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Pastor, Don’t Neglect Leviticus

A while back, I was preaching through the book of Ruth, and I highlighted that Boaz demonstrated himself to be a profoundly godly and extraordinary man. I said this because he, first, knew the law and, second, went beyond it when he allowed Ruth to glean under his watchful care. Then I said, “And you’ll never know why Boaz is so extraordinary if you don’t know Leviticus. For that matter, you can’t really understand your Bible unless you know Leviticus. That’s why it’s my favorite book of the Bible.”

FAVORITE BOOK OF THE BIBLE?

Immediately doubt sprung up in hearers’ hearts: “Really?!” Perceiving their scoffs and doubts, I threatened a study through Leviticus. To my surprise, that was met with immediate pleas for mercy. “Who likes Leviticus?” I could hear them say. Even some leaders in attendance joined the fray. I was left alone (a bit of editorial license is taken here) to fight for the worthiness of Leviticus.

SLIGHTING LEVITICUS

If you slight Leviticus, you unintentionally do several things:

If you slight Leviticus, you miss the tragic weight of sin. Leviticus teaches more than a few things about the weight of our sins. The book of Leviticus is the Latin translation of it’s Septuagint name, Λεωιτικόν, meaning “regarding the Levitical priests.” I imagine that the reason most people hate Leviticus is that the first seventeen chapters, which deal with the sacrificial system, calendars, directly, seem to be void of any application today. Levitical priests, however, are necessary in the first place because of the Fall. Because of that, I push back and say that the reader who slights the book does not understand the seriousness of sin.

The decision to neglect this book underestimates the holiness necessary to remain close in the presence of God. The governing idea in the book of Leviticus is that the Lord dwells in the Holy of Holies within the tabernacle, and because of that fact, the camp of Israel must be holy—or, wholly unlike the nations that do not follow the Lord. Sacrifices functioned to demonstrate the confession, contrition, and repentance of the people of God before the Lord. Jim Hamilton notes that the heart of this system is faith: faith that God dwells in their midst within the tabernacle; faith that He demands total holiness; faith that sacrifice covers their uncleanliness; and faith to live in submission to these commands. He continued, “The Levitical system is a faith-based system, not a works-based system, and the experience of Enoch (Gen 5:24) shows that walking with God gives the word life connotations that go beyond the threescore and ten. Doing the commandments by faith in order to live results in life now and hereafter.” 1Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 110. Sacrifices are necessary because sin is the common condition of men. John Sailhamer points out a basic principle of the sacrifice: “Sin has brought the penalty of death to humankind. The death of the animal offered in sacrifice took the place of the death of the one offering the sacrifice. It was substitution. In God’s grace, the offering of a substitute atoned for Israel’s sin.” 2John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 345.

In other words, though their sin should have brought about their own death, the death of another allowed them to remain in the presence of God. Without Leviticus, the New Testament fulfillment of the type gets flattened.

If you slight Leviticus, you miss the substantial meaning of the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. In Leviticus, the reader finds the categories to understand the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his office as priest. Sailhamer wrote, “The meaning of Christ’s death on the cross is grounded in this view of the sacrifice (Mt 20:28; 26:28; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20).”3Ibid. Many passages in the New Testament reach back to the Levitical system to show that Christ is the final sacrifice—the one that fully satisfies the wrath of God. In fact, nine of the thirteen chapters of the book to the Hebrews use themes, terms, and concepts found in Leviticus. I’ll make this point again below, but ignoring Leviticus cuts your legs off if you want to be able to interpret Scripture. Even worse, you’ll never understand the deadly seriousness of your sin, and the terrible cost the Son bore as your Passover Lamb.

If you slight Leviticus, you won’t know how to interpret your Bible. Many themes and concepts throughout the Bible find their root in Leviticus. For example, you’ll not understand why Ruth can gather the gleanings from Boaz’s field (Lev 19:9-10), and that Boaz goes above and beyond the minimum requirement. You also wouldn’t understand why people separated themselves from leper nor the significance of Christ touching lepers (Lev 13). Or, the reason that Jesus needs to correct the wrongly placed emphasis on food laws over and against personal holiness amongst the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 15:11; Mk 7:15). You would miss the significance of these things because Leviticus is the charter document which establishes Israel as a nation and codifies its culture and laws. Leviticus showed Israel how to live in the world but not of the world.4See, Thomas Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 48

Worse, evangelicals’ corporate neglect of preaching in the Old Testament has led to a pseudo-Marcionism. Most of our congregations do not see a unity between the Old and New Testaments beyond the fact that they are bound in the same book. This is reinforced by pastors’ unwillingness to preach through difficult books such as Leviticus. The effect of this decision over time is a generation of God’s people who do not recognize the Lord God in the Old Testament. They struggle to comprehend the punishments for sin, the demands of holiness, and the types of Christ.

If you slight Leviticus, you would miss the remarkable emphasis on holistic living in the Old Testament. The word holy certainly can mean “set apart” or “pure, transcendent,” but it also has a higher meaning “wholly devoted.” This is why, for example, the Septuagint translates the Hb. קדשׁ (“sacred”) in Lev 19:2 as ἅγιος (“dedicated or consecrated”). 5Peter J. Gentry, “The meaning of ‘holy’ in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 170, no. 680 (October 2013): 400-417. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017), 413. Further light is shed on the meaning of holiness when Jesus alludes to Lev 19:2 in his Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” These words taken alone have different meanings, but each of them overlaps in one concept: wholeness.

As mentioned above, Leviticus taught the Israelites how to live in the world but not of the world. Thus, there were laws governing everything from their diet to their clothing. All of this served to demonstrate the commitment of the Israelites to their God. Leviticus 19 continues by highlight all the ways that the Israelites were to mark themselves as wholly devoted to the Lord.

Holiness as wholeness means that the Lord showed his character to the nations through the holy actions of His people—concern for social justice, concern for the marginalized, concerned for his fame among the nations, concern for the purity of the Israelites’ worship. Laws requiring gleaning protected the poor and landless. Laws requiring honesty kept dealings above board. Laws regarding disabilities demonstrated the value of each and every human being. Laws prescribing the Sabbath year and Jubilee taught the nation that the fruits of their labor came from the Lord and not their own hands and that He was the one who appoints land in the nation of Israel. If they lived this way, the nation of Israel demonstrated that they were wholly committed to a God who was totally unlike the gods of their neighbors.

If you slight Leviticus, you minimize the relevance of God’s Word. This is my chief concern. In my experience, most preachers slight Leviticus for one goal: a desire to demonstrate the relevance of God’s word to a skeptical audience. What, however, could erode the relevance of God’s word more than regularly saying that portions of God’s word are boring, unengaging, or—worse—irrelevant to their daily lives?

Our congregations really believe what we tell them about the Bible. So, do the hard work of exegesis and application and show your students the relevance of Leviticus to their daily lives as it pertains to holiness and fulfillment in Christ. Perhaps, if we could get our congregations to love Leviticus, they would love the whole counsel of God’s word. As one of my interns realized, “If the least liked book the Bible becomes a favorite, surely the rest will too.” I could not have said it better myself.

FAVORITE BOOK OF THE BIBLE

So, is Leviticus my favorite book of the Bible? I’ll admit: it’s not my favorite, favorite. But, I really do love God’s word, and so, I really do love Leviticus. I want my church members to love God’s word, and so I want them to love Leviticus. I want for it to be their favorite so that everything else in it is their favorite, favorite.

Leviticus is—admittedly­—one of the harder books of the Bible to interpret and apply, but through hard work and study, one will come to see that Leviticus, perhaps as much as any other book, teaches the profound need for mankind to be saved from their sins and God’s gracious provision for that salvation. In my mind, that qualifies the book as a favorite.

References   [ + ]

1. Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 110.
2. John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 345.
3. Ibid.
4. See, Thomas Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 48
5. Peter J. Gentry, “The meaning of ‘holy’ in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 170, no. 680 (October 2013): 400-417. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017), 413.
Filed under: Columns, Features, Preaching, Theology
Zachariah Carter

Zachariah is a pastor at Cedar Creek Baptist Church and pursuing his PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also manages The Commonweal Project. Additionally, he serves as adjunct professor at Boyce College. Zachariah is deputy director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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