Studies in Leviticus: God’s Wide Compassion (Leviticus 1)

LeviticusGod’s grace is amazingly wide. We are often prone to think of His grace in much the same way we think of our own compassion and care. Our love for others has limits, our forgiveness boundaries. There are some people to whom we struggle to demonstrate grace. God, however, is not like us. Leviticus chapter 1 evidences the wide expanse of God’s compassion in his detailed instructions about the Burnt Offering.

Understanding the Burn Offering

The Burnt offering of chapter 1 is the most frequently offered sacrifice in the whole system. It was routinely offered in both the morning and at twilight, and the fire itself should be kept burning all day – it was never to go out (6:8-13). It is the only sacrifice that is laid completely on the altar and consumed in total. The significance of the offering is rooted in its role as a general atonement offering. The worshiper was required to put his or her hands on the head of the sacrifice, a symbolic transfer of guilt, and thus when it was sacrificed there was some element of atonement made for sin (1:4). But, it stands distinct from the purification offerings described later in the book of Leviticus. Commentator Allen Ross notes:

The clearly stated purpose of the whole burnt offering was for atonement…But the way that this offering made atonement or expiation was in a slightly different way than purification and reparation offerings. It was a more general offering than either of them; it did not emphasize the removal of sin or guilt or change the worshiper’s nature; but it made fellowship between sinful people and God possible.” (Holiness to the Lord, 93)

The design of the offering was meant to bridge the divide between sinful man and a holy God. It was intended to make fellowship with God a possibility. In this regard the focus of the atonement is not on a specific act of moral disobedience, like we see in Leviticus 4-6, but rather on the sinful nature of man. He is separated from God not simply by acts of disobedience, but by his very nature as a sinner before God. This reality must be addressed before any other offerings or communion may be granted. So, the Burnt Offering is a general atonement offering that seeks to grant man access to God’s presence.

The nature of the offering, then, means that it must be a sacrifice open and available to all men, and here we see the generous grace of God on display. For God makes the Burnt Offering accessible to all, rich and poor. God’s grace is wide.

God’s Sensitivity to Economic Frailty

While some sacrifices are very specific about the type of animal that may be offered, the Burnt Offering has several options available to the worshiper. The options are dependent upon the financial status of the worshiper. God does not want the economic inability of the ordinary Israelite to keep them from His presence, so he permits sacrifices that compare to a person’s socio-economic status. So, verses 3-9 describe offering for the wealthiest among the Israelites, an offering from the heard. Verses 10-13 applies then to the so-called middle class who would give a sacrifice from the “flock.” Finally, then, the poorest are welcomed to give an offering of birds (v. 14-17). Derek Tidball says:

Because this is a voluntary offering, God is concerned to ensure that none are prevented from offering the burnt offering, if they desire to do so, on the grounds of being unable to afford it.” (The Message of Leviticus, 40)

All are welcomed into relationship with God. Poverty is no excuse for being at odds with Him. God’s grace is wide and expansive and He desires to be in relationship with all men, not merely the rich. In this sacrifice God is sensitive to the economic frailty of life. Demanding the sacrifice of a bull only would have prevented many from being able to have fellowship with Him. As with later sacrifices in the Bible, God provides away for all men to come to Him if they so desire.

God’s grace knows no boundaries. It can reach a man or woman no matter his state in the wider world. God does not recognize wealth as a status marker. He does not accept poverty as a barrier to fellowship. God’s grace is wide and His welcome broad. He provides a means in the Burnt Offering to welcome all who would seek to be in relationship with Him. Of course the sacrifice itself is evidence of God’s expansive grace. For He offers to men a way to have fellowship with Him, despite their own sinfulness and rebellion. The very fact that there is a Burnt Offering reveals God’s heart for the sinner. As Paul writes, God desires “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). He makes a way, and He makes away for all men who seek to come to Him.

God is pleased to welcome all who come to Him by means of an ordained substitute. That is really the main point of this text. God will not bar any from coming, but they must come as He has prescribed, by an acceptable substitute: perfect, without blemish. The incinerated sacrifice offers up a pleasing aroma to God, revealing his delight and love in accepting those who come to Him. In the New Testament we learn that Christ is that perfect and pleasing sacrifice who makes fellowship with God possible (Eph. 5:2; Heb. 10:5-7). We come to God through Christ no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter our social status in the world. We come by means of the perfectly ordained substitute. We come because God’s grace is wide.

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