Studies in Leviticus: You Shall Be Holy (Chapters 19 & 20)

LeviticusIf Leviticus has stressed anything for the reader it is the essential nature of holiness in the life of the people of God. This holiness is necessary because it is reflective of the God with whom we are in relationship. See how often the phrase “I am the Lord” is used in chapter 19. So, even here in Leviticus 19 God establishes, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2). In Leviticus 19 & 20 we see that holiness is important because it allows us to accurately represent God to the world. As such, holiness still matters for the believer today.

Holiness can seem a very vague and ethereal idea. Culturally the contemporary church has overly spiritualized the word, but Biblically it is a very earthy idea. Holiness is a tangible concept in Leviticus, even mundane. Holiness is part of the routine and ritual of Israel’s life, with concrete expressions in their daily living. We’ll see that holiness is to be the same for us too, as New Testament followers of Jesus.

These two chapters correspond as the command and the consequence. Chapter 19 outlines the detailed expectations of holy living and chapter 20 establishes the consequences for disobedience to these commands. God establishes the motivation to holiness, then, as both evangelistic appeal and avoidance of judgment.

Chapter 19 can be broken down into five sections. The first two verses are the prologue, introducing the subject of holiness and its foundation in the person of God. Verses 3-10 describe that holiness in specifics: respect your parents, keep the Sabbath, do not worship idols, offer sacrifices properly, and care for the poor and the sojourner. Verses 11-18 give more tangible details about loving our neighbors. In 19-31 the conversation shifts to describe holiness as avoidance of that which is unholy. Finally, verses 32-37 describe holiness in terms of caring for the elderly and the stranger. Notice in this chapter just how practical holiness is. It is about what you do, what you don’t do, and how you relate to others. Holiness is about loving God and loving others, covering both tables of the Ten Commandments. One could not, in other words, claim to love God while hating one’s neighbor. Holiness requires observance of both aspects.

Chapter 20 follows up by delineating the serious consequences for disobedience to God’s rules. In each case, disobedience requires that the sinner be “cut off” from the people of God. That is, he is to be killed. Death is the consequence of this immorality. The chapter explores several specific violations of the law: child sacrifice, use of mediums and necromancers, cursing of parents, and sexual immorality. God has given specific commands to be observed and obeyed and the disregarding of his holiness commands results in our own destruction.

The point of all of this, Moses tells us, is that the people of God would be marked as distinct among the nations. So, we read at the end of chapter 20:

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (v. 26)

Holiness is meant to be an invitation to the world to come and see the truly holy God. Holiness is evangelistic in nature. The Lord calls them out from among the nations to be separated, distinct, unique. That uniqueness is meant to point to the distinct nature of God himself. They are not to be like the other nations; they are not to live like them, because they are not like them. God is holy and His people are to be holy too.

In the New Testament this same concept still applies. We recognize, as we have all throughout this study, that the believers relationship to the Old Testament law is different. Christ has fulfilled the law and so we are no longer bound to the details of the specific Old Testament details. The Levitical laws are not our responsibility. Yet, we recognize that many of the principles delineated there are still applicable, if not the details. The principles help us again to communicate the truth of God, of the gospel, and invite others to come and see this salvation and this savior.

Several places in the New Testament, the phrase “walk worthy” is used to describe the believers own pattern of holiness. We read:

3 John 1:6, “You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.”

Thessalonians 2:12, “Walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”

Colossians 1:10, “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Philippians 1:27, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:1, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”

How we live matters in the New Testament too. Just because we are not bound to the details of the Levitical laws does not mean that holiness is irrelevant to the Christian. Peter has reiterated the same motivation as Leviticus: Be holy because I am holy (1 Peter 1:16). Holiness matters for us, and it matters for those we are in contact with.

Our lifestyle can be an invitation to Jesus or a distraction from Him. The way we live can be help others to love Jesus or it can tempt them to hate the gospel. The distinctiveness of the holy life of the believer should stand out. It will prompt some to inquire about the difference, to “see our good works” and possibly to “glorify our Father in our heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Holiness matters for believers too and so we continue to study Leviticus because it invites reflection on our own holy living.


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