“Leviticus thus becomes the one book of the Old Testament fullest of Christ and Redemption.”
– Rev. Daniel S. Gregory [ref]quoted by Henry Nelson Bullard, The Gospel in Leviticus, Bibliotheca Sacra, BSAC 064:253 (Jan 1907), 76.[/ref]
Let’s be honest, as a book of the Bible Leviticus gets treated like the weirdo cousin at a family reunion. You have to acknowledge “Levi” because he’s family, but you spend as little time as possible with your relative because you don’t know what to do once face-to-face. So, it’s a little splash of nervous small talk then on your merry way feeling you’ve done your duty as a family member, relieved to know you don’t have to deal with your weird cousin for another year.
That was one reason why during my brief respite a few weeks ago, I set in my heart to study Leviticus. I wanted to decide for myself how weird my cousin truly was. So I grabbed my Bible, some study notes, and jumped in. I am so glad I did. Here were just a few things that reading Leviticus did for me:
- It challenged the depth of my repentance by heightening my sense of the seriousness/gravity of God’s holiness and my need for an active personal holiness to reflect my allegiance to the Holy One. Sin not only keeps us from a relationship with God but must be met with his holy justice. It showed me that atoning someone’s sin guilt is a bloody business. To God, sin is, literally, a life or death issue.
- It brought a corrective to my engagement with culture by reminding me that Christians are to be a “in the world, not of the world” community.
- It encouraged me to “go historical” with my spiritual growth by showing how Israel’s motivations for obedience were to be stirred by remembering who God is and what he has done for them (salvation history). What a wonderful history of grace Christians are not only to know but to remember…and remember…and remember for the sake of their growth in grace.
- It rebuked any flippancy of mine in corporate worship by saying there are right and wrong ways to worship God – much of it revolving around his absolute holiness. And that those decisions aren’t ours but God’s. He commands how he is (and is not) to be worshiped and that being irreverent, inane, or boring in corporate worship simply won’t suffice.
- It corrected my American understanding of individualism by showing God is just as much, if not more, about the community of faith as a whole than the individuals who comprise it. And that exclusion from the community of God was a terrible, grave consequence of sin.
- It called into question what I really believe about the nature of God by reading rule after rule God called Israel to observe. If I believe God is for me then his commands are to help me, not hurt me. Obedience is the real arbiter about who really is our king – the authority of our world. Do I trust God enough to do what he says or do I really regard his words as backwards, oppressive advice?
- It pointed to my track record in observing the 2nd Great Commandment by reiterating the truth that loving our neighbor (member of faith, poor, etc.) isn’t ancillary to loving God, it’s part and parcel to it (cf., Lev. 19).
- It reminded me we never move away from our rescue! Like Israel of old, we should never “get over” God’s saving act. Indeed, it is that very act (the “Greater Exodus” of the Cross) that motivates, energizes, and guides our lives. The rhythms of our corporate identity as God’s people should revolve around who God is and what he’s done in Jesus!
Lastly, Leviticus left me with an expanded view of the glory of Jesus as the telos, or ultimate end, of Leviticus – the good and better sacrifice who “by a single offering…has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
- Jesus makes the unclean permanently clean, by giving them the status of his righteousness before God.
- Jesus forever atones for the sins of his people by being the ultimately, final sacrifice at the Cross before God.
- Jesus is the Great High Priest, the Lamb of God, the True Tabernacle/Temple, even the better Israel, so that his ministry of the New Covenant eternally completes the salvation of his people now and forevermore.
What I realized after my study is that Levi isn’t the weird cousin. It’s followers of Jesus who think Leviticus should be, at best, neglected or, at worst, dismissed. When understood in light of salvation history, Leviticus is a great gift to Christians. Jesus and his initial disciples believed so. Did you know that Leviticus is the sixth most-quoted book in the New Testament. Catch that? It’s not 36th, 26th, or 16th, but sixth! There are parallels to Leviticus in 19 of the 27 New Testament books and one of the reasons why Dr. Henry Nelson Bullard said “we must not forget that the writers of the Gospels and Epistles were as familiar with Leviticus as the preachers of today are with Matthew or Romans.”[ref]Ibid, 78-79.[/ref] and that Leviticus “is fundamentally woven into the thought of the New Testament.”[ref]Ibid, 95.[/ref] Indeed, Bullard makes this conclusion:
In a study of Leviticus as a book of the Old Testament, we may find much of it dry and uninteresting, its value only in its interpretation of Hebrew custom and worship, a welcome side-light on the history of the children of Israel. but little more. ‘When we study the relation of Leviticus to the New Testament, we find there is no other book any more essential to a proper understanding of the New Testament. We might understand the story of the Messiah even were the prophecies lost to us, but we of to-day could hardly work out the meaning of references to sacrifices, priesthood, and such, in nearly every book of the New Testament, and would be entirely lost in the Epistle to the, Hebrews, without Leviticus and the parts of the other books of the Pentateuch which are closely allied to it.[ref]Ibid, 77.[/ref]
Studying Leviticus taught me a lesson. Far from being the weird cousin, Levi is the family member I should regularly sit down with, listen to, and learn from. For he will tell me of my family history which makes my placement within it all the grander, more amazing, and grace-filled. He will share with me about good old days which deepen my gratitude for the great New Day in which I now dwell. Ultimately, Leviticus puts the spotlight on Jesus in it’s own special, soul-growing way. And for that I’m incredibly grateful.
Give it a try. Study Leviticus. Seriously.