It’s All About Holiness.
Holiness is a big deal in Leviticus. The word is mentioned 56 times, more than any other book of the Bible (Isaiah and Acts, both longer books, use it 54 times). The phrases ‘be holy’ and ‘become holy’ are used 15 times, which is twice as many as Exodus, Numbers & Deuteronomy combined. Holiness is the defining characteristic of Leviticus, its essence and raison d’etre. The obsession reaches its peak in chapter 11:
“I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44-45)
The phrase ‘be holy’ is used five times in the New Testament which shows that this command is an enduring one. Unlike other elements of Leviticus which have been fulfilled and no longer apply, this concept is still important and still relevant. Paul uses it in Ephesians 1:4 when explaining God’s purpose for us; the writer of Hebrews encourages everyone to ‘be holy’ on the premise that ‘without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14); and right at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22:11, it says ‘let the holy person continue to be holy.’ In 1 Peter the apostle goes further and actually quotes Leviticus – a rare example – when saying ‘But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”’ (1 Peter 1:15-16). Holiness is a theme that spans the Bible from beginning to end and never loses its centrality or paramount importance.
So what is holiness and why is it important? An ordinary dictionary definition, ‘dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred’ gives us a very basic sense, but falls way short of the amazing reality. Holiness is God’s defining and unique characteristic, something He possesses and embodies in a way that others do not. It separates Him and puts Him on a completely different plane, unreachably higher and inaccessibly different. It speaks of purity – not in the way that we would use the word, something deemed to be unblemished in human eyes – but absolutely perfect in any and every way. It speaks of excellence, a degree of value, glory and power beyond anything we could imagine. Holiness is what makes God who He is: perfect, sinless, beautiful, limitless, infallible and omnipotent.
Leviticus uses holiness in two senses: who God is, and what we should be. And the two are linked. We’re supposed to be holy, because He is holy. If He were not holy, we’d have no need to be so ourselves. It’s the profound and deep-seated compulsion of children to imitate their parents. It’s a divine call deep within us, a lifelong challenge that paves the way for our eternal destiny.
The book of Leviticus is written in two parts and they hinge around the Day of Atonement in chapter 16. The first part is characterised by justification, and the second part by sanctification. What does that mean? It means Leviticus begins by establishing the basis by which we may approach God, and finishes by explaining what that means for our daily lives. Or, put another way, what is our standing before God, and how can we live to please Him? The one flows from the other. We only bother trying to please God because we have the chance of a relationship with Him. If there was no chance of a relationship with Him, if we were forever cut off and excluded by a deity completely indifferent to us, what would be the point of trying to do anything about it? All the rules and commands of Leviticus are born out of God’s desire for a relationship with us, and sit within the context of Him having already taken the initiative and rescued us from slavery. Both justification and sanctification come after redemption. God’s holiness led Him to move in grace; God’s grace beckons us towards Him in holiness. God’s grace is the pivot around which the whole story moves, a story that begins and ends with holiness. Perfection was where it all began, and perfection is the end result.
It was the great privilege of the Israelites to live with God in their midst. This is what made them different to every other nation, for whom God was distant and had to be replaced with lifeless idols. Having God amongst them was the source of every conceivable blessing: purpose, protection and provision, but it also came with responsibilities. They could not take His presence lightly or live unaffected by it. They couldn’t approach Him on their own terms or unaided. God had rescued them because He loved them, but they, like us, were fallen and sinful human beings, which formed a fundamental disconnect with the holy God. But for God’s gracious actions in moving towards us we would have remained forever cut off, doomed to the death that our own choices deserved. But God wanted us to be close to Him, so He made a way.
God made it possible for His people to live with Him by making arrangements for their sins to be dealt with. He could have left those sins undealt with and just left us cut off in hopeless exile, or He could have demanded an account and punished us with the death that sin merits. But no, He did neither. What He did was provide a substitute. An animal would die on our behalf. Life would be sacrificed so that we could live, and innocent blood would be shed to cleanse the guilty. The first few chapters of Leviticus simply set out the rules for what these animals should be and how they should be sacrificed. Everything had to be just so, perfectly arranged as a reflection of the perfection of Him who demanded it. Since it was God’s idea and initiative, He had the right to dictate exactly how it should be done. Closeness to Him had to be on His terms or not at all. Leviticus contains a shocking anecdote about those who ignored God’s rules and tried to approach Him on their own terms, and it didn’t end well.
So having been forgiven and cleansed, their sins atoned for, what then? The second half of Leviticus is the Israelites’ response. It laid out how they should live, honouring God and doing things His way out of gratitude for what He had done for them.
Substitution has been the name of the game right throughout the Bible, something has always stood in our place to spare us the fate we deserved and to win for us the intimacy we didn’t. That something – the goats, lambs and oxen of the Old Testament – became someone in the New Testament: Jesus, the Lamb of God. What the animal sacrifices did temporarily, incompletely and imperfectly, He did permanently, completely and perfectly: paying for our sins and making a way for us to come to God.
The tragedy for the human race was that they couldn’t abide by the terms of Leviticus. They couldn’t live up to God’s standards or achieve holiness by themselves. The Israelites become locked into an endless cycle of sin, punishment and deliverance in which an unending supply of animal sacrifices were needed to cover their sins. Even then the sacrifices eventually weren’t enough – the people let God down and turned away from Him so completely that disaster came upon them, death, exile and disinheritance. The Leviticus system, as gracious and as unprecedented as it was, could only ever be as good as the people within it. We were simply unable to fulfil its terms and keep our part of the Old Covenant.
That could have been the end of the story. Leviticus might simply have been a failed experiment and God might just have given up. But He didn’t. He made good the system by fulfilling it for us, since we couldn’t do it for ourselves. He sent Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, to atone for our sins once and for all. All the requirements were satisfied forever at a stroke. Suddenly God’s holiness was imputed to us. Suddenly we could be holy in a way we couldn’t before.
Holiness. It’s the essence of what we should aspire to. Being made in God’s image, we have a trace and reflection of His holiness, however limited and since corrupted. We’re supposed to be like Him, and there’s no better way to be like God than to emulate His holiness. It means choosing obedience, saying no to sinful things, doing what is right and generally setting ourselves apart from the unholy pattern of the world around us. That’s why Leviticus is so obsessed with holiness, and why it’s the one thing we should come away remembering after we read it. And maybe it’ll help you, when you find yourself wading through sacrifices and rules and regulations, to remember that it all boils down to holiness, its aspirations, implications and preconditions. It’s all about holiness.
This is the third instalment in my blog-series on the book of Leviticus. If you missed the first two parts, you can find them here: Why Bother with Leviticus? and Context is Everything. Thanks for reading.