Studies in Leviticus: Holy Living

Leviticus“And He called…” that is how the book of Leviticus begins. In fact that is its original Hebrew title. The title most English speakers know is drawn from the Septuagint, which identified it as a book about the Levites – more accurately about the priests of the tribe of Levi. The original Hebrew title, however, is fitting. It sets up the theme of holiness which dominates this book. The holy God, Yahweh, calls out, sets apart, a people for himself to be holy. The call to be holy arises from a living relationship with the holy God of the universe, and as such it requires total devotion of our lives. Holy living is a comprehensive response of our lives in relation to God.

The most noted chapters on holiness in the book of Leviticus, perhaps in the whole Old Testament, is found in chapters 17-26, the so-called Holiness Code. Outlined here for the people of Israel is a serious ethical vision and instruction to application. Readers should not assume, however, that holiness is limited this section of the book or that it is primarily about ethics. Holiness in the book of Leviticus is about relationship, and as such it permeates nearly every section of the work. So, chapter one starts with instruction about the Burnt Offering. This offering assumes a relationship with the Lord and outlines the possibility for sinful people to be in relationship to the Lord. Holiness is about how Israel relates to God and as such is embedded even in the discussions about sacrifice. Sacrifice is about holiness, particularly about the failure to be holy. Derek Tidball writes:

The need for atonement arises because of a failure to reach the exacting standards of holiness that the service of God requires. (The Message ofLeviticus, 32)

Holiness is reflected even from the start of chapter one, then. Norman Geisler suggests an outline of the book that reveals this relationship between holiness and relationship. We can represent it as follows:

  • Approaching a Holy God (1-7)
    • Laws about Sacrifice (1:1-17)
    • Laws about Consecration of Priests (8-10)
  • Living in the Presence of a Holy God (11-25)
    • Laws About “Clean” and “Unclean” Things (11-15)
    • Laws about Holiness (16-25)
  • Covenant Blessings and Curses (26)
  • Appendix: Laws About Vows and Gifts (27)

(A Popular Survey of the Old Testament)

So, holiness and relationship dominate the book from start to finish. This also reveals the comprehensive nature of holiness.

Holiness, within the book of Leviticus deals with all of life.  Holiness deals not only with cultic ritual and worship, it deals with food, with bodily health and illness, with work and family, with relationships to others and relationships to God. It involves both justice and love, both God and fellow-man. There is no area of life left untouched by God’s commands for and expectations of holiness among His people. Tidball is right when he says:

The claims of holiness affect what one eats and how one deals with physical, and even sordid, matters of life. Holiness is comprehensive; no area of life is untouched by it. If we wish to be God’s holy people today, we must acknowledge the wide-ranging claims of holiness more than we sometimes do. As Leviticus illustrates, they affect our life as members in a family, as citizens in a society, as workers in a marketplace, and as consumers in a global economy, as much as they affect us as worshippers in a church. (32-33)

This comprehensiveness arises from living in relationship to a holy God.God dwelled among them. And since God cannot look on sin (Habk. 1:13), His people cannot tolerate sin among their community or in themselves. Holiness much touch every area of life for God to be present with Israel (Lev. 11:44-45). Furthermore, as those who live in relationship to this Holy God they are meant to represent Him to the world. Holiness is about service to God (Lev. 22:55). Their holiness makes them different, sets them apart, reflects their unique relationship to the God of the universe. Any area of sin that is tolerated in them or in their midst is a misrepresentation, then, of the holiness of Yahweh. Holiness must be comprehensive because it reflects Israel’s relationship to God.

Yet, it is extremely important that this holiness is understood as more than just a weighty responsibility. There are hints here, even in Leviticus, that this holiness is a promised gift of God. It is the Lord who makes them holy. It is the Lord who sanctifies. So, we read:

Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you. (Lev. 20:28)

You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy. (Lev. 21:8)

They shall therefore keep my charge, lest they bear sin for it and die thereby when they profane it: I am the Lord who sanctifies them. (Lev. 22:9)

and so cause them to bear iniquity and guilt, by eating their holy things: for I am the Lord who sanctifies them. (Lev. 22:16)

 And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you (Lev. 22:32)

Just a quick glance at the text of Leviticus reveals two recurring refrains: (1) Be holy, for I am holy, and (2) I am the Lord who sanctifies you. While holiness is a weighty and serious responsibility for the people of Israel, it is also a promise of God. He will make them holy. In the New Testament this promise is fully realized as God writes His law on human hearts, and transforms His people through the promised Holy Spirit who sanctifies them. Holy living in Leviticus, then, points forward to the holiness found through the Gospel promised Spirit of God.

We tend to think of holiness strictly in ethical codes and responsibilities. Leviticus reveals a much deeper reality to Biblical holiness. The concern is not with cold and stale law, that was never Israel’s foundation for holiness. It was not mere pragmatism, purity, or legalism. Rather the focus is on walking in meaningful relationship with a holy God. That is still the purpose of holiness in the New Testament. When Paul says to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10), he is echoing this same idea. Walk in genuine fellowship with the holy God. This God has not only called you to be holy, but in Christ He has made you holy. Live like it.

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