The Gospel and Leviticus

For a quick survey of the gospel in Leviticus, check out Four Things that Happen When You Study Leviticus for More than Ten Years and listen to John Haralson’s message on Leviticus 9.  John is the author of this post on The Gospel and Leviticus.

About two months ago, our congregation embarked on new sermon series on Leviticus. Some people in my congregation chuckled, others furrowed their brows. “Leviticus, seriously?” One newcomer to our church had a slightly different take. He said to me, “Well, I’m going to stick around for this sermon series just to see what happens.” I put him in the same category of people who watch NASCAR races just to see the crashes.

Why we don’t study Leviticus–
I personally have never heard a sermon series on the book of Leviticus. In 14 years as a pastor, I have never preached a single sermon from the book of Leviticus. Aside from a few proof texts people use on various sides of the homosexuality debate, we tend to avoid this strange book.

We steer clear of Leviticus because it is, frankly, hard to read. It is put together more like an instruction manual than a novel. In fact, someone wryly observed that “Leviticus often becomes that graveyard where read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans go to die.” (1)

We also study every other book except Leviticus because it is kind of weird and seemingly irrelevant to our lives. What good does it do us to know about religious rituals and regulations related to skin diseases and different types of cloth? Surely there are better ways to spend our intellectual and spiritual energies.

Because of this, Leviticus is like the puberty of the Biblical story. We go through it once and strange things happen. After that, we try not to think about it anymore.

Why we should study Leviticus–
I am convinced, however, that immersing ourselves in Leviticus can be an incredibly fruitful experience. In fact, synagogue leaders throughout history have realized its importance as Leviticus used to be the first book studied in school by Jewish children.

Why was this the case? As it turns out, Leviticus has more direct quotes from God than any other book in the Bible. To quote the 19th century Scottish pastor Andrew Bonar, “It is God that is the direct speaker on almost every page [of Leviticus]; His gracious words are recorded in the form wherein they were uttered.” (2)

In addition, Leviticus is a relational book. In the flow of the Biblical story, one can make a strong case that God giving the law to his people at Mt. Sinai is the wedding between God and his people. (3) Both the Lord and his people make vows to one another and promise their faithfulness and love.

Immediately following the giving of the law, God gives his people instructions for making the tabernacle. The tabernacle is God’s “tent”.  He has Israel make him a tent because he wants to put his tent right in the middle of their camp. In other words, since God and Israel are now married, they are going to start living together.

From this, we see that the burden of the book of Leviticus is to answer the question, “What does it look like when God dwells with his people?” Far from being a dry and dusty rule book, Leviticus is intended to powerfully describe what a flourishing relationship between God and his people should look like.

This is a relevant question for every congregation. It is also a relevant question for every human being because the question speaks to our creational intent. As Jay Sklar points out in his helpful commentary:

“…Leviticus does more than answer questions raised by its immediate literary and historical context. It also casts a vision rooted in the Bible’s larger story and, in particular, creation. Indeed, God’s purpose for his people in Leviticus in many ways a return to his purpose for humanity in creation.” (4)

When properly understood, Leviticus is not a kind of niche literature only relevant to religious professionals. Instead, it addresses profound questions of what it means to be a human being.

How to study Leviticus–
Several years ago, my wife and I decided to tear down our rotting balcony outside of our kitchen. As a former civil engineer, I geeked out while drawing up plans of what the deck would look like and how I would need to build it. I had elaborate details about the size of the structural support pieces, the depth below the surface I needed to dig the footings that would hold the columns, and the type and amount of steel reinforcement I would need in those footings. It was an undertaking that only an engineer could love. If I ever started to explain the drawings to my wife, her eyes would glaze over and she would say something like, “That’s nice, dear.”

Through the help of some good friends and my father-in-law, I got the deck built. My plans have now been fulfilled, and our deck has become a place full of life. It’s a great place to drink coffee on a quiet morning. And, during the summer months, we often eat dinner out there. My blueprint has become a life-giving reality.

This is how we should approach Leviticus (and all of the Old Testament, for that matter). It is a blueprint for life with God. As a blueprint, there are some tedious things in it that only seem to interest a small number of people. But, the blueprint is sketching out a picture of something that, when fulfilled, will be beautiful and life-giving to all people.

Jesus Christ fulfills the design in Leviticus. The sacrifices in Leviticus point to his sacrificial work on our behalf and the resulting changes in our relationship with God. Through Christ, we can now “draw near” to God in a similar manner to how God instructed the Israelites to draw near him.

However, like my completed deck, the fulfillment of the blueprint is much better than the blueprint itself. Though Leviticus concerns itself with God dwelling among his people, there are also limits to how near the people may draw. Only the High Priest can go into the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum of the tabernacle where God dwells. So, fellowship with God in Leviticus was real, but limited. How different this is for us now, since Christ has sent the Holy Spirit. Now, we have become God’s dwelling place, both individually and corporately.

Anecdotally, this has been a very encouraging time for people in my congregation. One person told me, “I’ve honestly never really seen how Leviticus can be understood through a gospel lens.”

What we gain from Leviticus–
Although the New Testament doesn’t quote Leviticus as much as it does, say, Isaiah, Leviticus is still a foundational book in the biblical story. Leviticus richly contains much of the “deep architecture” of what it means to live with God. Our congregation is now two months into the book, and we have already wrestled with such topics as: the atonement; living lives of gratitude towards God; the centrality of the Lord’s Supper; and the structure of the book of Romans.

Finally, the images and practices in Leviticus have been pastorally helpful to me and the people of our congregation. When properly understood in light of Christ’s fulfillment, these images and practices paint a wonderful picture that fires peoples’ imagination. Here, Bonar is quoting the Reformer William Tyndale:

“…when we have once found out Christ and his mysteries, then we may borrow figures, that is to say, allegories, [analogies], and examples to open Christ, and the secrets of God hid in Christ, even unto the [spiritually alive]; and can declare them more lively and sensibly with them than with all the words of the world. For [analogies] have more virtue and power with them than bare words, and lead a man’s understanding further into the pith and marrow and spiritual understanding of the thing, than all the words that can be imagined….For allegories make a man quick-witted; and print wisdom in him, and make it to abide, when bare words go but in at the one ear and out at the other.” (5)

In summary, you and your congregation have a lot to gain from studying a rich book like Leviticus. You will not regret it.

John Haralson is pastor at Grace Church Seattle and a board member at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

Recommended resources:
– Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary. This is a great all-around commentary that is accessible for laypeople and small group leaders.
– Allen Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus.  This book is more academic than Sklar’s but still consistently helpful.
– Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. This is the gold standard in academic commentaries.
– Tremper Longman, Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship.  This is accessible for laypeople and a solid treatment of how Leviticus foreshadows Christ.
– Andrew Bonar, Leviticus.  While pastorally warm and attentive to Christ’s fulfillment of Leviticus, Bonar sometimes over-interprets things allegorically.
– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Brown really understands shame and has helpful language for communicating with modern people. Shame takes on a large role later in Leviticus.

(1) Daniel M. Harrell, How to Be Perfect: One Church’s Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.
(2) Andrew Bonar, Leviticus.
(3) Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament.
(4) Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary.
(5) Quoted in Andrew Bonar, Leviticus.

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