The Gospel in Leviticus (and All of Scripture) – Emily Smith
First, let’s define some terms:
The Gospel: The good news of Christ Jesus. We were made to commune with our God, who loves us and desires relationship with each of us. However, each of us has consciously chosen to defy God. We act contrary to his plans and commands. We sin. And because God is perfectly holy, just, and wrathful, the penalty for this sin is death, and an eternity apart from Him. No exceptions. But God (here comes the good news part) is also perfectly kind, loving, and rich in merciful grace. He made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. God the Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth, lived a sinless human life as one of us, and died in our place. He bore the punishment of the crimes we have, do, and will commit. Then, He rose again. He didn’t stop at dying for us, he conquered death for us! Christ died so we didn’t have to, and He lives so we can, too, in the presence of and relationship with our Lord forever. We are saved, renewed, and transformed through the sacrifice of Jesus and sovereignty of God. We didn’t earn this indescribable gift, and we certainly don’t deserve it. We couldn’t if we tried. Yet all that our gracious God requires of us if we want to receive it is faith in Christ.
Leviticus: The third book of the Bible. A collection of laws and commands given by a holy God to regulate the holiness of His people of the nation of Israel, and a description of a sacrificial system to account for guilt incurred when laws were broken. Unfortunately, notoriously intimidating. Sometimes regarded as difficult to apply. Perhaps the leading cause of death for Bible in a year reading plans.
Exegesis: Critical interpretation, understanding, and explanation of Scripture. Drawing out the intended meaning from the text.
Alright here we go. Sometimes books like Leviticus (see also: Ecclesiastes, Revelation) seem to be met with an undeserved surface-level examination. Ecclesiastes isn’t just bleak. Revelation isn’t just confusing. And contrary to what I thought for a chunk of my life, there is infinitely more to be garnered from Leviticus than “wow, I sure am grateful that I don’t have to wring any pigeon necks today.” In retrospect, that’s what I like to call poor exegesis. Like the rest of scripture, Leviticus points us to the gospel and helps us know the God we serve.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:
“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.”
Paul, the author of this letter, is encouraging Timothy, its recipient, to increase continually in wisdom and familiarity with all of God-breathed scripture in order to be best equipped by God for God’s work. In viewing the whole of scripture rightly, He will be strengthened to endure in suffering, identify falsehoods, and hold fast to the gospel in his ministry. No part of scripture is any less necessary, worthwhile, or revelatory than another, including the passages that seem more difficult or less applicable. It’s all about the glory and grace of God and the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.
My original, troublingly incorrect interpretation of Leviticus was more than a little reductive. The point is decidedly not that I no longer have to make blood sacrifices in order to live up to a standard of perfection outlined by the law. The point is that our merciful, loving God was making a way for His people to be with Him.
Even under the old covenant, Israel’s obedience wasn’t their redemption. Even when they were working to adhere to the law, they were never earning their way into the presence of the Lord. It was never about what they were doing, but how God was working. They were being ransomed and purified by the power of their Holy God. Even the laws, mandates, and commandments given in Leviticus are a good gift undeserved. God’s law, as a foreshadowing of Christ, made a way for Israel to commune with Him, through no merit of their own. God has always made a way for His people to be redeemed and reconciled.
The law gave a system for the Israelites to appear ritually, physically, and behaviorally pure before God through sacrificial shedding of blood. In His rich mercy and grace, God gave His chosen people a means by which they could approach Him cleansed, though they continually stained themselves with sin that ignited His just wrath. The law wasn’t a burden, nor merely a list of impossible rules. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a celebration of the law of God. The author delights in and longs for the law. That may seem counterintuitive to us westernized twenty-first century folk, but the writer of Psalm 119 didn’t view the law as archaic or confusing or cruel. Rather, it’s described as redemptive, salvific, life giving, and fortifying.
Verses 9-16 say:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Obedience to the law was not bondage, but freedom. And during the time of the law, an even greater, more complete and permeating liberation was on His way. More on that soon.
Okay, if we’re going to delight in the law of Leviticus, let’s get a little more specific. The first chapters of Leviticus outline five types of offerings. The burnt, grain (sometimes called meal), peace, sin, and guilt (sometimes called trespass) offerings. For the discussion at hand, we can place these five types into two main categories: atonement and enjoyment.
First up, offerings for atonement. This category includes the burnt, sin, and guilt offerings. Predictably, due to human frailty, the Israelites failed to keep the law perfectly. They sinned. And because God is just, every one of their sins necessarily resulted in the penalty of death. But, under the law, the sinner didn’t have to be the one to die. A substitutionary sacrifice was acceptable. Depending on the sin, the person(s) who committed it, and their monetary means, the Lord would accept a specific animal offering, such as a bull, goat, lamb, or pigeon. The transgressor was to take an animal, without spot or blemish, from his herd, place a hand on the head of the animal, and sacrifice it in front of the Tabernacle (this was the dwelling place of God on earth at that time. You can find a lot more information in the book of Exodus). Then Israel’s priests would bring the sacrifice inside the Tabernacle and present it to God.
There’s a lot of things to notice here, but for now, let’s talk about three (fun challenge: see if you can spot foreshadowing of Christ in these offerings).
First, the laying on of hands. As aforementioned, the offerer was to “lay his hand on the head of the offering,” as it was killed (Leviticus 1:4, 3:2, 3:8, 3:13, 4:4, 4:15, and several more). There was a direct connection between the sinner and the sacrifice. This isn’t an incitement of needless animal cruelty. Instead, this is another example of God making a way for communion. There’s a 1:1 ratio for trespass and sacrifice. All sin requires atonement, but after the payment, it’s expunged. Every sin committed by Israel warranted condemnation and required propitiation. When a sin was committed, an animal had to be killed so the sinner could be cleansed.
Second, for sin offerings, God accepted different sacrifices depending on what the sinner was able to provide. Leviticus 5:5-13 explains that a sinner should present a lamb to atone for sin, but if he can’t afford it, two turtledoves or two pigeons, but if he can’t afford that, a measure of flour would be accepted. The outcome of each of these was the same, “the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.” Again, the forgiveness of sin didn’t depend on what Israel was bringing to the altar. It depended on the mercy and grace of God, given freely to the faithfully repentant.
One more: the priests were the ones who brought the sacrifice to the Lord. But they, too, were fallible, sinful men. Leviticus 4:16 says of sin offerings, “if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering.” The priests were only able to effectively do their job— interceding to God on behalf of the people— if they themselves were cleansed of sin.
Next, offerings for enjoyment. This includes the grain and peace offerings, sometimes described as voluntary offerings. They weren’t offered to make peace with God, but to enjoy it. In Leviticus 2, we learn part of the grain offering was burned as “azkarah,” translated from Hebrew as “memorial portion” to remember the Lord and the favor He’d shown to Israel. In Leviticus 2:13, Israel is commanded to season their grain offerings with salt, a reminder of the preservation of their covenant with the Lord, perpetuated by His grace and steadfastness. These offerings were an opportunity to express thanksgiving, celebrate the Lord’s provision, and demonstrate trust in God for those absolved of guilt.
Review time: all the books of Bible are a blessing beyond words. Please read all of them lots of times. That being said, I have a favorite. Hebrews. It helped me bridge the mental gap between the Old and New Testaments that I had when I was first learning to study scripture. Hebrews paints a picture of the way that everything great about the Old Testament is made even greater in Jesus Christ. I really want to copy and paste the entire book of Hebrews here. But I’m doing my very best to remember that this is a blog post and not a full-length commentary, so:
“‘The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’’ This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but He holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues forever. Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”
Hebrews was instrumental in bringing me, by the grace of God, who was endlessly patient when I didn’t get it, to understand why it’s so important to delight in all of Scripture. The first time I read Hebrews, I was in awe. Then I read the law, and when I read Hebrews again, I was in infinitely more awe. Scripture helps us understand scripture, because it’s all about the glory of God and the Gospel of Christ.
Jesus filled the role of all of the offerings we talked about before. He replaced them and perfected them with Himself. He is our perfect burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offering to God. He makes us reconciled and gives us community with God, once and forever. He justified us through His death, and He leads us in being sanctified in life. He makes a way for us to enjoy the peace and presence of God.
Like the sinners in Israel laying hands on the head of their offering, Jesus is connected to each of us. He died for our sins. Mine. Yours. All of them, individually. Christ died and rose in one sacrificial act for all sin as an aggregate, but each individual sin required atonement in that moment. Like the Levitical sin offerings, this isn’t dependent on what we have to offer. It’s dependent on the Lord making a way. Unlike the priests in Leviticus, Jesus can always make intercession for us. He’s perfect and sinless, so He never has to be cleansed. He is always righteous before God, always able to be our connection to the enjoyment of His presence.
Jesus lived, died, and resurrected to perfect and fulfill the law. The sacrifice of Christ purifies not only our bodies, but our hearts, minds, spirits, and souls. We experience a fundamental shift from death to life through the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus’s propitiation instituted a new and better covenant, one under which we are permanently, completely redeemed. God has always been making a way to graciously grant us life eternal in His presence. Jesus Christ is The Way, foreshadowed, prophesied, and now fulfilled throughout scripture and for all time.
If you know me, you might have noticed that I tend to be a little (okay maybe a lot) long-winded when it comes to biblical discussion. The (much longer) first draft of this post included an itemized list for each type of offering, some additional thoughts on the perfection required of sacrifices, and more information on high priesthood. I decided to leave those things out. Instead, I want to encourage you to study the book of Leviticus*. Don’t stop at “I’m glad I don’t have to do that.” Explore how each individual offering reveals the sacrifice and perfection of Jesus. Discover the ways the office of high priest foreshadows the role of Christ. Delight in the law. Or if you already knew all that, study another book you’ve avoided, or maybe one you’ve read before but it’s time approach with some new wisdom. I guarantee you can find the gospel there, too.
One of infinitely many very cool things about the Bible is that we will never finish learning the full complexity of the gospel it proclaims on every page. God has revealed Himself in His word, and we get to spend a lifetime discovering His attributes, His will, and His redeeming grace. If you’re apprehensive, pray for understanding. Find some good commentaries. Remember to examine context. Phone a friend. Practice exegesis. Keep at it. Every part of the Bible, even the intimidating parts, are full of the gospel, which is the most completely, universally applicable truth of all.
Thanks for listening,
Emily Ruth Smith
*note: If you’re brand new to bible studying, I encourage you to start with a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). And If you aren’t sure yet how to study scripture, contact UCF BCM or one of our members and let us know! We’d love to help you learn.