All sins pollute. Sin contaminates us, it contaminates our families, it contaminates our communities, and even our churches. All sin has a contaminating result, even sins committed unintentionally. Yet, God provides a way for sinners to be cleansed. The Purification Offering of Leviticus 4 is all about this kind of cleansing. In order to help us see the full detail of sins pollution, Leviticus 4 through the first part of 6 discusses the various types of purification.
The text begins with two types of purification: purification of the sanctuary, and purification of the individual. In Leviticus 4 we read that the blood of the sacrifice is applied to the various objects in the Tabernacle: the horns of the altar, and sprinkled before the veil (4:7;18; 25; and 30). This act is intended to purify the sanctuary from its defilement. Derek Tidball remarks:
Blood is the cleansing agent that acts as the detergent that ‘de-sins’ the sanctuary. This explains why key places within the tabernacle – the curtain and the altars – are sprinkled with blood, but the sinner was not (The Message of Leviticus, 79).
Sin pollutes, not merely the sinner, but the very dwelling place of God among such sinners. It must be addressed.
The greater weight of the text, however, deals with the purification of the individual sinner. There is significant debate about the label “Purification Offering” and whether that appropriately describes the type of offering prescribed here. I won’t go into that discussion, but however we label it we must acknowledge its two-fold application: both to the sanctuary and to the sinner. Listed in this section of the book are four different types of sinners that need purification. Moses begins with the priests (1-12). There is no exception to the religious leader, he is in need of as much cleansing as anyone else. In fact, the cost to the priest is higher than it is for others. Other sinners may make substitutions for financial inability, but the priest is required to offer a bull. This would have been an expensive sacrifice and is appropriately fitting to his position as a spiritual leader in the community. Those in spiritual leadership must always be prepared to count the cost of being a leader. Their sins have significant ramifications for those they serve. The apostle James rightly states: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (3:1) Spiritual leaders will pay a higher price for their sins. This is a hard thing to hear and a hard thing to say as a leader. I keenly feel the weight of it and pray that God uses it to sanctify me.
Next, the passage focuses on the whole congregation (4:13-21). The progression goes from greatest offense to least. They are all great offenses before the Lord, but we can see that there are different levels of consequence. The offense of the priest is the greatest, but the offense of the whole assembly is greater than the offense of an individual. The text deals intimately with the idea of “unintentional sins,” but it’s not entirely clear what an unintentional sin by the whole assembly would look like. Perhaps Joshua 9 is an example of this type of collective sin. Here the people make a treaty with Gibeon, without consulting the Lord (v. 14). In the contemporary church this collective sin might look more like a cultural climate of sinful attitudes: legalism, racism, progressivism. In this regard a whole assembly may need to make confession before the Lord and be purified. Our tendency to think about sin and holiness in purely individualistic terms is challenged by this portion of the text. We must remember that as part of a collective whole, the people of God, we are responsible for each other and in relation to each other. So sin and impurity have a corporate element to them.
Next in the progression is the sin of the leaders of Israel. Derek Tidball writes, “The clan chiefs or tribal leaders of Israel are dealt with separately from ordinary citizens because of the responsible positions they held and the impact their sin could have on others” (78). Again, we see that leaders are held to a higher responsibility. I would think in modern terms this would apply to all sorts of lay leaders in the church, as well as to fathers in the home.
Finally, there is provision made for the individual who commits an unintentional sin and is made aware of it. There sin is still serious and still requires atonement to be made, they are not let off the hook because they are not in a primary position of authority or major community responsibility. All sin is serious to God. The cost to them was not as high, however, and provision is made for those who are financially handicapped or impaired (5:7-11).
Throughout the whole section of chapters 4 through the first part of six we see several different types of unintentional sin discussed. One category we might call sins committed by accident. So, chapter 5:2-3 speaks to touching an unclean animal or human uncleanness without realizing it (5:2-3). These and similar acts that are “hidden from” a person, that is unbeknownst to them, are accidental sins, inadvertent ones. We know they are unintentional because his guilt must be revealed to him. It is possible to sin unintentionally, by accident, but that does not negate the immorality of the acts, nor does it remove the defilement that accompanies sin. It still must be addressed.
The text also speaks of sins committed in ignorance. There are some times when people sin without realizing that what they are doing is actually sinful. I think about some of the new Christians I have pastored over the years. They came to faith out of very raw contexts and sometimes didn’t know that their habits could be sinful. I had one young man who was late to a counseling appointment because he was hung over. He simply didn’t know it was a sin to get drunk. Another time I did some premarital counseling for a couple who weren’t aware that wife-swapping was sinful. 5:17 speaks of not knowing that something was sinful. We read:
If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then he realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity.
Again we see that ignorance is no excuse. Sin still has consequences, even when done in ignorance, and therefore must be dealt with. This is, perhaps, why the Psalmist knows to cry out: search me and know me and see if there be any wicked way in me (Psalm 139:23-24). We need God’s help to deal with the totality of sin, especially when we may not be able to readily recognize all our sin.
The final category deals with sins we commit from self-deception. We may often sin but so justify our actions and attitudes as to convince ourselves that we have done nothing wrong. The text alludes to several such scenarios: Refusing to testify in a court case (5:1), swearing an oath rashly to do evil (5:4). God knows the tendencies of our own hearts and He prepares a purification offering for the incurred guilt of even these self-deceived sins.
The vital point in this section is that since all sin defiles it must all be purified by the blood of Jesus. Hebrews 9 reminds us of the context of Leviticus 4. We read there:
22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. 23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Heb. 9:22-24)
Christ is the perfect and complete purification offering. It is his blood that purifies completely. He purifies by offering the perfect sacrifice once and for all. So the author of Hebrews continues:
25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb. 9:25-28)
Leviticus 4-6:7 highlights our need for purification and in so doing indicates the great need we have for purifying blood. Christ fulfills this need in the New Testament, making the once and for all purification. Peter calls the church those who have been “sprinkled” with Jesus blood (1 Peter 1:2), a reference to this OT practice. And Paul assures us that Jesus has been made sin in our place that we might be made the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). John tells us that confession of our sin leads to God’s forgiveness and the cleansing from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Jesus is the purifying sacrifice offered up for His own. In Him we are all made clean. Friends, do not let your sins haunt you. In Christ they are all washed away, even the ones you didn’t know you committed.