Leviticus

People trying to read the Bible cover-to-cover in one year have probably long since moved beyond Leviticus. (Or they gave up before they finished Leviticus—the string of chapters from mid-Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is difficult to navigate, second only to the series of chapters from the beginning of Isaiah to the end of Ezekiel.) My personal plan for reading the Bible alternates between different books, helping to add understanding while reducing repetition. So in January I read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Solomon. Finishing Leviticus yesterday, I moved on today to Jeremiah, with Lamentations and Philemon to follow. Next month I will start with Numbers, then will read Galatians through Titus.

Either way, completing Leviticus is an accomplishment. The details of animal sacrifices and of holy living under the old covenant scarcely seem relevant to today’s Christians. Remembering, though, that the entire Bible is about Jesus, important lessons can be gathered, even from the book of Leviticus. Pictures of Jesus are present, although some of them are like photographic negatives; they require a reversal of perspective to illuminate the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. A good commentary helps readers to understand difficult books like Leviticus, and I have access to a very good commentary: Leviticus by John W. Kleinig (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 2003). But the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews also provides much helpful context to understand the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

Leviticus begins with details of various animal sacrifices. Hebrews emphasizes the fact that all Old Testament animal sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Old Testament sacrifices brought forgiveness of sin, not simply by being done, but by being done with faith in God’s promises. Therefore, in Genesis 4 Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Likewise, in some writings of the prophets and some Psalms, God says that he hates the sacrifices of his people and will not accept them. (I particularly like Psalm 50:9, which in the Revised Standard Version is translated, “I will accept no bull from your house.”) God hates it when people go through the motions of worship without faith, without focus on the work of Jesus. He loves and blesses the worship of people who come to him through faith in Christ. Like Paul, every Christian must “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Because of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice, we are acceptable to God. Without them, we are lost.

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests in Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9. They became pictures of Christ, the great High Priest. But when two of Aaron’s sons offered to the Lord fire that was unauthorized (“strange” or “foreign”), their gift was rejected and they were killed. Under the old covenant, nothing could be substituted for the Word of God. Even under the new covenant, nothing can replace Jesus Christ as Savior. Coming to the Father through him, we are blessed; attempting to come to the Father by any other means leads to death rather than to life.

The following chapters of Leviticus deal with impurity and uncleanness. Examples include leprosy, mildew, and non-kosher animals. In each case, that which is not holy contaminates that which is holy; the effort to remove contamination and restore holiness is extensive. In these examples we see the high cost of sin; we learn why God must reject anything that is even lightly touched by evil. Modern examples of medical sanitation, including our efforts to escape COVID contamination, are relevant here. But when Jesus came with the new covenant, he reversed the process of contamination. He removed leprosy and other contamination with a touch or a word. Contact with Jesus made people pure and holy, acceptable to God. Under the new covenant, no food is contaminated or unclean spiritually; all food is kosher, because Christ has redeemed the world from sin and evil.

In the old covenant, even priests and offerings could be contaminated by uncleanness and evil. In the new covenant, Christ’s grace and his victory over evil overwhelm all contaminations. Yet Christians are not free to do whatever our sinful hearts desire; we are still expected to shun evil and to imitate Christ. In Acts 15, the first generation tried to find a balance between obedience and freedom—they forbade some foods, including the blood of animals, as well as sexual impurity. Paul later wrote that all foods are clean, but he continued the prohibition of sexual immorality. Food cannot come between us and God. But, because God is love, our love should be pure; marriage should be a picture of God’s perfect love for us. Christ is the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Law for all people. Christ’s people live in freedom and are not burdened by the Law. But, imitating Christ, his people continue to love God and to love each other, which restricts our freedom to do all things. We are transformed by the Gospel, living as Jesus would live, walking in the light and not in the darkness.

In Leviticus 23-25, rules are given about the holidays of God’s people—the weekly holiday of the Sabbath, and annual holidays such as Passover and the Day of Atonement. All these old covenant holidays were pictures of Christ which were fulfilled by Christ. He is the Passover Lamb; he is the High Priest who provides atonement for all people. His rest on the Sabbath—his body in the tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father—fulfilled the Sabbath. Christians are free from these laws. Many have moved the Sabbath commemoration from Saturday to Sunday; some continue to gather on Saturday, and others find another time during the week most convenient. We are free to gather when we choose. We now have Christmas and Easter to celebrate, but we are free in these matters also. Paul wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). We learn the laws of old covenant holidays to see pictures of Jesus, our Savior. We establish new covenant holidays as pictures of Jesus, our Savior. These are no longer matters of Law; they belong to the Gospel, to grace and freedom.

The end of Leviticus establishes the old covenant, which is described in more detail in Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant, God blesses those who obey his commands and punishes those who disobey his commands. This also has been changed by Christ. We read the histories in the Old Testament, seeing how God treated his chosen people according to this old covenant. In both Testaments, we find the promises of the new covenant. God forgives the sins of his people. He transfers their guilt to his Son, who pays the debt for sin in full on the cross. His perfect righteousness is transferred to all who trust in him, adopting us into his Family and making us acceptable in his Father’s sight. We read the words of the old covenant to see what is fair and just; we read the words of the new covenant to discover God’s mercy, grace, and love. The warnings of the old covenant bring us to the cross of Christ in repentance; the promises of the new covenant flow through the cross to remove our sins, to give us life, and to share with us Christ’s healing and cleansing power, his victory over all evil.

The value of Leviticus is to give us a different perspective of Christ. Seeing the old covenant at work, we value the precious new covenant all the more. We rejoice that Christ has given himself for our salvation, acting as our great High Priest. We rejoice that Christ has removed all evil and contamination from our lives, making us pure and holy, fit to live forever in his kingdom. We rejoice that the new covenant claims us for God’s family so we belong to him and with him forever. J.

Eye, hand, and heart

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body should be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

Jesus tells us to get rid of anything that might tempt us into sin. Anything that keeps us from being pure in heart should be removed from our lives. After all, the sacrifice of something valuable—even part of the body, an eye or a hand—is worth the price of heaven. Does your favorite television program tempt you to sin? Do not watch it anymore. Is there a magazine or book that tempts you to sin? Get rid of it. What about a site on the Internet that tempts you to sin? Stop visiting it. Is a friend tempting you to sin? If you cannot persuade your friend to stop tempting you, then end the friendship. It is better to lose the friendship now and still have eternal life than it is to preserve the friendship and risk eternal punishment.

Elsewhere, Jesus challenges his followers to hate their parents, spouses, children, friends, jobs, and even their own selves. We must love Jesus more than any of these. Anything that comes between us and Jesus is a threat to our salvation. Anything that might make us willing to break the commands of Jesus is a danger that should be avoided.

To place ourselves entirely out of danger, we might have to lock ourselves in a church building and never enter the world. But people have tried that in the past, and it didn’t work. Even in the church building we still sin. Moreover, locked in the church building, we neglect many of the commands of God that tell us to love and to serve our neighbors. We will find it better to stay in the world and to learn self-control. Maybe we can teach our eyes and our hands not to sin. If we were to remove both eyes and cut off both hands, though, our hearts and our minds would still be sinful. Jesus recommends radical surgery, but removal of eyes and hands does not go far enough to meet his standards. We need new minds, new hearts, and new spirits.

Jesus promises to bless us by making us new from the inside out. His life and death and resurrection make us brand new. As King David prayed in Psalm 51, and as the prophet Ezekiel promised in Ezekiel 36:26, Jesus gives us new hearts and new spirits. Jesus makes us pure in heart, and being made pure in heart rescues our eyes and our hands as well.

We still live in a sin-polluted world. From time to time, we will be tempted to sin. Our sins are forgiven through Christ and the cross, and Christ is always blessing us with new lives. Every day we are born again by his power. The mistakes of the past are washed away and already forgotten. The future is guaranteed to us by his promises. J.

Adultery and lustful intent

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

For the second of six times, Jesus quotes from God’s commandments and explains the meaning of that commandment. In this case, the commandment prohibits adultery. Generally, adultery is defined as consenting sexual relations between two adults who are not married to each other. Some people would further add that, if neither of them is married, the sin is called fornication rather than adultery.

Jesus is not interested in quibbling over definitions. He quickly explains that more is involved in adultery than the act. Even the luring look is already a sin. When Jesus speaks of “lustful intent,” he distinguishes the temptation that might occur in one’s mind when one notices an attractive woman and the mind that seeks to be tempted, the mind that decides to look and remember the temptation.

Being tempted is no sin. Even Jesus was tempted. Every time he was tempted, Jesus said, “no.” Saying “yes” to temptation is a sin. Enjoying temptation, searching for temptation, clinging to temptation: these are sins.

To look at a woman—or a man, or a child; or a photograph, a movie, or a web site containing tempting images—for the purpose of lust is sin. Nothing loving exists in lust. Lust is the opposite of love. Love cares about another person and wants what is best for that person. Lust merely wants to be satisfied. Lust changes a person into an object, especially when that person is already captured in a photograph or movie or web site. Sadly, we have become accustomed to viewing people as objects for our entertainment—so much so that people in public places often gaze at strangers as if those strangers were there to provide entertainment.

We should control our minds. When we find ourselves tempted to use the image of a person for our private entertainment, we should say, “no.” Jesus saw every person, even strangers, as people to love, people to serve, people who had needs he was able to meet. When we imitate Jesus, we will also regard people as persons to love, never as objects to use.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we want to succeed, we cannot make ourselves pure. We need Christ’s forgiveness for our inappropriate thoughts and imaginings. We already possess this gift. With forgiveness comes the promise that we will see God. Because we will see God with our own eyes, we want to keep our eyes pure today. Because we will see God, we want to love and serve our neighbors rather than using our neighbors for our own purposes. J.

The pure in heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Being pure in heart is not easy. Every day we are surrounded by temptations to be impure, to think and say and do things which go against God’s plan for our lives. Marriage and family are under attack. Honesty and courtesy are becoming obsolete. Thoughts about God are pushed to the side—they still have their place, people say, but that place is not first on the list, higher than everything else.

When we confess our sins to God, we describe the wrong things we have done. That is a good start, but it is not enough. The wrong things we planned to do and never got around to doing are also sins, even if something prevented us from accomplishing our plans. Being tempted is not sinful—even Jesus was tempted—but enjoying the temptation is a sin. Spending hours considering what it would be like to do those things we know are wrong is a sin. Our thoughts and minds and hearts are not pure when we use them to live in a world of sin, a world which we do not have the courage (or the opportunity) to enter with our bodies.

We are going to see God! That vision is his blessing, his promise to us, in spite of our sins. Even though our thoughts and plans have not been pure, even though those thoughts and plans have resulted in sinful lives, Jesus has lived and died for us to take away our sins and to promise us eternal life in a new creation. We are going to see God! We will spend eternity with him. These same eyes that have seen the tragedy of sin and evil will also see a world without evil of any kind.

Because we will see God, we want to keep our hearts pure today. We want this, not to earn the blessing (because blessings cannot be earned); we want to keep our hearts pure because of the joy of the blessing. Because we will see God, our lives are different today. Jesus in this sermon will suggest that we would willingly cut off a hand or gouge out an eye if that was the price we needed to pay to keep the blessing of one day seeing God.

We do not need to pay that price. The price has already been paid. Jesus gave his life on the cross so we can see God. But we still sin every day. Our hearts are still impure. Our minds still travel paths that are not acceptable to God. Therefore, we pray the prayer of King David, written in Psalm 51: “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Every day we sin. Every day we need to be purified and remade. By the power of Christ’s blessing, we have new hearts—pure hearts—and right spirits every day we spend in this sin-polluted world. J.