In a previous blog post, Exodus & Leviticus From 30,000 Feet, I attempted a quick overview of the Old Testament book of Leviticus, which is a book of the Bible very few people actually ever read. In that post, I pointed out that Exodus ends with God directing His people to build a tabernacle to represent His presence with them – and that this tabernacle points to Christ (“God with us”) and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of believers today. And I said that this begs this question: “How can a holy God dwell among sinful and impure people?”

And I said that this question is answered in several ways in the book of Leviticus.

So today, let’s look at one of the answers to that question.

In Leviticus 1-7, God begins to answer this question by explaining the sacrifices that will address sin and enable His people to worship Him rightly.

First, let me attempt to succinctly summarize the first three books of the Bible:

  • Genesis shows us the world as God created it to be, sin is introduced and the destructive effects of sin are illustrated in multiple case studies
  • Sin ultimately enslaves us (slavery to addictions, pleasure, materialism, etc). God’s people find themselves literally enslaved in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus. That book is all about God’s redemptive purpose in bringing His people out of their self-imposed slavery.
  • In order to be restored to a right relationship with God, His people are going to have to learn about personal holiness, and that is the subject of Leviticus.

These first 7 chapters of Leviticus focus on five major sacrificial offerings available for Israel to offer to God. This table from the ESV Study Bible describes the five types of sacrifices.

Name Emphasis Focus is on the general procedure or reasons for the offerings Focus is on the proper handling, eating, or disposal of the offerings
Burnt Offering underscores prayers of petition or praise ch. 1 6:8–13
Grain Offering pleasing aroma; often mirrors emphasis of the offering it accompanies ch. 2 6:14–23
Peace Offering fellowship with the Lord by having a communion meal ch. 3 7:11–36
Sin Offering atonement of a committed sin; metaphor of purification 4:1–5:13 6:24–30
Guilt Offering atonement of a committed sin; metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing 5:14–6:7 7:1–10

Notice in Leviticus 1-7 that the five sacrifices are described in order from chapter one to chapter five, and then again from chapter six to chapter seven. The first time, they are described from the standpoint of what is required of the one who is offering the sacrifice. The second time they are explained from the standpoint of the requirements of the mediator, or the priest: the one who is officiating over the offering of the sacrifice. Not only do you get a different perspective, but you also get a fuller understanding of the sacrifice as it is dealt with from these two directions.

These are voluntary sacrifices.  Notice the language that God gives to Moses: “When any one of you brings a sacrifice….”  (Leviticus 1:2) There’s no command that He must bring this sacrifice. It is a personal sacrifice voluntarily offered to God to ask for forgiveness, thank God, etc.

This ritual system of sacrifice was to serve as a means to aid the believers’ experience of the presence of God.  The sacrificial system clearly was designed to enable the believer to draw near to God, so as to experience the presence of the Lord. The purpose of the tabernacle being put down in the midst of Israel as she traveled in the wilderness was so that the people of God would know that God was in her midst.  You remember that was the whole point of Moses’ prayer when God was about to rain down His righteous wrath on the children of Israel after the incident with the golden calf.  Even when He had relented, he told Moses, “OK, I won’t destroy them, but I won’t go up with them—I’ll clear the way before them with an angel, but I won’t go with them.” Moses appealed to God and said that he would rather God kill him and all the people in the desert than to withdraw His presence from them. (Exodus 33)  It was at this point that God promised His presence and gave the people instructions for the building of the tabernacle.

And so the tabernacle is the visible manifestation that God is right in the middle of His people, and the ceremonial system is the means whereby His people were going to enjoy the experience of that presence.  By doing the sacrifices, you get to draw near to the tabernacle, which is on the outskirts of the Holy of Holies, which is the focal point of the presence of God with Israel.  And so the system is designed to help you draw near to God. The ceremonial system also provided a means to thank God for his blessings, renew fellowship with God, and deepen the believer’s practice of prayer through various sacrifices. The ceremonial system was also a means of expressing the believer’s need of forgiveness. But what we as Christians emphasize is that the ceremonial system also pointed to the way that those sins would be ultimately forgiven. Looking back on these sacrifices through the lens of Christ, we can see shadows of God’s plan to end sin and suffering forever. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sins permanently, but only temporarily. (Hebrews 10:1-10These sacrifices clearly pointed to something greater, something that would bring about the ultimate, permanent, forgiveness of sins.

One of the things that Leviticus continually reinforces is that we meet with God, draw near to God, engage with God on the terms that He proposes.  We don’t come in any old way we choose.  We come on His terms, because He is God and we aren’t. God cares about how we worship. And that’s a principle reinforced throughout Scripture. You can’t say,  “I want to be a friend of God, but you know, I’m just a little iffy about Jesus. Jesus is a wonderful man, great moral prophet, but I can’t believe that He’s the sinless Son of God and Savior of sinners. I’ll come to God some other way.”  Worship is engaging with God on the terms that He proposes, and by the means which He alone makes possible.  No man comes to the Father but by the Son, and it is Jesus’ very fulfillment of this sacrificial system that establishes that truth beyond all question.

The Lord accepts and communes with those who come into His presence through the death of an atoning sacrifice. Let’s look in detail at Leviticus 1:3-4 just for a minute, because this is so relevant to the Easter holiday we just celebrated. First of all, this burnt offering is sometimes called the holocaust, coming from the Hebrew olah, to refer to this burning, and the smoke going up to the Lord of this sacrifice.  It all goes up in smoke. This is the only one of the five sacrifices that is wholly given over to the Lord.  The other sacrifices have parts of those sacrifices that are held back for the priests, or even shared in by the one offering the sacrifice. This sacrifice is wholly given to the Lord.  It is wholly consumed before the Lord, and it is clear that this sacrifice indicates that no one can approach the Lord, no one can be acceptable to the Lord, without a substitutionary sacrifice. This sacrifice makes it clear. The main function of this sacrifice is to satisfy the righteous wrath of God, to provide for the sin and defilement of the one who is offering the sacrifice, but who desires to come into the presence of the Lord so that communion with God can be enjoyed. And the blood of the sacrifice…what is the significance of that?  Well, the blood represents the life of all of us. It is the life force of the animal, and the draining of the blood assures the death of the animal. I just had to have some blood drawn this morning for a test, and I can tell you it always feels weird to me when blood is leaving my body! The two parts of every animal sacrifice are the blood and the body.

Do you remember what Jesus said on the night he was betrayed and sentenced to die?
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:19-20)

Jesus is speaking of Himself and about His death in the terms of the two constituent parts of the Old Testament levitical sacrifice of the burnt offering. Jesus is explaining His death and the significance of it to His disciples in terms which are unmistakable to anyone who has read Leviticus.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, believers are called to sacrifice all for the sake of the gospel: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) Again, for anyone who has read Leviticus, this language paints a very specific mental picture. Why the different kinds of offerings?  From the herd, from the flock, and from birds?  Two reasons:  one, so that everyone in Israel, rich or poor, could offer a sacrifice. Secondly, and just as importantly, because the principle is established in the sacrificial system that no one should come to God with a sacrifice that costs him nothing. This is the beginning of the understanding that relationship with God is not cheap, but actually very costly.

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