Leviticus is the third book in what is formally known as the Torah or Pentateuch. While the word Torah broadly means instructions or teachings, the word Pentateuch derives from two Greek words meaning “five scrolls.” Also known as the Five Books of Moses these include: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In the Jewish Talmud this book centered in the middle of the Pentateuch was called, “The Law of the Priests.” The title used in our English translations “Leviticus” first emerged when the ancient Hebrew was translated into Greek in what was known as the Septuagint.
Naturally, the word Leviticus means that which pertains to the Levities. While there are aspects of the book that do have specific implications for the Levites, because the subject matter is applicable to a larger audience, I prefer the original Hebrew title, “And He called!”
Regarding Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch and more specifically the Book of Leviticus the evidence is overwhelming. As just one example, in providing instructions for how a cleansed leper was to officially present himself before the priests, Jesus says to the healed man in Mark 1:44, “Go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded (Leviticus 14), as a testimony to them.”
Aside from this instance you will discover over and over again within the Gospel record Jesus directly attributing authorship of Leviticus to Moses! If you need more affirmation than Jesus, add the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and by extension the Holy Spirit to the list.
As I mentioned last Sunday, God had supernaturally freed the Jewish people from their bondage in Egypt and now He wanted to teach them the right way to live and the best way to interact with one another. And yet, God also knew the only way for this to happen was for Him to first come and dwell in their midst. This is why the book opens with the LORD speaking from the “tabernacle of meeting.” A healthy relationship with God would be paramount if they were to live lives of holiness and in harmony with each other.
This explains why Leviticus can be broken down into two simple sections: chapters 1-17 discusses how man should approach a holy God, and chapters 18-27 unpack how man should then live in light of God’s presence. It’s also worth pointing out the subject matter presented in Leviticus is so central to the core of the Gospel message the book is quoted an astounding 100 times in the New Testament!
Pastor W.A. Criswell once said, “Without an understanding of the principles of atonement and holiness found in Leviticus, much of the New Testament has no foundation on which to rest. To say that Leviticus is one of the ‘most New Testament’ books of the Old Testament would hardly be an exaggeration, for it foreshadows the Person and work of Christ in a most remarkable and elucidating manner.” Within these 27 chapters which encompass Leviticus you will find the word “atonement” referenced 51 times in 45 verses and the word “holy” presented 90 times in 76 verses — more than any other book in the Old Testament.
For all of these reasons one of my favorite Bible expositors J. Vernon McGee once called Leviticus the “most important book of the Bible!” In fact, McGee goes so far as to suppose that “if it were possible to get the message of this book into the hearts of all people who are trying to be religious, all cults and ‘isms’ would end.” To that I’d say, “Amen!”
I’ll repeat this often, but the key to unlocking Leviticus is not to view it as a list of things you need to do, but to see it as God setting up the framework for the work Jesus would do on your behalf as well as the explanation for how that work should then naturally influence the way you live and order your life! Leviticus is God establishing the precedent for grace as well as the ways in which His grace really will change everything.
If we are being honest this morning, it’s highly unlikely many of you have ever read through the Book of Leviticus. The truth is Leviticus ends up being the book where most yearly Bible-reading plans die a quick death! While the subject matter can be arduous, the reality is Leviticus is difficult reading because of the way it’s fundamentally structured.
One of the first things you will notice and find grating as you read through Leviticus is the constant repetition of directives. For example, within the very first chapter all of the specific processes for offering a bull as a burnt offering will then be repeated word for word pertaining to the offering of a lamb and then later the sacrifice of a bird. Why do this?
While there is no question Moses wrote down the things the LORD spoke to him — in fact much of Leviticus is Moses literally transcribing word for word what the LORD had to say, keep in mind, we are thousands of years before the advent of the printing press. Yes, there was an ancient process by which copies of the original document were made, but this was tedious, expensive, and ultimately few had access to read these scrolls for themselves.
According to Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger and confirmed by noted Old Testament scholar F. Duane Lindsey, “The book of Leviticus was the first book studied by a Jewish child.” In order to both know, understand, and most importantly internalize the concepts that are articulated in this ancient book, Hebrew children were required to memorize all of Leviticus! As you can imagine the repetition of phrases and directives intended to aid in this process.
Though I don’t read or speak Hebrew, those who do make an interesting observation. One theory as to the reason for the unique repetition is that God was intentionally adding cadence and rhythm to the text so that when Leviticus was read out-loud it would sound like a song. Having children of my own it is true words put to song are much easier to memorize.
Aside from the repetition, the other structural reason Leviticus proves to be a difficult read is the enormous attention to detail God provides about everything. For example, not only were the people instructed to bring an animal to the tabernacle as their sacrifice, but every single aspect as to how the offering was to occur was addressed in painstaking detail.
As we will see this morning in chapter 1 God was specific as to what animal was appropriate for each class of society. He was detailed as to where each of these offering was to be made at the tabernacle. God was particular what was to be done with every part of the animal’s body — what parts were to be offered to the LORD and how, God determined what spices could be used and what things were to never be included, He even laid out what aspects of the offering was the responsibility of the offerer and what role the priest were to play.
Ultimately, I see three explanations as to why God goes into so much detail: First, there is no question the attention to detail intended to yield a psychological effect…
When a young person joins the military the goal of bootcamp is two-fold: break that person of who they are in order to build them into someone different. To accomplish this task a person is placed into an environment of complete structure with a particular order.
There are detailed guidelines about every aspect of life: when you get up, when you go to sleep, when you eat and what you eat, what you do during your day, how you make your bed, how you dress, what you wear, the style of your hair, how you iron your shirt, etc.
The purpose behind the structure and order is to strip you of a former identity in order to impart a new one! You see when details about even the minute aspects of a person’s life are heightened the idea is reinforced that every aspect about a person life matters!
Don’t forget the context… God delivered the Jews from their bondage and removed them from Egypt in order to make them into His people. His plan was to give them a new identity so that their lives would contrast the lost world around them. The Law — with all of these details aimed at ordering and structuring their new lives — intended to yield this specific result. Because they were God’s chosen people, everything they did mattered to Him!
In way of application this is important… As a Christian God has also freed you from the bondage of sin and called you unto Himself to be part of His chosen people. Presently, He’s imparted to you a new identity and is in this process of making you into someone else. As we work our way through the Book of Leviticus the attention to detail reinforces the idea that God not only cares about how you live, but He’s gone on the record concerning these things.
Secondly, the attention to detail — especially concerning the sacrificial system — intended to create a clear distinction with paganism… I mentioned last Sunday but the idea of approaching the divine through a sacrifice did not originate in Leviticus. In fact, the precedent was established by God in the Garden, reinforced by the acceptance of Abel’s blood offering in Genesis 4, verified by Noah’s offering of clean animals following the flood, before becoming an essential component of Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God.
And yet, while the concept of a sacrificial system had a Biblical origin, the polytheistic religions of the day had adopted and employed their own twisted version. Similar to what the Hebrews had witnessed during their years in Egypt and what they’d encounter within the communities living in Canaan, because the “gods” controlled every aspect of daily life, pagan sacrifices were often reactionary and made from a place of deep anxiety.
Sacrifices to the gods were made to either maintain favor or appease judgment. When it came to the later, the more severe the judgment the more extreme the sacrifice. In the end this twisted view of a system God instituted would lead many of these pagan cultures to even offer human sacrifices, their children, and in the most extreme situations their firstborn sons! Any system based on humans earning God’s favor will demand enormous sacrifices.
While these practices were normal and it was true a righteous God had to be approached through some type of offering, the details and directives established in Leviticus intended to differentiate their system of sacrifice with these twisted pagan ideas.
Not only will Leviticus present sacrifices not as an attempt to maintain a good-standing with God, but as a natural response to one’s good-standing; ultimately, the system Leviticus establishes reinforces the idea sinful man could never offer an adequate sacrifice to appease the judgment of God — not even a firstborn son. God’s judgment would only be appeased when He offered His firstborn Son as a sinless sacrifice to atone for man’s sins!
Which leads to the final reason for the abundance of details presented in Leviticus — every aspect of the sacrificial system had a typological purpose of pointing forward to God’s sacrifice of Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross…
In one of His post-resurrection appearances recorded for us in Luke 24:44-45 we read how Jesus said to His disciples, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” Then, most incredibly, Luke adds that Jesus then proceeded to “open their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” With that in mind you shouldn’t be surprised Leviticus plays such an important role in the New Testament.
All of the details provided in Leviticus ultimately intended to paint a picture of the sacrifice Jesus would make on our behalf. In much the same way putting together a puzzle is incredibly difficult if you don’t have the box-cover providing each piece a particular context, you must keep the cross of Calvary in view for Leviticus to make any sense at all.
I’ll say it again… The sacrificial system was only a means to an end! What we find in Leviticus only intended to establish the framework by which God would offer for us an effective Sacrifice! To this point in Ephesians 5:2 Paul boldly declares that “Christ has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
In this first half of Leviticus (chapters 1-17) God explains to His people the specific manner in which He should be approach by them. Once more there should be no surprise this section begins with 7 chapters detailing for us a system of sacrificial atonement.
If you’re a notetaker, within these chapters you will discover 5 different sacrifices: the burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, trespass offering, and lastly the sin offering. Let’s begin by reading the entire section pertaining to the burnt offerings before spending the rest of our time this morning unpacking and discussing its significance.
Leviticus 1:1-17, “Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of the livestock — of the herd and of the flock. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD. Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.
He (offerer) shall kill the bull before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle (splash) the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And he (offerer) shall skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar (Leviticus 9 —the fire came from God and was a perpetual flame), and lay the wood in order on the fire.
Then the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he (offerer) shall wash its entrails and its legs with water. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
Vs. 10… If his offering is of the flocks — of the sheep or of the goats — as a burnt sacrifice, he shall bring a male without blemish. He (offerer) shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the LORD (a different location for logistical purposes); and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall sprinkle its blood all around on the altar. And he (offerer) shall cut it into its pieces, with its head and its fat; and the priest shall lay them in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he (offerer) shall wash the entrails and the legs with water. Then the priest shall bring it all and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
Vs. 14… And if the burnt sacrifice of his offering to the LORD is of birds, then he (offerer) shall bring his offering of turtledoves or young pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off its head, and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out at the side of the altar. And he (offerer) shall remove its crop (stomach) with its feathers and cast it beside the altar on the east side, into the place for ashes. Then he (offerer) shall split it at its wings, but shall not divide it completely; and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.’”
Before we dive into the particulars, I think it would be helpful if we first establish the larger purpose for the burnt offering. According to verse 4 the entire motivation for coming to the “tabernacle of meeting” to make this particular sacrifice was for “the burnt offering” to be “accepted” by God “on behalf” of the individual in order “to make atonement for him.” In fact, the ultimate acceptance of the offering by God was thrice illustrated by the repeated phrase, “It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD!”
In the Hebrew this phrase “a sweet aroma” can be translated as “a savor of rest.” When God smelled the smoke of the burnt offering He literally sighed. God exhaled and eased. The smell brought to Him a measure of pleasure because of what the smell represented. The aroma of the offering filled God with anticipation for the completed work of Jesus in much the same way smelling the smoke of slow-cooked brisket gets you excited to eat BBQ!
Unlike some of the other sacrifices where a portion would be left over for the priests, a burnt offering was unique because the entirety of the animal was consumed on the altar. The only exception was the stomach and feathers of a bird which being unclean were discarded. What the offering intended to accomplish for man demanded all of the sacrifice be given to God.
In the Hebrew this word presented in verse 4 “atonement” is “kaphar” which literally means “covering.” Once again the entire concept of covering intended to harken back to Genesis 3.
Immediately following the sinful decision of Adam and Even to eat the forbidden fruit and rebel against God we read, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” so “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.”
In the end because these coverings were ineffective as every attempt of man to cover his sin through his works will prove, Genesis 3 closes by informing us that “for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” God provided for them coverings!
What’s important to understand about this process of covering sin is how incomplete it was by design. In Hebrews 10:4 we are told that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins!” Again, the whole purpose of the burnt offering was to point to an ultimate Sacrifice God would offer on behalf of man that would do more than simply cover over his sin, but would cleanse man of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9)!
Understand, the burnt offering was designed to articulate three things necessary for atonement: (1) God would have to sacrifice something costly. (2) Jesus would have to endure something ghastly. (3) You’d have to humbly accept that work by faith!
First, God would have to sacrifice something costly. There is no question the entire process was deeply personal. In verse 2 God specifies the animal itself had to come from “the livestock — of the herd and of the flock.” These were not wild animals. They were domesticated and totally vulnerable. You didn’t have to go out and hunt for an offering. Instead, you simply had to go pick one from the herd. They were easily available.
Additionally, in verse 2 God seems to specify the animal had to come directly from “your flock” and be a “male.” Because of the male’s ability to stud they tended to be more valuable than the females. The idea was this particular offering had to cost you something important.
Because verse 3 was clear the offering had to be “a male without blemish” more often than not the animal was chosen from the herd at a young age, kept from the fields, and was raised in a protected environment close to the family. It was then only natural that this close proximity fostered a relational connection between the family and the animal to be sacrificed.
By design this offering of an innocent, vulnerable, costly animal you knew, cared for, and had a personal relationship with in order to make “atonement” before God required much from the individual making the sacrifice. And why was this necessary? Ultimately, God wanted us to have a taste of the experience He would have when He offered His Son Jesus!
Secondly, for atonement to occur Jesus would have to endure something ghastly. There is no doubt the entire process of making the sacrifice was hands-on in order to illustrate the extreme consequences of sin. While God mandated the priests be the ones who collected “the blood” before “splashing it around the altar,” “laying the wood in order,” bringing the fire, and placing the pieces of the animal onto the altar in a particular order…
It was the job of the individual making this offering to kill the animal outside the tabernacle, skin the carcass, cut the body into specific parts for the sacrifice, remove and wash the “entrails” or literally the guts of the animal, as well as remove and wash the four legs. For obvious reasons this process varied if you were offering “turtledoves or young pigeons.”
As you can imagine when the process was over you’d stand outside the tabernacle watching the smoke ascend to heaven as your sacrifice was consumed emotionally drained and physically spent. In fact, you were a bloody mess! You see the process required for the atonement of sin was designed to be grotesque. Not only did this emphasize the severity of sin, but in the end it presented an object lesson for the experiences of Jesus on the cross.
While the Apostle John records John the Baptizer declaring Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and in 1 Peter 1:19 Jesus will be described “as a lamb without spot or blemish,” years after the cross in his vision of heaven John will say of Jesus in Revelation 5:6, “I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain!”
Beyond the fact this process highlighted the bloody effects of your sin, the purpose was to give you a glimpse into the experience of the Father sacrificing His only begotten Son. Our atonement has been afforded solely because God willingly offered the only spotless Lamb from His flock. He slaughtered His Son. The blood was on His hands. And He did this for us!
Finally, the burnt offering was designed to articulate how our humble acceptance of this sacrifice by faith was also essential for atonement. Notice how the process began… According to verse 4 before you slaughtered the animal God required the individual first “place their hand on the head of the burnt offering.” Admittedly, this translation is incomplete.
The idea being illustrated through this act was that the person was placing their complete weight upon the animal. They were resting fully upon the sacrifice. By “placing your hand onto the head of the burnt offering” you were symbolically transferring the full weight of your sin and guilt onto this innocent sacrifice who would then be offered and die on your behalf.
In this act of transference God was requiring anyone seeking to approach Him through a burnt offering accept three important truths: (1) You had to acknowledge you were a sinner separated from God. (2) You had to affirm atonement for your sin required death. (3) You had to place your faith in the fact God said He would accept such a substitute on your behalf. To this point, God is crystal clear in verse 4 that if anyone was willing to come before Him through faith in this offering the sacrifice “will be accepted to make atonement for him.”
Let me add one more wrinkle to this… We no more make an offering for atonement than we can justly transfer our sin onto a sinless Jesus. You see God the Father not only offered His Son, but it was God who transferred our sin onto Him as well. Isaiah 53:6, “And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
I hope you see how the burnt offering was all about a sacrifice God would make for you and not one you could ever make for yourself. God the Father made the offering. Jesus the Son became the sacrifice. With atonement ultimately manifesting through your faith in His work!
In closing, I want to point out the Book of Leviticus does not begin with Laws or judgment, but opens with an invitation to come to God through an atoning sacrifice He’s made for us! In verse 2 the invitation is broad and inclusive. God says, “When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord.” What is being articulated is that atonement is available for everyone! To reinforce this idea God intentionally provided three sacrifices (a bull, sheep and goats, and birds) so that no one would be excluded because of economic or social limitations.
In Leviticus 1:3 we read the burnt offering “shall be offered of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD.” While God is clear everyone had a choice whether or not they wanted to come to the tabernacle and offer a burnt offering upon the altar, in light of the much larger realities at play this tells me something even more amazing.
God didn’t have to provide Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for our sin, but He willingly chose too as a manifestation of His free will. What would motivate God to make such a costly sacrifice for us? We read in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
One of the aspects of the burnt offering I’m so thankful for is the fact the priest only examined the sacrifice being offered to determine if it was acceptable and never the person seeking atonement. It was only the sacrifice that had to be without blemish!
What grace there is in the reality that no matter who you are or what you’ve done God is not only inviting you to come and meet with Him, but He’s provided an effective Sacrifice to atone for your sin in order make that happen irrespective of who you are!
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