The Global Message of Leviticus
Leviticus in Redemptive History
The book of Leviticus takes place within the larger context of Exodus 19 to Numbers 10. The historical setting is that of Israel encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. Thus the book of Leviticus is a kind of parenthesis within the ongoing story of redemptive history, placed there to explain Israel’s specific obligations within the Mosaic covenant.
The purpose of Leviticus is to instruct Israel concerning how to maintain holiness within the community, so that the Lord would continue to dwell among them. The Lord desires to dwell among his people so that he might bless them with his presence. If the Lord is with his people, Israel can then fulfill its vocation as his “kingdom of priests,” to mediate the Abrahamic blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:5–6).
The Holiness of God
It is the Lord’s desire and intent to dwell among his people. Yet how can the perfectly holy God dwell among an unholy people? The golden calf rebellion, narrated in Exodus 32, revealed that Israel herself is subject to the fundamental problem of the evil heart. Israel lives in, and is part of, a fallen world filled with disease, decay, and death. Unholiness permeates everything, and holiness and unholiness must never come in contact with each other. When they do, the results are catastrophic (see also Lev. 10:1–3). What is the way forward, if God is to dwell with his people?
The Sacrificial System
The answer to this problem, as presented in Leviticus, is a sacrificial system. The tabernacle and the sacrifices offered there have been established so that the Lord can rest safely within the clean camp of Israel. The priests must strictly guard the sanctity of the tabernacle by purifying it regularly with sacrificial blood, which God designated as the cleansing agent. If, however, moral filth pollutes the tabernacle to a level that God cannot tolerate, he will be unable to dwell among his people. The Lord must then cast Israel away from his presence. Thus the threatened covenant curses climax with exile from the Promised Land, away from the presence of the Lord (Lev. 26:33–39). In exile, deprived of God’s presence, Israel would become like any other nation and the Abrahamic mission (Gen. 12:3) would be dissolved.
The Mosaic Covenant and the New Creation
To understand Leviticus fully, the book must be viewed within its larger framework of global redemptive history. Israel functions within the Mosaic covenant stage of this history, as a pattern of the Creator-King’s ultimate global program of new creation—that is, the restoration of Eden (see the “Global Message” essays on Genesis and Exodus). As Israel lived in holiness to the Lord in the Promised Land, he would bless her with such life that she would become a paradise-kingdom, a kind of miniature Eden. Rains in due season would bring about agricultural abundance (Lev. 26:3–5, 10). The people would dwell in safety and security (26:5–8). The creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” would find fulfillment in Israel’s multiplying families (26:9; see Gen. 1:28). The Lord himself would dwell and walk among them, even as he did in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (Lev. 26:12a; see Gen. 3:8). Israel would be God’s people and the Lord would be their God (Lev. 26:12b).
Holiness before God
Leviticus displays the magnificent reality of the Lord’s presence with his people in the tabernacle. Because of God’s presence with them, the book declares again and again, “You shall be holy because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). To be holy means to be sacred, set apart from what is common for service to the holy God. A person or thing is made holy, or sanctified, by the blood of sacrifice. Conversely, a person or thing is de-sanctified, made common or unclean, by sin or contact with something or someone designated as unclean. All areas of life are regulated so that Israel might know the difference between what is holy and common, clean and unclean (10:10).
In the New Testament, this theme of holiness is picked up in 1 Peter and reapplied to Peter’s Gentile (non-Jewish) audience. Having been redeemed by the sacrificial blood of Christ, Christians inherit Israel’s calling as members of the new covenant community. They must therefore live in true holiness before the holy God (1 Pet. 1:15–16; 2:9–10).
Universal Themes in Leviticus
The centrality of God. Leviticus teaches that God is the center of all of life. God is the supreme reality around whom everything revolves and for whom all exists. Leviticus quietly yet clearly arranges all of life—space, persons, time, animals, possessions—around God. Everywhere in the world, down through human history, all of life gains its meaning only in relation to him.
The holiness of God. Leviticus teaches further that perfect holiness is required to be in the presence of the perfectly holy God. Once a year, on the holiest day of the calendar (the Day of Atonement), the holiest person (the high priest) enters the holiest place (the Most Holy Place), and offers the sacrifice upon the holiest object (the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant). This sacrifice provides a complete purification of the entire camp. Yet this sacrifice needed to be repeated annually, because it did not secure deliverance from the root cause of all sin, the evil human heart. Only in Jesus Christ was the ultimate cleansing achieved for the people of God, when God put him forward as the ultimate Day of Atonement sacrifice for anyone who believes (Rom. 3:21–25; Heb. 9:6–15; 10:1–14; 13:11–12).
The Global Message of Leviticus for Today
Love of God and sexual holiness. Jesus Christ pronounced all foods clean, eliminating certain distinctions that God had established in Leviticus for the old covenant people of God (Mark 7:19; compare Rom. 14:13–17). Jesus did, however, reassert the validity of the book’s command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He taught that it was the second most important commandment of the law, second only to loving God with all one’s heart and soul and mind (Lev. 19:18; see Matt. 22:34–40; compare Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). While numerous issues could be addressed with this command, one of the most urgent globally is that of sexual holiness. The gift of sex is reserved for one man and one woman within the permanent, sacred relationship of marriage. Sex, however, remains one of humanity’s most powerful drives, and disciples across the globe often give in to temptation to sexual immorality. The result is defilement before a holy God, who warns that, while forgiveness remains for the penitent, those who persist in such unholy immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5).
Love of neighbor and sexual practice. What is often neglected in discussion of sexual immorality is how such acts transgress the command to love our neighbor, a command highlighted in Leviticus. Sexual sin always affects others. Adultery shatters the life of the adulterer’s spouse. Premarital sex robs a future marital partner of the wedding gifts of virginity, exclusivity, and chastity. Incest and sexual abuse destroy the family, shake the community, and put future marriage relationships at a disadvantage. Sex trafficking exploits women and children, selling them into horrifying conditions caused by greed and lust. If the global church does not speak out against such evils, we become, to some degree, complicit in them (see Lev. 5:1; James 4:17). All of life’s choices must be made in light of the command to love our neighbor. Immorality always harms others and leaves victims in its wake. In light of God’s holiness and his deliverance of us to himself, we must love our neighbor.