Reflections on a Year of Studying Leviticus

LeviticusWell, it has finally happened: I finished my year + study of the Old Testament book of Leviticus. At times it was quite a challenge to wrestle with the book, but there has been much reward and profit from studying this much neglected work. For me personally, this study helped to expand my awareness and understanding of the atoning work of Christ.

Leviticus is one of the most neglected books of study for the contemporary Christian. Its dense style and content and seeming irrelevance compel many to overlook it in their personal Bible reading. I know that was true for me. I had read through the book previously when I would take time to read through the Bible in a year, but such reading was often cursory and compulsory. It was not a joy nor was it with intentional thought and reflection. When it came time, then, to pick a book of the Bible to wrestle with for a year I knew I should choose Leviticus. When else was I going to take the time to really think about its content and seek to understand it from within the New Covenant. I don’t regret doing it.

My study revolved around three areas of interest: (1) New Covenantal hermeneutics; (2) Dominant thematic developments; and (3) textual exposition. I wanted to know how should I think about Leviticus now that I am “not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Since the Levitical law does not apply to me in the same way that it applied to ancient Israel – I don’t bring my goat to worship on Sunday, or treat skin diseases the same way as the Holiness Code – how then should I think about this book. What does it have to say to me? What is its relevance in the life of the believer? Are there principles to be gleaned for the Christian life from the Holiness Code? These were questions I needed to wrestle with as I prepared to dive into the study of the book.

I am immensely grateful for works like Jason Meyer’s The End of the Law. Meyer explores the relationship between the Old and New Covenant in eschatological terms, demonstrating how the latter builds upon and supersedes the former. Likewise, Schreiener’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law helped to answer specific relevant questions for my study of Leviticus. This part of the study helped me to see how to put the Bible together so as to make sense of Leviticus from within a New Covenant framework.

This framework does not, however, mitigate the relevance of Leviticus for the believer. I was able through my studies to see how it both points to Jesus and helps me to think about holiness in my own life. The various themes developed across the book demonstrate this well. In my studies four major themes emerged: (1) holiness, (2) sacrifice, (3) priesthood, and (4) mercy. The last of these might seem a strange thing in a legal code, but at the very heart of Leviticus is the mercy and love of God. For, sin has separated man and God, but in His love God makes a way for man to dwell with Him. This is the essential question that Leviticus strives to answer: how can sinful man dwell in the presence of a Holy God? It establishes an answer by developing the legal code and the sacrificial system.

In studying these themes I saw how relevant so many of the principles of holiness and sacrifice are to my own life. Discussions of rhythms of worship, of obedience, and of living sacrifices abounded in the book. All still speak to us as believers today. Despite the difference in details, Leviticus actually has a lot to say about what it means to follow God. For that reason alone it is worth studying.

Finally, the textual exposition helped me to wrestle with challenging content. Since the details of the laws of Leviticus were inspired by God it is important that believers wrestle with them. As Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (1 Tim. 3:16-17). So, Leviticus is inspired by God for our good. But wrestling with its minutia was a challenge. Thinking through the details of the Holiness Code’s content on skin disease, menstruation, and sexual ethics provided some strange and unique research topics. But as I explored each one I found that the big picture of holiness, sin, and mercy came to the fore. Those passages that seemed most troubling in isolation, fit perfectly within the larger flow of the book. This was important for my own study and my wrestling with the book as a whole.

Since Leviticus is often criticized and cited as evidence against the Christian faith, I found wrestling with the book verse by verse advanced my own apologetic defense of the faith. It also helped me to think specifically about areas of life that I had no otherwise considered and their relationship to holiness.

A number of great volumes helped me in the exposition. Gordon Wenham is the standard gold commentary on the book, being cited by nearly everyone else. Allen Ross and Derek Tidball provided accessible commentary on the text and helpful insight on applications. I was really pleased with each of their breakdowns of the book and their development of the logic of the thought. Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, however, gave some of the most interesting detail and advanced conversations in unique ways. His commentary was a personal favorite of mine. Other articles, sermons, and essays added some depth to the details, but these four commentaries provided the major reference points for my investigation.

All in all the study was hard, but worthwhile. I benefited immensely from this study and while I don’t think I would encourage others to spend a year in Leviticus, I would most definitely encourage all believers to wrestle with this important book of the Bible. Leviticus matters for our faith, don’t neglect it.

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