We tend to contrast spontaneous and structured worship as if the former is more spiritual than the latter. Leviticus reveals to us that such is not true according to God. Here God outlines the serious and detailed instructions for the Priests, the Worship Leaders of ancient Israel. They serve as a focused reminder to us all that God is not to be worshiped in a slipshod and haphazard manner, but with intentionality and obedience.
This section reviews the same sacrifices previously discussed but in a different order and from a different perspective. Here the pattern flows from the most holy sacrifices to the least holy, and focuses on the role of the priests in the offerings. Allen Ross notes the distinction when he writes:
The preceding laws were the general instructions about the sacrifices with a focus on what animals the offerers had to bring and what they had to do in the sanctuary; these laws concentrate on the rituals of the priests. (Holiness to the Lord, 156)
The Priests are given five instructions for keeping order in worship.
First, they are to keep the fire burning (v.8-13). The first offering deals with the most holy and regular of the sacrifices: the Burnt Offering. The text tells us the fire of the Burnt Offering was to be kept going all day (v. 9, v. 13) and sacrifices were to be offered twice daily: once in the morning and once at night. The focus of the Burnt Offering was on making fellowship with God possible for sinful man. It was an atonement offering, though it was a general atonement, different from the other sin offerings. Fire is a significant symbol in Israel’s relationship with God: God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He spoke to Israel from fire on Mt Sinai, and He led his people by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. The point of the fire here, however, is not entirely clear. It may refer to the fire of God’s presence, or it may refer to the fire of the people’s worship. Allen Ross proposes that it represents the constant accessibility of God. He writes:
Since the burnt offering was offered to make atonement to find acceptance into the presence of the Lord, the emphasis on keeping the fire burning must mean that the provision of atonement must always be available to people. (158)
If he perhaps overstates what the emphasis “must mean,” he may nonetheless be on to something with that interpretation. If the Burnt Offering was intended to communicate God’s acceptance then the people needed to know that acceptance was always available. Even when the priests needed to remove the ashes and replace them with new wood they had to keep the fire burning – no small feat. The changing of garments to take the ashes out to the waste heap, outside the city, was a particular move to ensure that they did not disqualify themselves or bring impurity into the temple. All that is holy must remain holy. The priests themselves must remain holy. Ross, suggests that the best application of this text to our lives considers the central idea as follows: Those who minister must take care in personal sanctification and spiritual service to ensure that people may always find access to the holy God (161). This is a fitting application for worship leaders when we consider all the distractions and temptations that befall us in leading worship regularly, week in and week out.
Second, they must keep the aroma pleasing (v. 14-23). This offering addresses the grain offering. Called here a “most holy” (v. 17). In the details of the offering it is noted that only the priests may eat of this offering (v. 18), which is stressed in the remainder of v. 18: whoever touches them must be holy. The ESV is not correct in its interpretation here. Admittedly the passage is difficult to translate/interpret. Derek Kidner notes:
Does it mean that all who touch the sacred portion must be holy or else they will defile it, or that all who touch it will become holy and be sanctified by their contact with it? (99)
I think the weight of Scripture lies on the former interpretation, not the later. Both Exodus 29:37 and 30:29 teach us that holiness is required for anyone who comes into contact with the altar. Equally important is Haggai 2:11-13 which teaches us that impurity is contagious, but sacredness is not transferred by mere contact. There are rules that govern this offering and lead to its either being a pleasing aroma or an offensive odor in the nostrils of God.
Thirdly, they must keep the holy things safe (v. 24-30). Like the previous offering this “sin offering” is “most holy” (v. 25). In regards to this sacrifice there are a list of rules the govern the preservation of holiness. So, the sacrifice is to be slaughtered in the tabernacle, not outside. It is to be killed “in the place where the burnt offering is killed” (v. 25). And it is to be eaten in the “in a holy place” (v. 26). Even the garments of the priest, when splattered with the blood of the sacrifice, cannot be taken home and cleaned. It cannot leave the Tabernacle and risk contamination. It must be laundered on site (v. 27) Kidner explains the importance of these instructions:
God draws the priests attention to all these details for a very specific reason: ritual blood is sacred and used for the purpose of effecting atonement. It could not therefore be treated carelessly, as if it were ordinary. (101)
Again, the emphasis is on the obedience to God’s prescribed order of worship.
Fourthly, they must keep the priests supplied (7:1-10, 28-36). Though starting with a focus on the guilt offering (7:1-6), this section focuses on all the sacrifices from which priests were permitted to eat. So, the priest who officiates the Burnt Offering is permitted the hide of the animal (v. 8). And any surplus is granted to the “priest who makes atonement for them” (v. 7). The grain offering too was to be dispersed among “all the sons of Aaron” (v. 10). The key idea and instruction is that Israel was to support the priests who served in the Tabernacle. They were to be taken care of as they served the nation.
Finally, they were to keep the fellowship pure (7:11-27). This offering comes last in the list because it is not “a most holy” offering. The Peace of Fellowship offering was not unimportant, but it could be partaken of by anyone in the assembly, not simply the priests. Furthermore, it could be eaten outside of the Tent. So it has a different nature. But like the previous offerings the details outlined here are intended to preserve the purity of the offering. Kidner notes three things that work to preserve the offering: It is eaten on the day it is offered, or at least the day after (v. 15-16); If the meat touched anything unclean it was to be burnt up and not eaten by anyone (v. 19-20); The people who ate it were to be ceremonially clean (v. 20-21).
In all the details of this section of Leviticus reminds us of the gravitas of approaching a holy God. We do not approach Him carelessly and however we please. We must come to God specifically as He has prescribed. For us in the New Testament He has mandated that we come to Him by means of the blood of a different sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ. We approach God in Jesus or we do not approach Him rightly. Thankfully Jesus is a great High Priest, who leads us to the throne of God perfectly. He is the perfect worship leader, we can trust Him to lead us well.