The first time I read through the book of Leviticus, my constant thought was, “Say, What?”
I understand why some authors and actors mock this Old Testament book. It’s often labeled boring, harsh, and legalistic. It can seem so strange and out of context in today’s sensitive, politically-correct culture.
But that’s exactly the problem. Most people look at this book out of context.
Properly understood, Leviticus is a shadow of things to come in the New Testament. It’s a clear, detailed directive about the nature of God’s “otherness” and His distinction from His sinning creation – man. It’s about holiness and sanctification, proper worship, and social behavior. While it feels burdensome at times, it prefigures the need for a Savior. The sacrificial system God set up allowed for repentance and fellowship with Him before the promised Messiah’s arrival.
It’s been said , “The book of Leviticus was the first book studied by a Jewish child; yet is often among the last books of the Bible to be studied by a Christian.” But it’s time Christ-followers tackled this book—controversial topics and all—because there are important lessons to learn.
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The Origin of the Leviticus Directive
Likely written by Moses, “Leviticus” comes from the word “Levi,” the Israeli tribe set aside by God as priests and worship leaders. The book was given to help Israel properly reflect the Lord’s character and nature and live for Him.
It comes in order after the book of Exodus, likely between 1446-1440 BC and mainly near Mt. Sinai where God’s commandments to His people were expressed. Leviticus is two genres combined: narrative history and a more detailed elaboration on Israel’s laws plus sacrifices and other directives for holy living.
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The Message of God’s “Otherness”
One thing I quickly noticed: the reader cannot escape the infinite holiness of God! This is important in our culture today, when we emphasize God’s love and tend to slight other parts of His nature.
God does not take His holiness lightly, and neither should we. We are far too flippant about God’s holiness and our own. He is utterly holy—“unapproachable light”—and we are called to walk in the Light so we can please Him.
God is set apart in a sense of “otherness” from His creation in that He is far greater in holiness, love, power, goodness, etc., than mankind. God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as we see in Genesis until Chapter 3; but after their Fall into sin, the first humans were driven from the garden. Then God became somewhat distant from people except in cases where He visited some and spoke to them privately.
Yet the promise of restoration was referenced in Eden, and by Leviticus we begin to see the prefiguring of that promise. God desired for His people to live in His presence; but to do so, they had to become more aware of His holiness, so He spelled it out in fine detail. God’s people had to change if they wanted to fellowship Him. And so must we.
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The Message of Our Needed Sanctification
In Exodus 19:6, God called Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and in the book of Leviticus we see the presence of God’s glory residing among His people in the place He commanded them to construct and tend—the Tabernacle. Then He once again called them to become a holy people.
The Israelites had been held captive in Egypt for 400 years, surrounded by polytheistic, pagan Egyptians. God not only reminded them He alone is God, He also made sure they understood the need for their own holiness and sanctification—the process of their being set apart and becoming holy for His use.
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"This means of access is described in terms of 'cleanness' and 'uncleanness.'"
Charles Swindoll wrote that Leviticus “communicates that receiving God’s forgiveness and acceptance should be followed by holy living and spiritual growth.” God saw His people living distorted, sinful lifestyles. He didn’t want them to imitate the practices of the heathen peoples surrounding them, which was the reason for many of the seemingly harsh directives in Chapters 17-22.
God wanted to His people to have access to Him, but the question they had to ask was, “Am I living in alignment with God’s purity so I can approach Him?”
This means of access is described in terms of “cleanness” and “uncleanness.” To rightly calibrate with the Lord’s purity directives equaled “cleanness” and allowed access to Him; but to be rebellious and sinful was “uncleanness” and became a barrier to both vertical fellowship with Him and horizontal fellowship with others.
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"God’s people, Israel, were to be set apart for Him..."
Moses clearly understood that all people will do unclean things, so throughout the book there is an emphasis on living in ways that please God and acknowledge and respect His holy presence. The key to the book is Leviticus 20:16: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”
God’s people, Israel, were to be set apart for Him, much like the New Testament describes Christ-followers as a “peculiar” people—meaning God’s own “special possession,” set apart for His purposes. The lessons God taught the Old Testament Saints were “examples” for us today.
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The Message of a Substitutionary Sacrifice
There are five main sacrifices or offerings throughout the book, and some of them were “bloody.” The necessity for blood is understood in light of God’s words in Leviticus 17:11. “For the life of a creature is in the blood,” God said, “and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
While some religious leaders decry this bloodiness and the sacrifices, especially on the Day of Atonement (Chapter 16), picture the person and work of Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice “once for all” for the penalty of our sin. Leviticus is a strong and clear message of substitution.
New Testament believers are made holy through His sacrifice, and the Old Testament sacrifice for sin—the holiness temporarily imparted by the Law—is no longer necessary. In Christ, the perfect sacrifice, Christians exchange their sin for the righteousness of Christ. Now believers have sweet access to God and can come boldly and confidently to His throne of mercy.
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The Message of Correct Social Behavior
Correct doctrine is essential to correct behavior, and we see this in Leviticus—first holy precepts, and then holy practice. Leviticus not only spells out purity toward God to please and honor Him, but also standards of proper social behavior in our relationships with people.
Chapters 17-27 include laws about sexual immorality, warnings about idolatry, land laws, priestly requirements, religious festivals and celebrations, and instructions for the Sabbath year and year of Jubilee. Many instructions God gave about sexual immorality (in Chapters 18 and 20) plus teachings in Chapters 11-15 about food, disease, dead bodies, and childbirth don’t sit well with many people in our impure culture today.
While space in this article prohibits dealing with each individual instruction, the important thing to remember about these directives is that God gave many laws in context of the culture God’s people faced, and they are presented in a historical format—given for the people’s protection from the illnesses and diseases that could arise from violating particular laws and instructions. Some also reflected God’s holy nature and design—and still do.
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The Message of Our Proper Worship
Though many focus on the rules in Leviticus, for the Jewish people these teachings were understood primarily in context of proper, holy worship of the living God. The many details related to the building of the Tabernacle, where Israel would come to meet with God, illustrate how important and sacred the idea of worship was from their perspective—and God’s.
John MacArthur wrote, “Israel had, up to that point, only the historical records of the patriarchs from which to gain their knowledge of how to worship and live before their God… With the instructions in Leviticus, the priests could lead Israel in worship appropriate to the Lord.”
Gifts, both of substance and talent, were willingly and gladly given as acts of worship in Leviticus. The wealth lavished on the Tabernacle was symbolic of Israel’s greatest Treasure—the Lord Himself. The various colors and materials used were daily reminders of Israel’s special relationship with Jehovah.
While this book of worship was woven together with the theology of Old Covenant ritual, its directives still hold significance for Christians as the foreshadowing of the New Covenant.
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"And out of that worship, we understand how important it is to live for Him."
As we begin to understand how God has mercifully dealt with His people through the ages, we are drawn to worship and gratitude for the Messiah – the crucified and risen Savior. And out of that worship, we understand how important it is to live for Him. As an old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.” Because our soiled garments are washed white in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb, we can worship Him both now and forever.
The saintly radio pastor J. Vernon McGee wrote in Learning through Leviticus, “Worship for us today is no longer by ritual or in a specific place.” Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman made that clear. McGee saw a powerful progression in the first three books of the Bible: In Genesis, he explained, we see man ruined; in Exodus, man is redeemed; and in Leviticus, we see man worshipping.
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"I now exclaim, 'How wonderful!'"
The truth is, the God-directed commands of Leviticus made possible a newfound and profound joy in God’s presence. I’m thankful God opened my eyes to that truth. Rather than my former, “Say, What?”—I now exclaim, “How wonderful!”
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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