The Gospel According to Leviticus

In our youth Christian education efforts, we are currently teaching about Leviticus, and what it has to do with the Christian life. Our first lesson covered chapters 1-7 which are the rules of the various sacrifices found. I thought that it might be beneficial to share the brief version of the lesson here to see if it sparks any interest in the book of the Bible that might have the worst reputation. This is all admittedly a very brief over view. For example, there could be teaching for days about each of the individual sacrifices and what that can teach us about our Christian walk, but a broad over view to stoke the imagination is not a bad thing.

It is beneficial here to know a little bit about ancient sacrificial rights in the pagan world before we go any further however. Sacrifice to the gods was very common in the ancient world, so the fact that God’s chosen people had a sacrificial system is not really all that shocking. What is shocking, and indeed a part of what set God’s chosen people apart, is not that there was a sacrifice, but why there was, and how it was handled at a religious level. There were four major reasons why the pagan sacrificed. The first was for food. Many pagan cultures believed that the gods needed to eat, and that the sacrifice was how they did this. The second was a type of totemistic sacrifice where it was believed that by consuming the sacrifice, the people would consume a part of the god and thereby gain some semblance of it’s power. The third is for union with the god where the worshiper would eat the meat and the god would consume the blood thereby initiating some form of pagan theosis. The fourth was simply magic. The sacrifice would entreat, or force, the god to provide some desired effect. While all of this is interesting, and would make for a great horror movie, the Jewish sacrifice was much different, if not in style, then in purpose.

For the Jewish faithful, the sacrificial system was, at it’s simplest level, the way to God. The NLT phrases it well I think.  Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and the Lord will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him.” (Leviticus 1:4) In the Jewish tradition, and the reformed Jewish tradition that we call Christianity, there simply is no forgiveness with out blood. We tend to think of this as harsh, but the reality is that the consequence of sin is death and God is a just God, thus the price must be paid. God’s justice however is always tempered by His mercy so the price paid becomes the sacrifice. We have done a good job of whitewashing this turning God into a petty vengeful tyrant, or a cosmic Santa instead of allowing ourselves to wade into the actual nature and character of God. The Jewish sacrificial system is the way to God. It always was and it still is. More on that later on though.

Three other things set the Jewish sacrifice apart from it’s ancient neighbors making it even more unique. The first thing is that nearly all pagan sacrificial rites involved a sexual aspect of some kind. It could be cultic prostitution, bestiality, orgiastic ritual, etc. The Jewish sacrifice not only did not ever involve these things, it strictly forbade doing so. Ancient sacrifices were general restricted to certain times and days in order for them to work. The Jewish sacrificial fire was always burning, so that the way to God was always open to His chosen. Yes, there were specific days, such as the day of atonement, that were set aside, but God was still available to His people. Finally, the pagan sacrifices were a necessity to the gods, just as the Jewish sacrifice is a necessity, but the difference lies in Leviticus 1:9 “…It is a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” God delights when His people turn back to Him. This is distinctly different than the demands of pagan gods of the day.

So, what does this have to do with the Christian? Our answer is in the gospel of Matthew spoken by Jesus Himself.  “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.The purpose of the sacrifice was to provide a way to God, and Jesus comes to fulfill that purpose, thus Jesus is the way to God. The sacrifice was not abolished, but the requirement of blood for forgiveness was fulfilled once and for all time. Consider the words of the author of Hebrews:So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. 12 With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.13 Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. 14 Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. 15 That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.16 Now when someone leaves a will, it is necessary to prove that the person who made it is dead. 17 The will goes into effect only after the person’s death. While the person who made it is still alive, the will cannot be put into effect.18 That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. 19 For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. 20 Then he said, “This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.” 21 And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. 22 In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.23 That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals.”24 For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. 25 And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. 26 If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.27 And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, 28 so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9) 

Now, while the blood sacrifice has been fulfilled, and our way to God secured, the sacrifice as a whole is not abolished either. We will speak of priestly things later, but it is enough to understand that Christ is our high priest, so the atoning sacrifice is His to make, and he has. We however, are also priests, (But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.-1 Peter 2:9) and as priests, we are responsible for keeping the fire burning so the way to God is open (evangelizing), and for bringing the lesser sacrifices that are pleasing to God. How is it then that we accomplish this? How can that be when there is no death required, and no blood price to be met? Paul, in his letter to the Romans, explains it rather simply. “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” Romans 12:1. As we continue on in Leviticus, we will find out more of what that means and what it looks like lived out.

We have this tendency to ignore Leviticus, especially the rules of the sacrifice for a variety of reasons. Some don’t think it applies, some find it to bloody and mean. Some can not handle the thought of animals being harmed in this way. The truth however is that the sacrifice was, and always will be the way to God. I maintain that it is impossible to understand the work of Christ on the cross unless we have at least a passing understanding of the sacrificial system. So, for the sake of knowing and understanding Jesus, it is vital that we know and understand the way to God, and that way starts in Leviticus.

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