Leviticus 11-16 as preached by Timothy O'Day.
The instructions of Leviticus 11-16 are meant to help God’s people draw near to him with confidence. How do they do this?
1. They mark God's people as distinctly his.
2. They serve as reminders and remedies that the world is not as it should be.
3. They remove every hindrance of our approach.
Drawing Near with Confidence
We’ve covered a lot of ground the past couple of weeks, so I wanted to begin with a little review. If you recall, Leviticus 1:1 begins by addressing the problem we are left with in Exodus 40: the glory of the LORD has filled the tabernacle, but no one, not even Moses is able to enter into it (Ex 40:34-35). As such, the tabernacle is not yet a tent of meeting. As we covered in Leviticus 1-7, the reason man cannot enter is because of sin. Sin separates and defiles, so God must call out to Moses from the tent in order to provide the solution to this separation by explaining how Israel may draw near (Lev 1:1-2). Essentially, then, the book of Leviticus is answering the question, “How can a sinful people dwell with the holy God?” And, as we saw in Leviticus 1-10, there are two immediate answers: sacrifices and the priesthood. The penalty of sin is death, so sacrifices are needed in order to atone for sin. But in order to present sacrifices one must be set apart in order to represent all of Israel to God, so a priest is needed as well. But we do not simply need a priest, we need an obedient priest, as we clearly saw in the death of disobedient Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10.
That catches us up to where we are now, Leviticus 11-16. But before we jump into those chapters, I think it will be helpful to make a few preliminary observations about these chapters.
Preliminary Observations Needed to Understand Leviticus 11-16
There are many laws mention in chapters 11-15 and it is easy to get lost in them. So here are a few observations that should help you out.
First, chapters 11-15 are needed to explain the Day of Atonement in chapter 16. The reason for the Day of Atonement is stated in 16:16, “Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.” The Day of Atonement had two primary purposes, one of which was to atone for Israel’s uncleannesses. If we did not have chapters 11-15, we would not know what those uncleannesses were. They give us context in order to understand chapter 16 by showing us what is meant by “uncleannesses.”
Second, chapters 11-15 are placed between two pivotal narratives: the deaths of Nadab and Abihu and the Day of Atonement. There are so many purity instructions laid out in chapters 11-15 that you might miss the fact that all of this instruction is being given on the same day that Nadab and Abihu died. This is because their death defiled the tabernacle with uncleanness. This poses a serious setback for Israel as they desire to be God’s special people among whom he dwells. How can they continue to draw near if they defile the tabernacle? And, as chapters 11-15 show even further, they have a lot of ways that they could defile the tabernacle. God’s answer to this defilement and the possibility of further defilement is the Day of Atonement. At that event, the tabernacle is cleansed and the people are forgiven. Chapter 10, then, introduces a serious problem, chapters 11-15 heighten our understanding of the problem, and chapter 16 is God providing the solution yet again to the problem of Israel’s sin.
But those narrative sections also make clear something that I do not want us to miss: these laws are given to a particular people for a particular problem as it is under a particular covenant. That is to say, these purity laws are given to Israel in order to deal with the issue of their constant defilement of God’s special dwelling place that he has promised to them through the Covenant made at Sinai. These are not eternal commands (cf. Mark 7:14-ff; Acts 10, 15; 1 Cor 10:23-ff). As such, they may seem extreme and unnecessary to you, but they are in fact a showing of God’s mercy and grace. The New Covenant is better, but that doesn’t mean the Old Covenant wasn’t good.
But even as I say that I hope a question is springing to your mind: “If these commands were given to Israel under the Old Covenant, then why are we studying them today?” In other words, why is this in the Bible and how is it for us? That’s what I want to focus on for the rest of our time. I want us to look at what these laws meant for Israel and how we can apply them today. In order to do that, let’s begin simply by stating the main point of all of these instructions. The instructions of Leviticus 11-16 are meant to help God’s people draw near to him with confidence. If you don’t get anything else today, I hope you remember that and treasure it. But in order to treasure it I think you will need to continue to dwell with me on how these laws give confidence to draw near.
They mark God’s people as distinctly his
This is most clearly seen in the food laws of Leviticus 11. These instructions are laid out in the pattern of creation. In creation the animals are divided into three spheres: land, sea, and sky (cf. Gen 1:20-30). Here we see animals are addressed in kind: land animals in verses 1-8; sea animals in 9-12; and sky animals in 13-23. And then various instructions how to remain clean are given in the rest of the chapter.
Now if you examine these animals and try to find patterns, it is difficult. I am not going to regale you with the myriad of theories on all of these food laws. I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you what I think makes the most sense about them—although I doubt even that exhausts the depths of what God is doing with these food laws. These distinction are based on what is normal and abnormal among the animals. For example, among the sea creatures the Israelites were forbidden to eat anything without fins and scales. This was because the most common animals found in the waters had fins and scales. If it didn’t have fins and scales it was abnormal. Likewise, flying creatures had two wings and two feet. So Israel is allowed to eat bugs that have two feet and two wings, but not four feet (11:23). Likewise, no carnivores among birds or land animals are allowed. The main idea behind these distinctions seems to be that whatever was eaten had to conform to a set of standards within their animal group. If it did not conform, then it was forbidden.
It is important to not that this is not making a moral distinction among these animals. It is not as if some were righteous and some were evil. What matter was not so much what animals were selected; it was that a distinction was made at all. This is because Israel making a distinction among animals was in imitation to God making a distinction among the nations. He chose Israel from among the nations as his special possession. He did not do this because Israel was more righteous, wiser, or stronger. He simply chose them and made them his own. He made them distinct from among all the nations of the earth. In the same way, Israel is to live out this distinction by making a distinction between themselves and the other nations by the food that they eat.
To put that a bit differently, we see three food types in chapter 11 that correspond to distinctions that God had made:
Unclean animals that must not be eaten correspond to Gentiles
Clean animals that may be eaten correspond to Israel
Clean animals that can be eaten and sacrificed, which corresponds to the priesthood.
Just as God had made a distinction between the peoples, he now makes a distinction between the animals and calls Israel to imitate him in this distinction. This made every meal for Israel a statement about their distinction and redemption. It also served as a reminder of God’s redemption of them.
The main purpose, then, of these instructions was for Israel to show itself as distinct from the Gentiles. And since that is the case, it should not surprise us that food laws are quickly abrogated through the redemption given through Christ. There is no longer a distinction made between Jew and Gentile in Christ, so food laws which pronounced this distinction are put away. Christians are not called to imitate God through through diet; rather, we are to imitate God by looking to Christ. We see such a command in Ephesians 5:1-4,
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we show ourselves as distinctly belonging to God by imitating Christ. Our obedience to Christ and our unity in Christ (despite ethnic and cultural differences) is what marks us out as distinctly his.
They serve as reminders and remedies that the world is not as it should be
In order to understand what I mean by this, you need to understand the relationship between holy, clean, and unclean. Here are a few points to keep in mind as we think about these chapters.
First, there are two categories in Leviticus: holy and common. Within the category of common, something can be clean or unclean. The clean thing can become a holy thing if it is sanctified by sacrifice. The holy thing can become a common thing or even a polluted thing if it is defiled. And an unclean thing can defile the clean and even the holy thing. In addition to that, the unclean thing can be destroyed if it comes into contact with the holy. And for an object to be holy simply means that it is dedicated for a specific purpose. What does it mean to be clean then? It means that you are fit for the presence of God. To be holy means that you belong to God. That is to say, it belongs exclusively to God's realm.
Second, clean or unclean does not necessarily equate to being holy or being sinful. Being unclean wasn’t always because you committed a sin. In fact, even though a sin offering would be given for atonement, the atonement wasn’t atonement for forgiveness of sin. It is specifically stated as atonement for cleansing (12:8; 14:31). This differs greatly from that statement in the sacrifices laid out in Leviticus 1-7 (4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10). Certainly if you sinned you were also unclean, but being unclean didn’t mean that you had committed a sin. Uncleanness is more tied to the effects of sin than to sin itself. Here is what I mean: uncleanness is a result of fallenness in this world; fallenness comes because of sin. Uncleanness, then, is the result and reality of sin in this world. It represents the pollution in the world because of sin.
Third, what is important to note, then, is that if you are clean you are moving toward the LORD. If you are unclean you are moving away from him. That is to say that if you approach him in an unclean state, you are not safe. But if you approach him clean, you will not defile what is holy and thus be safe. To cross the boundary from common to holy, you must be clean. You cannot cross that boundary if you are not clean. Here is a crude example. If you come over to my house and you are covered in mud, I will not let you in. But if you are clean, then I will let you cross my threshold. You being covered in mud doesn't make you evil. It doesn't mean I don't like you. I just won't let you in. And if you come in while you are covered in mud, I will dislike that and I will call that evil because you have defiled something that I have set aside for a specific purpose.
Fourth, holiness is greater than impurity, but impurity can defile holy objects. Holiness conquers and snuffs out impurity. Life is stronger than death. That is why, when the unclean person comes into contact with the holy, they risk death (15:31). But holy objects can become defiled. If the tabernacle was continually defiled then Israel would lose their greatest treasure and blessing: God would not be among them. God had created a sacred space in which to dwell with the people in an unclean world. The Day of Atonement was the way Israel was to deal with the accumulation of sin and defilement.
This helps us understand what is at stake in these chapters. To be clean means that you are fit for the presence of God; to continue in impurity puts all of God's people at risk of losing the special presence of God. Israel at the Passover was made clean and through their covenantal status with God they remained normally clean. The priesthood was to remain in continues holiness as they were completely devoted to the service of the LORD.
That should help us understand what is happen in Leviticus 12-15. These are instructions in how to deal with the impurity of death that rested on Israel and risked to make them unclean. These chapters cover defilement that comes from childbirth (12), leprosy (13-14), and bodily discharges (15). What all of these things have in common is that they are issues regarding the movement from life to death. These things do not make you unclean because they are evil; they make you unclean because they are associated with the effects of sin. How do we see this? In chapter 11, you can become unclean by eating a clean animal that had died (11:39-40). Why is this the case? Contact with the carcass causes uncleanness because death is a result of sin. To touch a carcass is to be in contact with the world as it should not be. And this covers even good things. Child birth is good, but now it is marked by sin in that it is painful, so it results in uncleanness. Sexual union within marriage is good, but now it all too often marked by pain and selfishness—not how it is supposed to be.
These instructions, then, are a clear sign that Israel inhabits a world not as it should be. And notice the instructions for cleansing vary depending on the impurity. Sometimes it is simply washing and waiting for the evening—a simple reminder that you live in a world that is not how it is supposed to be. Sometimes, like in the case of a leper, it is intense and prolonged—an even starker reminder that the fallenness of this world will not be changed easily but only through sacrifice.
How Do We Follow These Principles Under the New Covenant?
A beautiful reality of the gospel of Jesus is that he deals effectively with sin once and for all. The guilt of sin is gone and the power of sin is broken. But don’t be deceived into thinking that the power of sin is gone. While in Christ you are a new creation, you are still being made new. The corruption of sin still rests in the Christian. We live in the “already-not yet,” which is an expression that points out the reality of our complete forgiveness but are still awaited full transformation. This reality is testified to throughout the New Testament.
Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
That is to say, we have been made holy but still also await to be made holy. We are claimed by God in Christ and he is making us new, but we will be fully like him when we see him in the new creation.
Or, as 1 John 3:2-3 testifies,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
Again, that the corruption of sin still lingers in us is made clear in a passage like James 1:14, “But each person is tempted the he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” That is to say, you cannot blame God or someone else for your sin. It is coming from your own heart.
Why do I mention all of this? You need to take the threat of sin seriously. Sin pollutes and deadens you to the truth; it puts you to sleep in regard to the things of God. And there are so many things in this world that aren’t in themselves sinful but are absolutely covered in the effects of sin. There are so many things that remind us often, “this is not how it is supposed to be,” and we need to take note of those things and respond accordingly. You do not have purity laws now, but you do have instruction from Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit to lead you. We must learn and follow these instructions for living in a world that is not yet what it is supposed to be. What are they?
Confess: Confess your sins to God and one another. James 5:16 gives us this instruction and 1 John 1:9 gives us this promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Correct: If anyone shouldn’t sin against another, it is within the Christian Church. Yet, in Matthew 18, Jesus gives his disciples instructions on what to do when we sin against each other in the church. He know it would happen. It is not how the world is supposed to be, but it happens. We are still living in the world as it should not be. But we have instructions on how to handle it. Did you know that you take part in church discipline all the time? Anytime you go to someone who has sinned against you and confront him or her about it in love—with the goal of reconciliation and unity—then you have participated in church discipline. We have to do this, church. Not as a punishment, not as an attempt to embarrass, but out of hearts that are passionate to care for one another.
Consider and quit: Consider this what things tend to drag you into a disposition toward sin. They may not be bad things, but they are things that set you on a posture to death. These may be good things that shouldn’t set you on such a posture, but you are living in a world that isn’t how it is supposed to be. What movies make sin look good to you? Do video games or board games or books destroy your discipline and open the door for temptation? Does social media wreck your desire for God and awaken your desire to be liked by people no matter the cost? What is covering you in the realm of death that you need to shake off? I know what you might be thinking, “Sound like legalism to me.” Okay, so let me make sure you don’t misunderstand me: staying away from these things won’t make you right with God. That will only come by dropping down at the feet of Jesus and trusting that he alone can make you worthy to stand before the throne of God. So, with that out of the way, don’t use the fear of legalism to keep you from the joy of growing in pure devotion to Jesus. Obedience feels really good because it is sprinting under the stream of life. So if something is making obedience seem silly to you and sin seem justifiable to you, why on earth do you want to keep it around? But remember: the only way to do this is to not think, “but I really like that thing!” It is to think this instead, “I want a pure walk with the Lord more.” The man who sold all of his possessions to buy the field with the hidden treasure wasn’t thinking about what he was losing; he only considered what he was gaining. So should you.
They remove every hindrance of our approach
If Nadab and Abihu were the picture of how not to approach God, then Leviticus 16 is the picture of how to rightly approach God. It also served to show how Israel could continue to dwell with and approach God. While we might read Leviticus 11-16, the instructions and ceremonies around cleansing, and think, “what a burden,” it is important for us to see that this was not how Israel viewed these instructions. These instructions were a relief. They were good. They allowed Israel to live with confidence in the camp knowing that they were not jeopardizing the standing of the community. These laws, even as they are summed up in Leviticus 19:18b, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” We need to understand the instructions in these chapters in this light. When the leprous person is told to go outside the camp, wear town clothes, cover his upper while crying out, “unclean, unclean,” he does not do so for public shaming but as a public act of love (13:45-46).
But drawing near with confidence did not rest solely on the actions of the people. It depended on the faithfulness of the priest and on God’s mercy. It depend on God’s mercy because he needed to provide a way for the people to cleanse the tabernacle from the defilement that would build up. This is one reason for the Day of Atonement (16:16). But it also depended on the faithfulness of the priest because, as we mentioned last week, he needed to be clean in order to draw near to cleanse the tabernacle of uncleanness and the people of sin.
Every act undertaken on the Day of Atonement is symbolic, but let’s break the actions down into categories in order to understand the significance of what is happening.
Drawing Near to God: the Day of Atonement was the day that man was able to approach the presence of God (16:1-3). Aaron, as high priest, represented all of God’s people going into the presence of God on this day. God appeared in the cloud over the mercy seat, which is why no one was to enter in except for Aaron on this day. He would cast incense so that he would not look directly at God’s glory. Yet, he was there in the presence of God.
Cleansing the Sanctuary and the People: upon entering the Holy of Holies, Aaron would cleanse it. He would start from the inside out, moving from the Ark to the outer court, moving eastward. This was an act of pushing out the defilement path Israel brought into the tabernacle. In order to do this, Aaron would sacrifice a bull as a sin offering for himself and sprinkle the blood of the bull in front of the mercy seat on the east side (16:14). Then he would take one of the two goats offered for the people. Of the two goats, lots would be cast to see which would be used as a sin offering for the people. That goat would be sacrificed and its blood would be brought within the veil to be used in the same way as the blood of the bull (16:15). This was two do two things according to 16:16. First, it atoned for the uncleanness Israel brought on the tabernacle. Second, it atoned for the sins of the people, both sins that other sacrifices could cover but also the sins that had no customary sacrifice in Leviticus 1-7.
Eliminating Sin: after cleansing the Holy Place and the tent of meeting, Aaron would present the other goat before the altar. And laying both of his hands on the goat, he was to press and confess the sins of Israel over it. This was putting the sin of the people on the goat, which he would then send away (16:21-22). After Aaron offered the burnt offering, the remaining parts of the goat and bull from the sin offering would be taken outside the camp to be burned (16:27)
When you read what the Lord says about the Day of Atonement, you realize what a momentous occasion this was. He says in 16:30, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.” And again in 16:33, “He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the latter, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.” Every hindrance from sin and impurity is wiped away through this ceremony. The people are safe with God!
The Day of Atonement was symbolic in so many ways. It pointed back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God but were expelled because of their sin. The Day of Atonement was a means of reenacting that banishment but also a symbolic means of keeping Israel from sharing their fate. Aaron would enter the presence of God in order to cleanse and atone, killing one goat to show that the only way to cleanse of defilement and sin was death. And he would send the other goat away to show that the punishment of sin was banishment from the presence of God. These sacrifices replaced the people of Israel so that they could continue to dwell with God.
But the Day of Atonement was also symbolic of what was to come in Christ. As we mentioned before, when John the Baptist saw Jesus he declared over him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Both goats on the day of atonement are symbolic of Jesus. The goat that is sacrificed and has its blood sprinkled on the altar points us forward tot he reality that Jesus died for the cleansing and forgiveness of his people. The objects in the tabernacle were dedicated for the specific purpose of service in God’s sacred space. Those who are in Christ are said to be sprinkled by his blood (1 Peter 1:2), meaning that we are now cleansed to be servants and vessels of God. Likewise, we look to Jesus as the one who bore the wrath we deserve for our sin. The wages of sin is death and this goat died in the place of the people as a sin offering. But the second goat also represents what Jesus has done for his own. This blameless goat had the sins of the people placed on it and it was sent outside of the camp, cast away from God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Quoting Psalm 22:1, Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because he was forsaken for us.
But then, when he was raised, he ascended to the heavenly places to dwell eternally in the presence of his Father. As we saw in Leviticus 1-10, Jesus is not just the sacrifice, he is the perfectly obedient priest who offers himself up once for all and draws us into the presence of God.
For Israel, the Day of Atonement was an amazing occasion on which every hindrance that blocked their way to God’s presence was removed, every cause of fear that God may not dwell with them was taken away. And we have something much better: Jesus Christ who goes before us as our priest and sacrifice. This is why the author of Hebrews writes to us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Amen. Draw near through Jesus Christ. He makes us distinctly God’s; he teaches us how to live in this world that is not yet as it should be; and he removes every hindrance of our approach to God. Let’s pray.