As a book Leviticus is misunderstood, even maligned. There are those, perhaps many, who have started reading the Bible through, only to flounder at Leviticus. They have been unable to come to grips with the laws and regulations of sacrifice and sanctity which they discovered in it. We have no wish to apportion blame for this, to the readers themselves or to teachers among the assemblies of the Lord’s people, only to pass on what we have heard to be the case.
Is there a message in Leviticus for believers today? Was it compiled solely for Levitical priests and/or Israelites under the old economy? Some might hold that the title ‘Leviticus’ (Septuagint Leuitikon, meaning ‘Related to the Levites’) indicates this. Some of its teaching certainly has to do with priestly and related functions.
Yet there is also much for ordinary people in this book. And, in fact, the title ‘Leviticus’ is possibly not entirely accurate because the Hebrew word is Wayyiqra, meaning simply, ‘And He called’ – referring to the first word (in Hebrew; three words in English) in the book. This would indicate a wider readership than priests and Levites; it was for all to understand.
Leviticus provides a basic source of divine truth for all. It was the first textbook read by Jewish children. In this way they were exposed right from the start to the Law’s rituals and symbols. They also learned of the holiness of God and its relevance to their everyday lives. Implicit in much of its teaching was typology that demanded a coming Messiah who would fulfil all that the sacrifices pointed forward to, and who would meet the standards of holiness which sinful men and women could never attain to.
It is a sad commentary on our day that while Jewish children started at this point in their temple studies, many of our children never reach it!
Far from Leviticus being too hard to understand, as some contend, it should be required reading for every Christian. Certainly it demands careful and prayerful thought. This is because it takes us to the very depth of God’s purposes and character. Its importance is reflected in the fact that there are some 40 references to this book in the New Testament.
The purpose of this series of articles is to give an overview of the book – to initiate the reader into its wealth of teaching in the hope that this will lead to subsequent in-depth study.
Its Old Testament Significance
Leviticus was written by Moses to complement Exodus as a basic record of how God brought His nation into being and what He would then require of them. Exodus tells how the nation was established and the priesthood appointed; Leviticus shows how this people and priesthood could fulfil their high calls as His theocratic kingdom.
Its New Testament Significance
Leviticus now brings a fuller understanding of the person and work of Christ. Nowhere in the whole Bible do we have such an expose (for those who understand it) of the work of the Christ on the cross, the full and final sacrifice fulfilling all of those in Old Testament times.
Its Ongoing Significance
Yet it provides us with even more: Unveiling the holiness of God, For us who live in a day of increasing infidelity and blatant presumption, we have here in many practical expressions the unchanging holiness of God.
Defining the principles of God’s working. While the Levitical priesthood has passed, the principles of its sacrifices and service remain. Providing the basis of sound civil law. Israel, unlike nations today, was a theocracy. Directions were given for civil administration, marriage, divorce, ownership, mutual relationships etc. These cannot be imitated today. Yet if nations would follow the underlying principles they would be spared much sorrow and conflict, as some peoples proved during the Reformation when statute books were in a measure made to conform to the Book of God.
Unfolding typical teaching for the instruction of God’s people. In quite remarkable depth we are shown many aspects of our Lord’s person and sacrifice. Indeed without Leviticus we would have a much depleted understanding of Calvary.
The Key to Study
Many have tried to go through the ‘door’ of Leviticus without turning the ‘key’ of revelation. Sometimes they have not understood its historical place in the unfolding pattern of scripture. If the context of the book is obscured, we can hardly understand its continuing message.
Leviticus does not tell how people can experience redemption; that was taught through the Passover in Exodus. But it details the sacrifices to be offered and enables us to capture their significance. To us who know of the New Covenant, there is much here to learn of ‘the Paschal Lamb by God appointed’.
As we move through the Pentateuch a clear sequence becomes obvious: Genesis, man’s sin and God’s remedy; Exodus, man’s plea and God’s provision; Leviticus, the detail of that provision in sacrifice and priesthood, and the principles of God’s working applied to human conduct.
If the discerning student of Scripture comes to understand the central position of Leviticus in the Pentateuch and how it uniquely speaks of Christ, so the centrality of Christ and the Cross in the affairs of men and women will become wonderfully clear.
But then, also, the holiness of God reflected in His people will take on new dimensions. C. I. Scofield said, ‘The vocabulary of sacrifice pervades the book: the words ‘priest,’ ‘sacrifice’, ‘blood’ and ‘offering’ occur very frequently ; and qodesh, rendered ‘holiness’ or ‘holy’ appears more than 150 times. Observe the repeated command: ‘Ye shall be holy, for I am holy’, 11. 44, 45; 19. 2; 20. 7, 26’. Thus the theological data in Leviticus leads on to the practical demands made by a holy God upon His people. We shall try to highlight both aspects as we move through the book.
Leviticus was a handbook for the people of Israel and their priesthood. The first section concerned five offerings which are detailed in the first seven chapters. A simplified breakdown is given in the introductory table following this article. A sixth offering, the Drink Offering, is not included, as it is not mentioned until chapter 23, cf. also Num. 15. 1-10.
The order in which the five offerings are given varies according to the purpose in view:
Teaching – burnt, meat, peace, sin, trespass, 1. 1-6. 7.
Function – burnt, meat, sin and/or trespass, peace, 6. 8-7. 38.
Procedure – sin and/or trespass, burnt, meat, peace, 14. 12-20.
The teaching list represents God’s order, leading out to man’s sin; the functional list is given in order of frequency; the procedural list assumes that sin was to be atoned for before dedication, fellowship and peace could be achieved.
The Burnt Offering, 1. 1-17
The glory of the Lord now filled the completed tabernacle, Exod. 40. 34, and He now speaks from there. The priesthood established and priestly functions about to be exercised, provision was now made for access to Himself in Tabernacle worship.
The burnt offering was the first of three sacrifices of dedication. It was a voluntary act of worship involving sacrifices from the herd, vv. 3-9, flock, vv. 10-13, or birds, vv. 14-17, according to the means of the worshipper. Before slaying the animal the offerer identified with it by laying on hands. It was then his responsibility to skin, cut and wash the parts, except for birds (because of the minuteness of the body parts). The whole animal was to be burnt. The offering was then approved; it was a sweet savour (aroma) to the Lord, v. 17.
Here we have a picture of our Lord’s human life freely given up and approved by the Father. He was ever submissive to the Father’s will, Luke 22. 42; John 6. 39; 15. 10, a fact that was publicly declared, Luke 3. 22. The Apostle Paul saw Christ as the ultimate burnt offering given to God for a sweet smelling savour, Eph. 5. 2. Only through Him were the sacrifices offered on Jewish altars ratified, Heb. 10. 5-10.
The practical implications are clear: we voluntarily dedicate our lives to God, a sacrifice for Him, ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service’, Rom. 12. 1. F. Duane Lindsey puts it succinctly: ‘In a burnt offering God received everything and the worshipper received nothing’. This is true dedication.
The Meat (Meal) Offering, 2. 1-16
Like the drink offering of Numbers 15. 8-10, this was supplementary to the burnt or peace offering, although the poor could use it as a sin offering, cf. Num. 5. 15. Thomas Newberry renders it ‘gift offering’, pointing out that the Hebrew word comes from mahnakh, to give. Outside of the Levitical system, the word could refer to any gift or offering, cf. 4. 3-4. Within the Levitical system it did not involve the shedding of blood, hence its supplementary status in accompanying other offerings where blood was poured out.
It was distinct from other dedicatory offerings because it related to the whole of life, not merely spiritual commitment. God was acknowledged as the Giver of every good gift. There was in Old Testament worship a special emphasis on God as the covenant-keeping One who was bringing His chosen people into the land of promise, Deut. 26. 8-11. As His covenant people, every part of their lives belonged to Him. They were conveying, especially in the offering of the firstfruits, an indication of their fealty to the Lord.
In the offering of grain there is an expressive picture of the value of the death of Christ. The ingredients all contribute to this image: The fine flour speaks of His refined, well-balanced, even, spotless humanity - ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’. Heb. 7. 26. The oil, of the Holy Spirit who indwelt Him without measure from His birth. The frankincense, the fragrance of His perfect life. The salt, His preservation from the cradle to the cross, at all times faithful to the Father’s will. The absence of leaven, His separation from sin.
It is significant that our Lord Himself used the image of grain as He looked forward to His sacrificial death: ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit’, John 1 2. 24. We who are His worshippers today are called to follow Him, denying every sensual desire, taking up our cross daily, Luke 9. 23. Something of the fragrance of His perfect life should characterize every child of God.
The Peace Offering, 3. 1-17
Peace offerings did not speak of making peace, but of peace already made. They usually indicated thanksgiving on the part of the offerer, being presented voluntarily and spontaneously. However, they were also a required part of the Feast of Weeks, Lev. 23. 19, and other occasions, Deut. 27. 7; 1 Kgs. 8. 63. They were offered after victory in battle, 1 Sam. 11. 15; after deliverance from national disasters, 2 Sam. 24. 25, and during periods of revival, 2 Chr. 29. 35.
Uniquely, peace offerings were a communal experience and as such are typical of the communion of saints. The animals were similar to those used for burnt offerings except that females were sacrificed as well as males, a mark of its inclusiveness. Birds were not used; instead, the poor could share the offerings of others. It was virtually a family experience – a fellowship offering (cf. NIV). By this means people brought to mind the faithfulness of God in a general way, as for example at harvest time, and also in a specific way, e.g., for answered prayer.
The peace offering is for us a foreshadowing of the fellowship of believers in Christ through His vicarious death. Paul probably had the peace offering in mind when he wrote: ‘The bread we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’, 1 Cor. 10. 16. ‘He is our peace’, Eph. 2. 14. ‘Having made peace through the blood of His cross’, Col. 1. 20.
The Sin Offering, 4. 1-5. 13
The two remaining offerings are commonly called expiatory offerings, distinct from the first three which emphasize the thought of dedication. The first group in turn typified our Lord’s subjection to the Father’s will, His moral perfections and His fellowship with the Father and His people. The second group pictures Christ’s atoning sacrifice, His substitutionary death (sin offering) and His restoration of the sinner by removing the guilt of sin (trespass offering). The first three, as sweet-savour offerings, typify Christ in His merits; the last two, non-sweet-savour offerings, foreshadow Christ bearing the demerits of sinners and making restitution on their behalf.
The sin offering was for sins committed unintentionally, ‘through ignorance’, 4. 2. Male and female animals were offered, of herd and flock, of turtledoves and young pigeons. Alternatively, the very poor could bring a tenth ephah of flour. All, from the richest to the poorest, required a sin offering because all had sinned. Chapter 4 tells of variations according to status: the sin of the priest, vv. 3-12; the congregation, vv. 13-21; the rulers, vv. 22-26; other individuals, vv. 27-35. After identifying with the sacrificial animal by laying on hands, and when the blood had been applied, choice intestines were burned on the altar and then the carcase was taken outside the camp for burning.
Sins, though unwitting, were in this way recognized and confessed. Through the offering the worshipper was forgiven. Such a clear picture of Christ, the sinner’s Substitute! As sin offerings were required of all, so Christ died for all, because all had sinned, Rom. 3. 9-20. Through His substitutionary death all who confess their sin are forgiven, Rom. 5. 8-21. As the carcase was removed from the camp, so our Lord ‘suffered without the gate’, Heb. 13. 11-12. What infinite grace, what matchless love!
The Trespass Offering, 5. 14-6. 7
The trespass offering was for those who had committed wilful sin. Not only atonement was required but, where feasible, restitution. Sometimes sins were unintentional and not specifically in defiance of the Law, but an offering was required nonetheless, cf. Num. 15. 30-31. The trespass offering was frequently for damage or loss to another caused by the guilty party. It could rightly be called a ‘guilt offering.’ The offerer not only had to confess guilt, 5. 5, but where possible make restitution, 5. 16.
Christ not only took our place for sins committed; He repaired the damage and gave us ground of reconciliation. Restitution was not part of the offering itself, it had to be made by the offerer himself. This raises a challenging point: can anyone claim to be repentant who is not willing to make amends for the wrong he has done? We should remember that the trespass offerings were for sins against others, yet the offering was made to God. Ultimately, all sin is against Him. In the same way recompense to another is the outcome of our offering to God.
In the trespass offering we have God’s provision for restoration of fellowship with Himself. This was surely in the mind of the apostle John when he wrote, ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’, 1 John 1. 9.
Supplement, 6. 8-7. 38
Most of what has gone before was for the instruction of the people, 1. 2; 4. 2, but this supplement is largely for the priests, 6. 9 – but not altogether, 7. 22-38. The specifics are of a technical nature and need not concern us here. The warning contained in the final appendix would remind us that the Lord’s servants must be respected and their rights upheld.
The order in which these sacrifices were introduced is significant. As with instructions concerning the tabernacle, God reverses the human order. There, in describing the vessels and furniture, God moved out from the ark to the brazen altar – the opposite of man’s access to the Holy of Holies.
Our access to God is through Christ’s expiatory sufferings on our behalf (the sin and trespass offerings). Through Him we then have peace, a right standing before God and fellowship with the Father (the peace, meat and burnt offerings). But here in His Word the offerings are presented in God’s order, the exact opposite. It is as though He is moving out to meet us as, in Christ, we move from our sin to restored fellowship with Him.
For us, the ultimate message of the Levitical offerings is clear: Through Christ, God has moved to meet us; through Christ, we have renewed access to Him.
4. 1 - 5. 13
5. 14-6. 7
Voluntary act of worship. Prepared by individual worshipper (except birds).
auxiliary offering with burnt or peace offerings. Sin offering for poor.
Thank offering for general or specific blessings.
Unintentional sin, individual or national.
Entire offering burnt.
No blood shed. Accompanied other offerings where blood was shed.
Virtually a meal eaten before the Lord by worshipper and family – a communal act.
Expiation for unwitting sin, but now known and confessed.
Restitution where possible.
Overall commitment. God’s covenant mercy recognized.
Trust that God keeps His covenants.
Atonement the basis of forgiveness.
In addition to offering, restitution where possible.
Our Lord’s life and work approved by the Father. Total dedication to Father’s will.
Our Lord’s moral perfections. He was without sin.
Fellowship of Father and Son, and through death of Christ, believers.
Christ’s substitutionary death for all.
Christ’s death brings restoration by removing guilt of sin.