Perhaps you’ll want to complain about misleading advertising, but I figured if I put the word “Leviticus” in the title you might not click on the link. Referred to in my circles as “the bible study killer,” Leviticus is a book that we often avoid—unless we’re finding it hard to get to sleep one night. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trust me. Because that’s what we’re studying over the next week or so.
Now I’m not quite as confident as Rob Bell. (Disclaimer: mentioning Rob Bell in a post in no way suggests I endorse any theological positions he may hold.) Back before he was famous, he planted a church in Michigan, in 1999. And for the first year of his church plant – which had the specific mission of reaching people who had never been to church before – he preached from the book of Leviticus. For the whole year. Why?
I mean, why?
Rob gave two reasons, and they’re worth listening to:First, I didn’t want the church to succeed because we put together the right resources. I wanted the church to flourish on the power of the Spirit alone. I knew opening with Leviticus—foreign words to today’s culture—was risky. But the bigger the risk, the more need for the Spirit and the more glory for God to get.
A bit like dowsing an altar in water before praying for God to set it on fire. God likes a challenge. Fair enough.Second, unchurched people often perceive the Bible as obsolete. If that crowd could discover God speaking to them through Old Testament law, it would radically change their perception that Christianity is archaic. I wanted people to know that the whole biblical story—even Leviticus—is alive… Leviticus cannot be tamed. Its imagery is too wild. We ventured into its lair and let it devour us, trusting that God would deliver us with a truer picture of his Son.
And it worked. People who had never been to church before became fascinated with this often bizarre book. Families; high-school kids; everyone. They began to understand what sacrifice originally meant. They experienced how seriously God takes our sin. And each week, as Rob showed them how Leviticus finds its fulfilment in Jesus, they understood why Jesus had to die. How he died for them, so they didn’t have to sacrifice animals; so that they could approach God directly; so that they would be cleansed from sin and no longer be under God’s judgement. (Further disclaimer: and no, I don’t know how he reconciles this with what he says in Love Wins.)
His church soon had several thousand people attending each week – you might first be tempted to say despite the fact Rob preached through Leviticus for a year. But when you see Leviticus as the essential backdrop for understanding the cross, I think it’s really because he preached through Leviticus for a year.
So a week or two is pretty mild in comparison. And that’s where we’re heading, going through the first 15 chapters of Leviticus. But before we launch into it, we need to establish a couple of ground rules. A few guidelines for how we apply it to us. Otherwise you might all turn up to your church with farm animals and expect your pastor to slaughter them for you. In linen underpants (Lev 6:10). So let’s be straight up about how Leviticus no longer applies to us – let’s be clear about what’s changed:
Firstly, the location of God has changed. Well, not completely. I mean, you can still contact him at the usual address, care of heaven. He hasn’t moved, or anything. In fact, an you imagine God moving house – all the stuff he’d have accumulated for, like, eternity? God hasn’t moved. But the location of God in relation to humanity has changed.
When Leviticus was written, God’s address was the tabernacle. Sure, the Israelites understood that as the creator of the universe, he was everywhere. But his specific presence among his people was in this big tent – the place you had to go in order to worship him. Later, the tent became a temple – but the principle remained the same.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, however, this was no longer the case. Remember how the temple curtain got torn at the instant of Jesus’ death? That told us things had changed. Now, the church building isn’t a tabernacle or a temple. God doesn’t specifically dwell there amongst his people. Sure, it’s the building we all gather in order to worship God on a weekly basis. But that’s as far as it goes. We could worship in a school hall, as many churches do. That’s because God’s presence is now in us, courtesy of his Holy Spirit living in us. We, as the people of God, have become the temple of God – God’s address; the place where people come if they want to get in touch with God. We don’t have to go in and out of a temple in order to experience God’s presence; we who are believers have his presence within us 24/7. That’s the first main difference.
The second big difference is the need for animal sacrifices – and that’s what we’ll be focusing on this week. All the sacrifices we’ll be looking at are no longer necessary for the Christian. Not because we outgrew them. Not because they’re no longer ‘culturally relevant’. But because God did away with them. He did away with them by provided a better, lasting sacrifice – his son Jesus, who died on the cross. His sacrifice was once-and-for-all. (Read the book of Hebrews if you want to find out exactly how.)
Jesus’ enduring sacrifice is why we can have God’s presence in us all the time. It’s why we don’t have to offer an animal in our place just to enter God’s presence each week.
So what does apply to us?
So if we don’t have to offer animal sacrifices, and if we don’t have to go to a tabernacle to worship God, how does Leviticus apply to us?
I think there are two key lessons. Because for all that’s different between us and ancient Israel, there should be a continuity in our attitude to worship:
Firstly, Leviticus teaches us respect for God’s holiness. I gives us a realisation of how seriously God takes our sin. The fact that animals had to die – even cute ones, like sheep. Animals had to die for God’s people to be able to come into his presence. Our sin, our rebellion, is not something that God glosses over; it has to be dealt with before we can even begin to relate to him. Leviticus challenges us to take sin as seriously as God does. It makes us aware of the chasm that stands between God and us.
Secondly, Leviticus teaches us about God’s mercy. How he provided a sacrificial system that enabled his unholy people to become holy; to be forgiven for their sin; to have a relationship with their creator. It teaches us to be thankful for God’s mercy – all the more since Jesus made it possible to do away with those repeated sacrifices.
And so this week, we’re going to look at these sacrifices. There were five different types. And we’ll see how it is that, for the most part, they are rendered obsolete by Jesus.
For now, read through Leviticus 1-2 slowly – imagining yourself actually performing these rituals as they are described in all their painstaking detail. We’ll begin tomorrow by looking at the burnt offering.