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Mission, Atonement, and Holiness in Leviticus

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As Christians, we’re not supposed to have favorite books of the Bible. But if we are honest, we all do. And in the reformed world, they almost always include Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and John. They present themes like faith, righteousness, sanctification, and more, all major tenets of our particular corner of the Christian faith, and ones we rightly hold dearly. And yet, how often we neglect the foundation of all of these, which is the Levitical law. This spring semester, I challenged myself homiletically, spiritually, and pastorally, and decided to preach through Leviticus to the college students I pastor in small-town New Mexico. They were curious, some skeptical. I was nervous. How would I take the book famous for confusing laws, old covenant themes, dated purity rites, and more hard topics and make it relevant to a room of college students who struggle to put their phones down for 3 minutes, let alone think about faith and theology with any level of intention? What I’ve found has been one of the best preaching experiences of my life, and a treasure trove for the Faithful. Leviticus is rich ore, full of grace, and full of application to the contemporary Christian, and deserves your attention.

            There are three major emphases I’ve explored in Leviticus. Mission, Atonement, and Holiness. Those are the guiding themes of the book, and unsurprisingly, the apply today.

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Mission

The first key to understanding Leviticus is remembering its historical context. Leviticus was written to the just-freed Israelite nation. They had been enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, had likely all but forgotten the Living God of their forefather’s Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his 12 sons. Suddenly, a prince of Pharaoh’s house appears, says their father’s God would rescue them, levels the superpower of the world with 10 plagues, guides them across the sea, and now leaves them at the bottom of Mt Sinai. The major question on their mind was this: “Who is this God, and who are we in relationship to this God, since this just happened?” And then in Exodus 19, God tells them: “If you will keep my covenant and obey my voice, you will be to me a treasured possession among the nations, and I will make you a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” How? Through their obedience to the covenant and it’s stipulations, to the law, God would make Israel his “display people” for the world to see. Leviticus thus shows what is on display, how the people of the Living God are to behave before the watching world, how they are to deal with sin, how they are to reconcile with each other, maintain purity. Supporting every word of Leviticus is a major “mission” focus: law, holiness, sacrifice, purity, social justice, and more are all the means God will use to show his people what following Yahweh looks like. That principle abides today; God still has a mission for his people, the ingrafted church, to display his love, power, justice, righteousness, and holiness through their worship, love, purity, and community. Leviticus shows us God’s mission for his people abides from Sinai to today.

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Atonement

            Perhaps the single greatest question in the Israelite mind was: “In the presence of a holy God, how do I deal with my sin and guilt?” After all, in Exodus 40, Yahweh descends into the newly completed Tabernacle, and dwells among his people. And in the presence of such consuming holiness, Israelites wonder, “How can we not be destroyed by this consuming holiness, which manifests as wrath?” And the ever-gracious God provides. He gives them a ritual system of animal sacrifices and purity rites to atone for their sin. Sacrifices are graces for them, undeserved gifts to deal with sin. The Israelites knew they needed to deal with sin, and God condescends and deals with their sin. Burnt offerings in chapter 1 deal with the guilt of sin; purification offerings in chapter 3 deal with the pollution of sin. Washing rites deal with ritual states of impure and purity. God deals with their sin. Of course, in the New Covenant, God deals with all sin finally and perfectly,  “not with the blood of calves and goats,” but with Jesus’ final atonement. Atonement, and everything it represents, is Old Testament language for justification. It was by faith alone in Leviticus, a grace from God, just as today.

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Holiness

            The next major sections of Leviticus are how to deal with neighbor and fellow man. The principle is guiding all of it is holiness. “Be holy as I am holy” is the refrain. And that holiness pervades all of life, from sexuality, to eating, to clothing, to social and economic systems, to the calendar, to worship. Every facet of life is made obedient to Yahweh’s rule. Every action should love God and love neighbor. Laws that we look at as legalistic or overbearing, the Israelite looked at as intentional pursuit of holiness in all of life. This includes both personal and social life, and Leviticus has much to teach us about Biblical social justice. It helps us to align our principles to what God values, even if the details have adjusted post-Christ. The holiness imperative in Leviticus is the same as the New Testament Christian’s relentless pursuit of sanctification so that every action is done for God’s glory and for the good of neighbor.

Leviticus shows us that God is consistent. He is consistent in his intentions for his people, to show his goodness, mercy, love, and peace. He is consistent in how he deals with sin; through substitutionary atonement. He is consistent in his command to continual moral and spiritual improvement, our sanctification. Leviticus shows us what God values in his people: justice, love, peace, righteousness, and mercy. It shows us his grace by providing sacrifices for sin. All of this is in the New Testament. But when we read it through the lens of Leviticus, it is like adding color to a black-and-white movie; it comes to life with a new vitality, application, and vigor. I heartily encourage you to read Leviticus, deeply, prayerfully, and Christologically. I promise you won’t be disappointed.  

AUTHOR - Jonathan Clark

Jonathan is a campus pastor at New Mexico State University.