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Drawing Near to be with God / Leviticus 17-27

Leviticus 17-27 as preached by Timothy O'Day.

Leviticus 17-27 are God’s instructions to Israel in how they are to draw near and so be holy and have full communion with God.

In these chapters we see that holiness...

1. Means belonging to God.

2. Comes by experiencing God's presence through worship.

3. Is fulfilled in Christ.

Drawing Near to be with God

Psalm 119:97 is one of the most convicting verses in the Bible. It reads, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”

Why is that convicting? It’s like an eye test. When you are sitting in the doctors chair and he says, can you read the letters in front of you, your hearts sinks when you cannot. Your eyes don’t work like they should. Psalm 119:97 is like an eye test. The word for law is “Torah,” which specifically refers back to the first 5 books of the Bible. There have been few times in my life when I have meditated on Leviticus and said to God, “oh how I love your law!” Perhaps you are the same. As the eye doctor tells me my eyes don’t work properly, Psalm 119:97 tells me that my heart doesn’t either.

And one reason we do not love it is because we do not understand it. And one reason we do not understand it is that we do not spend time meditating on it. I hope that has changed for us over the past few weeks.

Slow Down in Order to Love the Law

I hope that one of the major takeaways from our time in Leviticus is that you need to slow down and comprehend what is happening in the context of a book, passage, and verse. When you slow down you see that Leviticus is more than mere ceremony. It is all leading toward one end: drawing near to God.

In fact, you might have missed the bombshell statement I just read in Leviticus 26:11-12. Those verses contain the direction of all of the instructions of Leviticus. There God says,

“I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”

Did you catch it? God is making a promise that there is something even greater coming than his dwelling with Israel through the tent of meeting. He will walk among them. This should draw our attention back to the Garden of Eden, when God would walk with Adam and Eve. Before sin entered the world, God’s people had sweet and uninterrupted communion with him. The promise held out in Leviticus is that God’s people can have that again. The tent of meeting is just the beginning.

All of the ceremonies and the call to distinguish between the clean and the unclean, the holy and the profane, are leading to this one end: God being with his people as he was before sin entered the world. When you boil it down, meditating on Leviticus is meditating on the fact that God is determined to draw near to his people.

Leviticus 17-27 is about how Israel can have this wonderful promise. It is also about how we can experience this wonderful promise. And the answer can be given in one word: holiness. Leviticus 17-27 are God’s instructions to Israel in how they are to draw near and so be holy and have full communion with God.

Holiness, then, is about communion with God first and foremost. Holiness is not about keeping some code of ethics that most people find constraining and outdated; holiness isn’t about crushing fun; holiness isn’t about being quiet. Holiness is primarily about being with God. Communing with him; having fellowship with him. Knowing him and enjoying the God who is.

Holiness isn’t about being good as an end in and of itself. Rather, it is about being with God.

Having learned how to distinguish between the clean and the unclean in Leviticus 11-16, Israel can now be fully consecrated to God as the priests are fully consecrated. This is what Leviticus 17-27 is all about—all of God’s covenant people being able to draw near into the presence of God; all of God’s people entering into his sacred space.

So many people miss this when they read Leviticus. Perhaps you do as well. So let’s take a few minutes this morning to quiet our hearts and look very carefully at what God has said to us in these chapters in regard to holiness.

First, holiness means belonging to God

Many point to Leviticus 19:2 as a summary for these chapters, “Speak to the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” This call to holiness is a call to belong completely to God because the goal of holiness, as we see in 26:11-12, is to commune with God. What chapters 17-23 stress is that holiness is giving yourself completely to God—surrendering yourself to his ways and purposes; giving yourself to his possession.

Only God is Holy

I say this because in order to be with God, we must be holy because he himself is holy. This is something God is stressed throughout these chapters. God tells Israel repeatedly why they must be holy: he says, “I am the LORD” (18:2, 4-6, 21, 30; 19:3-4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30-32, 34, 36-37, 20:7). He also says, “Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy” (19:2, 20:26). Classically, God’s holiness means that he is separate from all of creation. He is in a category of his own because everything else is made, but he is the unmade and uncaused creator. That’s what it means to be God. He is set apart from all else. The call for us to be holy in Leviticus 19:2, though, is not a call for us to become like God in his being. We cannot become unmade and uncaused beings. But we can be set apart to him and for him. For people to be holy, they are to live in complete surrender to God by giving themselves to him for his ways and purposes. This is what it means for the priests to be holy before the Lord. They are completely set apart for his service in the sanctuary. Israel’s call, if you recall Exodus 19, is that they are to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). The goal for all of Israel, then, is that they are to grow in holiness and thus all enter into this special service of God.

Only God Can Make Us Holy

But in order for the people to be holy like this, God must act. As the only truly holy one, he must make Israel holy. This is signified by another type of statement that God makes in these chapters, “I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (20:8, 24; 21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). To sanctify is to make holy, so God is the one who makes us holy.

This is why, as we saw in Leviticus 11-16, Israel is to remain clean. We discussed in those chapters that to be clean is to be ready to draw near to the holy sanctuary. Being clean means that you can be set apart for a holy purpose within the holy realm.

In order for Israel to fulfill this mission of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, they need to be holy. And being holy means in Leviticus 17-27 giving themselves more and more into the possession of the one true God. But if holiness requires God to act, what does he do? How does God make them his own possession?

First, he separates and redeems Israel for himself. This separation is stressed twice in chapters 18 and 20. The reason for the laws in chapter 18 are stated as follows in 18:3-5, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bring you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God.” Likewise, in 20:22, “You shall therefore keep all my status and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out.” These verses highlight that God has separated Israel from Egypt, where he had taken then, and he wants them to be distinct from the people in the land of Canaan, where he is bringing them. They are not, then, to imitate and follow the statutes of the foreign gods of those lands. This means that there are statutes they are not to follow, and those are the things negated in chapters 17, 18, and 20. The prohibitions laid out in Leviticus 17, 18, and 20 are most likely God telling Israel not to order worship and life the way that the Egyptian and Canaanites order their worship and life. They are to be different in that their worship is to value life (17), not have sexual elements (18, 20), and not consist of offering their children on the altar (18, 20). Positively, they are to obey the Lord’s statutes which are listed out in chapter 19. This is how they are to mirror the character of the one true God to the nations around them. These statues center on, as it may say in one of the headings in your Bible, loving your neighbor as yourself. God has separated, Israel, then, as his special possession to reflect his goodness into the world, as he says in 20:26, “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”

And this separation is possible because God redeemed Israel to be his very own from Egypt. Leviticus 25:55 says, “For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” This highlights, along with Leviticus 27, the fact that God has gone to great lengths in order to make Israel his own. The book of Exodus lists out the extent of his work to redeem Israel from slavery in Egypt. Leviticus 27, while it seems to be an appendix to Leviticus, also highlights the high price of redemption. That chapter notes that when someone vows themselves to the Lord, instead of serving in the sanctuary (as there would likely be no need of their service because the Tribe of Levi was to serve) they would pay a price in order to be free from the vow. It was a redemption price. And, if you look through the prices listed, then you will realize the prices a hefty. Some prices were as high as fifty shekels, and a shekel was one month’s wage. Leviticus closes, then, with this reminder of the great act of God in redeeming Israel out of slavery from Egypt. They belong to him and should thus devote themselves to him.

Second, because the world is corrupted, God must make Israel his own through instruction. As we saw, the land that Israel was taken from (Egypt) and the land to where they are going (Canaan) are corrupted. That is why they need God’s instruction in order to know what is good, right and true (18:4). They need special revelation. When God says in Leviticus 20:26, “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine,” he is saying that he is seeking to make a new people through redeeming, separating, and instructing his people. Chapters 17, 18, and 20 serve in instructions on how to separate and chapter 19 gives them guidance as to what they are to put on in its place. And chapters 21-22 give instructions for how the priests are to remain holy and thus mediate between God and Israel until all attain this holy status.

In the New Covenant, Jesus Christ has made a people for himself. How? Just like his work with Israel, except greater. First, he has separated us from the world. While we remain in the world, we are not of the world. Christ calls people to depart from the patterns set by this world and to be devoted to God. Second, he has redeemed a people in bondage to sin. While the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, we are enslaved to sin. But Christ, dying a death for sin on the cross, frees us from the guilty bondage and the power of sin over us. We are set free so that we can instead live righteous lives under his rule. Third, since there is indwelling sin remaining in us and we live in a corrupted world, he gives us instruction through is word in how we are to be set apart from this world. It is through the reality of Christ’s work for us that we can now live lives of increasing holiness. That is the thrust of the New Testament call to holiness. In 1 Peter 1:13-25, the call to be holy springs from the reality of God’s work for us. He has redeemed us in Christ, separated us for his own, and empowers us by his Spirit and his word to live lives in imitation of God.

Second, holiness comes by experiencing God’s presence through worship

Leviticus is a journey in drawing near to God. At the end of Exodus, Israel has constructed the tabernacle, but after God’s glory falls on it no one is able to enter, not even Moses. Leviticus begins with God calling out to Moses from the tabernacle and giving him instructions for how Israel is to draw near. In Leviticus 9, we see that by following these instructions Moses and Aaron (and all of Israel carried through the corporate representation of Aaron) are able to draw near to God in the tent of meeting. Leviticus 11-16 then addresses how Israel is to continue to draw near in light of the fact that they continually risk defiling the sanctuary with their impurity. Leviticus 17-27, then, is God speaking to Israel about how they can be like him in holiness. That is to say, he is telling them how they can be transformed by his holy presence so that, as Leviticus 26:11-12 lays out, God may again dwell with his people in perfect communion.

God’s Presence Makes the People Holy

Since that is the case, it causes us to look at these holiness instructions differently. They aren to instructions on how Israel can become holy. They are instructions on how Israel is to be devoted and near to the Lord—how they are to belong to him. It is through being present with the holy God that the people will be made holy by his presence. That is the point of chapters 22-25. It is God’s presence that makes the people holy. Or, put differently, transformation into holy people comes by experiencing the holy God in the context of worship. You will give yourself heart and soul to what you love—and you love what you worship.

The Instructions and Meaning of Leviticus 23-25

In these chapters, God instructs Israel in how they are to orient their calendars and subsequently their worship around God’s presence. Chapter 23 lists out the different feasts and special days; chapter 25 lists out the special years. Chapter 24, then, is central to how Israel is to orient their worship. While chapter 23 lays out special Sabbath days of rest, and chapter 25 lists out special Sabbath years, chapter 24 makes a statement about what is to happen from each Sabbath to Sabbath. We see in verses 1-9 that twelve loafs of bread, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, are to be set out before the LORD, specifically before the lamps kept in the sanctuary. These lamps represented the presence of God. The light from these lamps was to shine on the bread from Sabbath to Sabbath. This practice is significant for two reasons.

First, the symbol of the bread and the lamp is significant. It is a way of signifying the meaning of the covenant between God and Israel: they bask in his light, his goodness, and his holiness. As such, the bread that comes from Israel, becomes holy from God’s presence. It comes from the people of Israel, but turns into a most holy portion (24:9). It is a symbol, then, of how Israel is to become holy: by being present with God.

Second, the placement of this passage within the wider practices of orienting the calendar around worship is also significant. If the bread is the symbol of Israel being changed by being present with God, how exactly are they to behold God’s light, goodness, and beauty? Since this passage is centered between all of the times listed for special days of rest and worship (ie, Sabbaths) and the bread is to be there from Sabbath to Sabbath (24:8), the way Israel is to behold the holiness and goodness of God is through worship. That is to say, as they experience the goodness of God and are exposed again and again to the kindness of God, they will be continually changed and transformed by his presence. When they worship at these festivals, it isn’t just a party. God is present with them through his dwelling place. And it is this joyful and adoring exposure to the holy God that will transform them into a holy people.

So What Happened?

But most of us know the history. Israel did not keep its Sabbaths. Israel went after idols and ignored the one true God. So Israel went into exile and experienced the curses of Leviticus 26. The dangers of not enjoying God are laid out in the second half of Leviticus 24 which gives a narrative of a man who cursed God’s name and is stoned for his blasphemy. While Israel was forbidden to have a carved image to represent God, what they did have was God’s name. God hadn’t simply given Israel information in giving his name to them; he had given them a covenant relationship with him by which they were to be transformed. So to curse God’s name was tantamount to desecrating the sacred space. But this is what all of Israel eventually did in their rebellion against God. This is why, as Leviticus 26 warns, they experienced Exile from the land.

But in the fullness of time, God calls all men to draw near in a specific way—through the God man Jesus Christ. And by coming to Christ, we are brought into the family of God. And this isn’t just sentiment. Jesus makes us part of the family of God by giving us his very Spirit, promising to be with us always through the Spirit (Matt. 28:20; John 14:16-17, 23). And as Jesus dwells with us by his Spirit, we behold his glory as we take up his word and see him. And, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

But you must behold him. How are you beholding the Lord? How are you contemplating Christ and thus being transformed into his likeness? You will be transformed into what you behold. You are being changed from one degree to the next.

Third, holiness is fulfilled in Christ

Let’s turn back to where we began: Leviticus 26. Here is the promise of the covenant. If Israel walks in the Lord’s statutes and beholds him in their presence, giving themselves to him, then the curse will be reversed. Notice that the description of the land is like that of before the Fall. No more thistles and thorns—only bounty. Likewise, God will walk among them. God’s presence is not simply in the tabernacle. He is with his people.

But, as we already noted, Israel gets the curse because they rejected God. But God’s promise of mercy remains. Leviticus 26:40, “But if they confess their iniquity and the inequity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” Did you notice which covenant God promised to remember upon Israel’s repentance? Not the covenant made at Sinai. He would remember his covenant with Abraham. His covenant to make Abraham into a great nation; his covenant to take the seed of Abraham and to bless the whole world through his seed. And that seed is Jesus. The nation of Israel was rebellious down to the very last—except for the very last, Jesus. Israel was reduced to a stump, but from that stump came the shoot of Jesus, the seed of Abraham, the only faithful Israelite to ever life. God the Son took on flesh and became fully human, and he was Jewish. He was born under the law and perfectly kept the law. That means, then, that Jesus actually earned the blessings promised in Leviticus 26 because he faithfully kept the law by giving himself to his Father.

So now, if you come to Jesus by faith, then the promised blessing of the Old Covenant can be yours through him. The New Covenant that Jesus made through is blood says that if anyone comes to him and believes that he is who he says he is—the Son of God who took on flesh, lived a life of perfect obedience under the law, dead a substitutionary death on the cross for sin, rose again from the dead, and will come again to judge the living and the dead—then you will be saved from the curse and have the right to draw near to God in holiness.

This is the gospel. This is what we celebrate every Sunday. This is how you can draw near forever.

As you meditate on Leviticus, may you end up like the Psalmist from Psalm 119, “My eyes long for your salvation and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise” (123), as you you look for the full coming of this promise at the return of Christ.


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