Leviticus vs. Hebrews.
It’s easy when reading the Bible to focus on the New Testament, which is more familiar and user-friendly and the Old Testament. The books are shorter, there’s less repetition, there aren’t so many weird bits and it’s easier to see how it applies to us. All that may be true, but the New Testament doesn’t simply replace the Old or do away with the need to read it. Both are important, and it’ll be equally to our detriment as Christians if we focus on one and neglect the other.
The New Testament doesn’t just follow after the Old Testament, it actively builds on it. Far from being unimportant fables lost in the mists of time that we can afford to forget, the Old Testament is an essential foundation for the New. The world Jesus walked in was shaped by the Old Testament, everything He did fulfilled Old Testament prophecies and His death on the cross took place within the context of a system established and governed by Old Testament rules.
Later on in the New Testament the letter-writers are constantly looking back on and quoting the Old Testament. This is most true of the author of the book of Hebrews. More than perhaps any other book in the New Testament, this book just doesn’t make sense without the Old Testament. It exists primarily to show how the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and surpassed by the New Covenant.
Although it doesn’t actually quote Leviticus, Hebrews is almost a direct counterpart to the third book of the Bible. Again and again it recalls the message and spirit of Leviticus, from the details of the sacrifices to the criteria for the priests and how sin was to be dealt with. But it does so in order to show that everything has been completed or fulfilled, all the conditions satisfied. Like the well-crafted sequel that rounds off everything and answers all the questions from the prequel, Hebrews gives us closure on Leviticus.
Hebrews shows us how Jesus has fulfilled and improved on everything in Leviticus. His ministry is better than that of the Levitical priests (7:1-25); He is a better High Priest (4:14-5:10 & 7:26-8:1); He is a better mediator of a better covenant than Moses (3:1-6, 8:6-13 & 9:15); He provided a better sacrifice and did so in a more glorious tabernacle (9:11-10:18). Unlike the sinful, flawed priests of Leviticus He is perfectly able to represent us and doesn’t need to atone for His own sins in the process (Lev. 9:7 & 16:6; Heb. 5:3 & 7:27).
Unlike His Old Testament predecessors, Jesus doesn’t fail or falter. The atonement He provides is total, complete and unending. Instead of the commonplace blood of goats and bulls He offered His own infinitely and uniquely precious blood, a commodity of such value that it outweighs the cost of all the sins of all the people of all time.
In Hebrews we see Jesus paying the price Leviticus demanded, breaking down the barriers that Leviticus put up and finishing the work that Leviticus started. We see Him sitting down at God’s right hand, His work done, in a way that no earthly priest could ever do (10:11-12). Our hopeless mission to justify ourselves is never-ending and utterly inadequate, but in Jesus the matter is settled once and for all (7:27), with no compromise on the perfect standards of God.
So really Leviticus and Hebrews belong together. They complement each other beautifully. Without Leviticus we wouldn’t have a clue what Hebrews is going on about, and without Hebrews we might think that we’re still stuck in that old system with no hope of ever getting out.
Why not read these two books side-by-side, or one after another? It’s a wonderful way to get fresh insights into both. Leviticus helps us understand why Jesus did what He did and what it means for us. Hebrews shows us how all the demands and requirements of Leviticus have been met and answered.
When the writer of Hebrews calls the High Priest’s routine ‘an illustration for the present time’ (9:9), he might well have been summarising one of his main themes that the enduring relevance and significance of Leviticus is to illustrate what’s gone before, what’s changed and what’s been done for us. It is a benchmark of our spiritual status and journey and a reminder of how different things could have been had God through Jesus not intervened.
What about our response? Beyond being clearer in our own minds what the relevance of Leviticus is today – what still applies and what doesn’t – there are two main takeaways from this Leviticus-Hebrews double-bill.
Firstly, we can remember what we’ve been freed from. We can realise what freedom and privilege we have now because of Jesus. We can enter into God’s rest because the impossible task set before us has been completed by our perfect substitute. We can be thankful that we’re no longer shut out, that we no longer have to offer sacrifices for each and every sin and that all the mess and ceremonial minutiae has been swept away.
Secondly, we must realise the responsibility that comes with this privilege. We’ve not been set free for idleness or complacency. For every success and victory that Hebrews celebrates, there’s a warning against disobedience and neglect. The writer urges us to learn from the mistakes of the Old Testament Israelites and not repeat them. Three times he quotes Psalm 95 by saying “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (3:7, 3:15 & 4:7). In a sense, the stakes have been raised. If there were dire consequences for ignoring the message of Moses, how much more dire are the consequences for ignoring the message of the Messiah? (2:2-3). Jesus is our last, best, only hope. If we reject that hope and go our own way, no hope remains for us. That’s it.
We have the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of God’s word laid out in black and white before us, with no hindrances or excuses for ignorance. Let’s learn these lessons and press forward in our relationship with God, not falling back again onto the time-worn path of rebellion and restlessness.
Let’s remember our blessings, and realise our responsibilities. That is the joint message of Leviticus and Hebrews, an echo from ages past and the living words of God in our hearts.