Leviticus 1-7 as preached by Timothy O'Day.
In these chapters we see that Leviticus begins to answer the question, "How can a sinful people dwell with a holy God?" and the first answer given is "sacrifice." But what is sacrifice? Understanding it is essential to seeing the thrust of Leviticus and its place in the storyline of the Bible.
1. The issue addressed in sacrifice: the problem of sin.
2. The goal of sacrifice: being with God.
3. The process of sacrifice: entering God's presence through death.
4. The end of sacrifice: Jesus Christ.
Do You Think Leviticus is Boring?
Leviticus is often called the "graveyard of Bible reading plans" because once you hit it, you simply stop reading. People find it boring. They know that it is important, but cannot figure out why. Reading Leviticus can feel like walking into a room and suddenly hearing conversation stop. You know that they were talking about something important, but you do not know what it was or.how to find out. It seems to be a secret. So why bother? As we begin our study in Leviticus, I hope to change your mind about it. I want to help you "get in" on the conversation. And the way to do that is to understand the context of what is happening.
The Context of Leviticus
Leviticus is a text with a context. Before it comes Genesis and Exodus, which are pivotal to understanding what Leviticus is all about. To jump straight into Leviticus without understanding how it fits into the story is a recipe for boredom. It is like jumping straight into the climax of a movie that has various elements that harken back to significant events that came before. But if you aren’t aware of those events, you miss the meaning. So what are we missing in Leviticus most of the time? Namely, how it connects to the beginning of Genesis, the Garden of Eden, and the end of the book of Exodus, the paradise of God reestablished. In the beginning man was created to dwell with God in paradise. But, as you know, Adam and Eve rebelled against God and in consequence were expelled from God’s presence. The story of Genesis is how sin increased, but God’s kindness and loving purpose did not dissipate. He promised to crush evil signified in the serpent; to bless the earth through one man, Abraham, and continued to pass down that promise through his descendants. In Exodus we come to find that the descendants of Abraham are now enslaved in Egypt. As they cry out to him for mercy, he answers by delivering them out of Egypt. But he does not merely take them out of Egypt—he takes them into his very heart by making them his covenant people. He promises that they will be his special, called-out people. They will be defined by his name. The people of Israel are called God’s “first born son” (Ex 4), which makes them a new type of Adam in the Garden. In fact, part of the covenant that God makes with Israel is to put his tabernacle in their midst. This is called “the tent of meeting,” because in it God is present with and meets with his people. What this is like, then, is God creating a new Garden—a new place for him to be with his people. There is only one problem: no one can go in. Once the tabernacle is erected, we read at the end of Exodus that God’s presence, his glory, entered into the tabernacle. Exodus 40:35 states, “and Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because of the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” But if Moses, the mediator between God and Israel, cannot enter, what hope of real fellowship does Israel have? That’s where the book of Leviticus comes in. The opening verse of Leviticus is the answer to this conundrum. “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying…” (Lev 1:1). What God tells us in the book of Leviticus is the way to enter into his presence. It is his answer to how a sinful people can dwell in the midst of the holy God.
And the answer to the question, “How can a sinful people dwell with the Holy God?” Is this: God graciously provides the solution to the problem of human sin through sacrifice.
In order for us to see how this is the case, let’s consider a few things that Leviticus teaches us about sacrifice.
First, the issue addressed in sacrifice: the problem sin.
This might seem plain to you, but it is important that we acknowledge that sacrifices were given in order to solve the problem of sin. Sin pollutes and leads to death. This reality is stated by God from the very beginning. After he placed Adam in the garden of Eden, he told him in Genesis 2:16-17, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” And this isn’t just a one off statement. Throughout the testimony of Scripture we see that sin brings death (“The soul who sins shall die…” Ezekiel 18:20; “For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23).
The death that is spoken of here is more thank just physical death. One way we can pick this up in Leviticus is through the word for “atonement.” Almost every offering in Leviticus accomplishes the task of atonement. 1:4, “it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him,” 4:20, “And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven,” 4:26, “So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven,” 4:31, “And the priest shall amen atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven,” 4:35, “And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven,” 5:6, “And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin,” 5:10, “And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven,” 5:13, “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed in any of one of these things, and he shall be forgiven,” 5:16 “And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering and he shall be forgiven,” 5:18 “And the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven,” 6:7, “And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.”
Atonement has two senses that are both active in Leviticus. First, it refers to a ransom from death. Second, it refers to purification from pollution. Sacrifices, then, pay the ransom owed for sin, which is death. They also cleanse from the pollution that sin brings on you and that makes you unable to be in the presence of God.
We need to realize this in order to see that our greatest problem is not our situation. It is our sin. God is life. When we sin we put ourselves away from him and in the domain of death. This is why when he enters the tabernacle not even Moses can go in. There is too much life in the tabernacle now and there is too much death on us. We can go through our days and actually come to think that sin is not our greatest problem. We consider our difficulties at work or the difficulties with getting tasks done in the day as our greatest problems. But one of the first messages in Leviticus to us is that sin is our greatest and truest problem. It is the problem that requires us to stop everything else and deal with it.
Second, the goal of sacrifice: Being with God
As we consider the problem of sin, we could fall into a trap and think that the goal of sacrifice is forgiveness, but that isn’t the full story. Atonement isn’t the end of sacrifice but the means of accomplishing the end of being with God. Consider what the tabernacle is. In the book of Exodus, God shows Moses the pattern by which the tabernacle is to be constructed. The author of Hebrews picks up on this description of a pattern and points out that what Moses is directed to do is to built a replica so to speak of God’s eternal heavenly dwelling (cf. Hebrews 9, especially 9:23-24). If you read through the design of the tabernacle as well with its ornaments, you see that it is to draw our attention back to the garden of Eden (Exodus 25-30). In short, the tabernacle was to be representative of a place where man could dwell again with God. It is a type of new creation. Whereas Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise because of their sin, God now calls Israel back into paradise and the means of entrance is sacrifice. God’s desire is not merely for people to be forgiven. It is for communion and fellowship.
We read in Psalm 32 earlier, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, who sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps 32:1-2). Why is such a man blessed? Psalm 15 gives the answer, “O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and dow what is right and speaks the truth in his heart…” But we know that we aren’t blameless, so we count the forgiveness of the Lord as true blessing. Why? Because it means we get to be in his presence. It means we can be with him always. “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life. To gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and inquire in his temple (Ps 27:4).
This is why Leviticus is not boring. Once you come to see these two companion truths, that being with God is the greatest treasure but sin separates you from God, you become very interested any time that God initiates a conversation on how your sin problem can be overcome. And this is exactly what God does in Leviticus. In Leviticus 1:1, it is God who calls out to Moses about a way to draw near. In fact, the word “offering” in Leviticus 1:2 comes from the root of a word that means “draw near.” It you put that together this is what it means: God wants you to draw near to him and he initiates and gives the means by which you can draw near to him.
Let that sink in. There is no greater joy than being with God, but our rebellion with him earns us death, not fellowship. Yet, God calls out to us. God comes to us and says, “here is how you can draw near. I want to deal with your sin problem so that you can be with me.” Is that how you think of God? Or do you have a pagan understanding of sacrifice? The pagans viewed sacrifice as a means to an end but they also viewed the gods as a means to an end. They would sacrifice to gods because they thought that by sacrifice they would strengthen their god and enable him to do good things for them. But Israelite sacrifice as laid out in Leviticus is about one thing: overcoming the barrier of being with God.
Sacrifice, then, while brutal is also an incredible act of mercy and grace on God’s part toward his people. We need it; he initiates it.
Third, The Process of Sacrifice: Entering God’s Presence Through Death
God is life and sin is ungodliness or un-god-likeness. So sin is to spew, infect, and pollute the world with death. Atonement, then, is being ransomed from death by death. It is to be purified from death by walking through the process of death. The offerings laid out in Leviticus 1-7 (1-6:7 covering offerings from the worshippers perspective and duties; 6:8-7:38 covering offerings from the perspective and duties of the priests) can seem confusing in significance, but we could at the very least say this about each:
Burnt offering: This was the most common type of offering and is seen throughout Scripture. Along with being a specific act to be done by Israelites, it was also performed by the priests every morning and evening as an offering for all of Israel. In short, it is a death penalty substitute.
Grain offering: this consisted of harvested grain. Part was burned and part was given to the priests for food in order to sustain the priesthood. This was likely given in thanks to God in recognition of his sovereignty.
Peace offering: This offering was unique in that the offerer kept most of the animal for himself in order to eat it with friends and family. Certain portions belong to the Lord and certain portions went to the priest, but the remainder was used as a feast for celebration. This feast was to show the reality of one’s peace and communion with God.
Sin offering: This offering acted as a confession of sin and symbolized the removal of sin by sprinkling blood on items in the tabernacle. A common feature of the sin offering and the guilt offering is the realization of guilt (4:13, 22, 27; 5:3, 4, 17; 6:4). This is important because it shows that sacrifice was not supposed to be a rote act. It was to come from a place of realization of guilt and conviction of sin, as David enumerates in Psalm 51:16-17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Guilt offering: Similar to the sin offering, this offering provided restitution for the wrong committed against God and others. Only the priests were allowed to partake of the animal that was not burned up.
Each of these sacrifices acted as a reminder and sign to Israel that they needed to make amends in order to related to God because, by themselves, they were unable to draw near to him.
While there is much overlap between them, some distinct features can be seen in the process of sacrifice in Leviticus 9. There we see Aaron actually practice the offerings described in 1-7. He begins with a sin offering, proceeds to a burnt offering along with a grain offering, and then ends with a peace offering. After he is done, we can see the result in 9:22 and following, “Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the alter, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” Do you see what is happening here? Exodus ends with Moses’ inability to enter into the tabernacle; Leviticus begins with addressing this inability; and the sacrifices laid out by the LORD overcome this inability. God is dwelling and communing with his people. But what does this process of sacrifice tell us? Let’s focus primarily on the sin, burnt, and peace offerings. There are similarities and differences in all of these offerings. Some specific similarities of note are the following
First, each required the presentation of an animal without blemish (1:3; 3:1; 4:23, 28). This would be an animal from their possession or one that they would purchase. What should strike us immediately about this is how expensive and costly such a sacrifice would be. It would also require a rather good deal of examination so that you did not bring an animal that would ultimately be rejected. This highlights for us the cost of sacrifice, but also the significance of the act. The word for “without blemish” is the same word used for “blameless.” It is a blameless animal that must be given. In presenting the animal you are substituting a blameless animal because you are guilty of sin.
Second, each required the offerer to lay his hands on the animal (1:4; 3:2; 4:4, 15, 24, 29). And this wasn't a ginger laying on of hands. The offerer was to press down on the animals head. This is not like the laying on of hands that is done on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. That act seems to indicate a transference of sin. After the laying on of hands, the animal is led away from the tabernacle to symbolize the removal of sin (but more on that when we get to chapter 16). Here, however, the animal is brought into the tabernacle. After it is sacrifice the flesh of the animal is still considered to be most holy and is to be eaten in a holy place (6:25-30). What the laying on of hands signifies, then, is representation. The animal is a vicarious substitute for the one offering it. He now identifies with the blameless animal and it stands in his place.
Third, each required the offerer to slaughter the animal himself. This is particularly significant once we understand what laying his hands on the animal meant. He is looking at the animal and saying, “this is me,” then he slits its throat (1:5). It is an acknowledgement of what his sin deserves and he acts it out. It is acting out the reality that the wages of sin is death. It is by identifying first with the animal that the one making the offering is dying through the animals death. The offerer is accepting the judgment of death in this act but is also being delivered through it into life with God.
Fourth, each required that the blood from the animal be placed either on the alter, the horns of the alter, or sprinkled in the veil of the sanctuary (1:5; 3:2; 4:6; 4:17; 4:30; 5:9). This is an act of applying the blood of the offering to a sacred object of the tabernacle. Leviticus 17:11 helps us understand exactly what is happening in this act. There the Lord states, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” This verse is telling us that blood is what represents the life or the soul of the body. This has two important implications:
Since the one making the offering has now identified with the animal by laying his hands on it, his life is being brought into the presence of God. The blood comes to signify the offering up of your blameless life to God.
The blood atones in both senses of the word: it ransoms from death and it cleanses from the defilement of sin. Israel’s sin pollutes the tabernacle; the blameless blood cleanses it away. The clean blood washes away sin; life casts out death.
Fifth, each required part or all of the animal to be burnt up on the altar (1:9; 3:5; 4:10, 21, 26, 31). This act signifies the transformation of the offering into smoke that then ascends to God. But it isn’t just smoke; it is a pleasing aroma. The animal which has come to be a blameless and vicarious substitute is transformed through the fire of God’s altar—which signifies his presence—and from that ascends to his heavenly presence. But there is more! There are two significant events of whole burnt offerings in the Bible that impress a deeper significance and symbol to the act. In Genesis 8:20-21 Noah offers up a burnt offering at the close of the flood. Likewise, David offers up a burnt offering in 2 Sam 24:24-25:2 to end the plague that came upon the people because of David’s sin. Each offering marks the end of a great act of judgment. The burnt offering represents, then, appeasing the wrath of God. The animal, which stands in the place of the offerer, goes through the fires of God’s judgment and then ascends as a pleasing aroma or, as one commentator puts it, a “propitiating aroma;” that is, an aroma that satisfies the rightful wrath of God.
With all of these similarities, it is worth noting that one sacrifices stands out as unique in at least one respect and it is the one that is offered last by Aaron in Leviticus 9: the peace offering. As noted earlier, in this offering part of the sacrifice is given back to the offerer to be shared with his friends and family as a meal. This sharing of a meal with others and, symbolically, with God is no small matter. It marks real peace and communion with God; real fellowship. Through sacrifice the people of God are brought peace with God and are able to enjoy his presence.
Fourth, The End of Sacrifice: Jesus Christ
Having considered the process and significance of the sacrificial system in Leviticus, it is worth noting that while it is a solution to the problem of sin, it is not the ultimate solution. That comes in Jesus Christ. But in examining the significance of the sacrifices and how they draw us into the presence of God, I hope you can see and savor the fullness of what Jesus does for us. We do not look at Leviticus as the final answer, but as a teacher and as a guide, as Galatians 3 tells us the Law is our teacher and guide to Christ. This book is meant to point us to Christ and to show us what he has done. When Jesus says that Moses write about him (John 5:46), he does not merely mean that he mentioned a prophet to come. The significance of Jesus life and ministry is present on every page of Moses’ writings, including all of Leviticus. This is because Jesus is, as John the Baptist proclaimed, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). How is this the case? Let us focus again on the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering.
Jesus is our sin offering: Jesus is the son of God who took on flesh and lived a life of perfect obedience to the law of God. He is without blemish and blameless. Faith in Jesus consists of you pressing your empty hands on him; it is to identify with him and to fully rest on him. He represents you as the sinless lamb of God. It is his life that is given for your life; it is his blood that is shed in the place of your blood; it is his flesh that is broken instead of your life. And, just as the offerer had to slaughter the animal himself, we can say, “It was my sin that held him there / until it was accomplished / his dying breath has brought me life / I know that it is finished.” It is his blood that brings us into the presence of God and it is his blood that cleanses from the defilement of sin. As we sing, “There is a fountain filled with blood / drawn from Immanuel’s veins / and sinners plunged beneath that flood / lose all their guilty stains!”
Jesus makes the symbolism of the burnt offering real: Jesus is our wrath bearer. He is cast into the fire of God’s judgment to bear the destruction we deserve. As we read in Isaiah 53:5, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” He bears the penalty and we are transformed in the process; we are healed. But Jesus does not only fulfill the significance of the burnt offering by bearing the fire of God’s wrath; he transforms us and we ascend with him into the heavenly places. This is why Paul can write in Ephesians 2:4-6, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” Through Christ, our blameless offering, the wrath of God is extinguished and we ascend with him into the heavenly realm. But that still isn’t all. We are also being transformed ourselves through Christ. You are being transformed into new life and sanctified by the power of his grace.
Jesus is our peace offering: As we read in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is our peace offering. As he gave himself on the cross for our sins, Jesus comes back to us. He did not stay dead but rose again and imparts his Spirit to all who trust in him so that, even though he ascends, he gives us this promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). We have true communion with God now through Jesus Christ. We can walk with assurance that as we are in Christ nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
What are we to do with these things?
The application of these things is not complex: look to Christ in order to receive all that you need in order to draw near to God. In him we have the end of sacrifice in that he is the once for all sacrifice who takes away sin and brings us into the presence of God so that we may enjoy him for all eternity. What will it cost you to come to Jesus? Everything! Your whole self! But what will you gain? Everything. Even God himself.