual issue, not a physical one. Some people tend to read the purity laws of the Old Testament through the lens of hygiene and physical contamination. This is a misunderstanding, I believe, of the emphasis of the laws. It helps if we think about these laws in relation to the motif of death. Death is the ultimate uncleanness because it is related to the curse of God established in the Garden. So, Kiuchi writes:

It seems that the rationale for these rules is closely related to creation and the fall, particularly the latter. For instance, the fact that giving birth defiles the mother (Lev. 12) can be explained best in terms of the curse of God regarding childbirth (Gen. 3:16). By observing the cleanness/uncleanness laws, the Israelites were reminded of the consequences of the fall, and thus of their sinful nature, as well as their calling to be a holy people. (155)

They were called to be a holy people, yet the possibility of becoming unclean lay all around them. Some uncleanness may be temporary, some may be permanent, but uncleanness always presented a threat to their relationship with God. They needed to be made pure finally and fully.

Holy Living. Holiness is holistic, that is to say it touches ever area of life. In Leviticus holiness involved both man’s relation to God but also man’s relation to his fellow-man. It involves justice and love, and care for the least. It is comprehensive. There is no area of life off-limits to God’s control and reign. Even the detailed descriptions of the sacrifices, the meticulous regulations that govern the sacrifices evidence this. It is not enough just to perform the sacrifice it must be performed in all the right ways, in deference to the authority and glory and holiness of God. Ultimately, this idea of holy living is a reminder of God’s grace. After all, in Leviticus it is God who makes these things holy. The furniture in the Tent was not original holy, it was made so by order of God. Consecrated and set apart. The same is true of the priests. They are made holy by God himself. Holiness in Leviticus, then, is about the gracious work of God. Again, Kiuchi writes:

While holiness is sometimes seen as threatening to the unclean and the sinful, it is also inherently gracious in that all holy things and people (i.e. priests) are made holy in order that the Lord may dwell among the people. This suggests that God, who is holy, is also gracious. (155)

Leviticus, I am finding, is far more about God’s love and mercy than the reader might initially imagine.

As a primer on holiness, then, Leviticus still speaks to us today. It speaks about the awe-inspiring holiness of God. It indicates the great disparity between His holiness and our uncleanness. It also illustrates the gracious work of God in making us holy, particularly through the sacrifice of His precious Son. Don’t discount Leviticus, it has much to say to you about your relationship to the Lord.

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