Leviticus for the 21st Century.
So, here we are in the twenty-first century. What are we to do with this book that was written 34 centuries ago? What value does it have for now, so long after its origin? What I’ll be doing in this final post of the series is summarising what I’ve written so far and offering a few more thoughts about Leviticus’ place in the grand scheme of things. I’m also going to be re-iterating the case for reading it.
A careful, context-driven reading – that’s what’s needed. Don’t read Leviticus in isolation – that’s like trying to see the whole jigsaw from just one piece. Don’t take every word at face value, with no attempt to understand the mindset that it arises out of. If our parents’ and grandparents’ generations think differently to us, removed by just a few decades from us, how different is the mindset of Moses’ generation, living thousands of years ago? But different is not wholly alien. We are the descendants of this heritage of faith, and we owe it to ourselves to understand that lineage.
So when we read it carefully, with due consideration of its context and what’s changed since, what can we say? Well, firstly, we can say that Leviticus is relevant and is worth reading. The relevance isn’t always obvious, but if “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) then every single part of Leviticus has some value for us today. It’s the application that’s different. Something can be relevant without being directly applicable. For instance, the Israelites in Moses’ day had to live by the letter of this book and live out its every minute detail. That’s not the application for us. For us the application is more about realising in greater detail than ever before what Jesus has done for us.
In Leviticus we see a vivid technicolour picture of what life without Jesus would be like for those who want to draw near to God. This was the best plan and the only hope of getting to God if you didn’t have Jesus to go through. Every grimy, blood-soaked process should add to our gratitude that we don’t have to do all this. The relevance for us is in what we’ve been saved from and in how Jesus has fulfilled the demands of the Old Covenant that would otherwise have fallen on us.
Holiness is the key to Leviticus, so perhaps the best application for us is understanding how we can be holy, thanks to the redemptive work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Holiness was a prerequisite for relationship in Leviticus; now it’s a by-product of that same relationship. That’s what has changed. What remains the same (and never went away) is that God wants a relationship with us. And if you’re going to have a relationship with a holy God, then you’ve got to acquire holiness yourself somehow. Before it was sine qua non; now it’s sanctification as a work in progress. Before it was demanded of us; now it’s given to us.
But grace is much more evident in Leviticus than we think. The Law and all its paraphernalia was a gift because without it the Israelites could never come to Jesus. It was a gift that involved hard work, but so is the relationship with my wife. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile, or any less gracious a gift from God. As Christians can testify equally well today, the difficult things can be the most worthwhile. Ease can be deceptive.
And did the Israelites have to fulfil this law before they were rescued from Egypt? No. The standards of God followed after His salvation. That too is true today. We’ve been saved as a free gift through a process to which we can add precisely nothing, but having been saved there is now a standard that is expected of us. I’ve written this before and I’ll write it again: grace takes us as we are, but doesn’t leave us where we are.
So maybe there are more similarities between Leviticus and the Gospel than we thought? God is still central, His standards haven’t changed, and His redemption still comes with a requirement for holiness. But there’s more. See how God sets out a wonderful way of life for His people, the best possible framework for how to live in harmony both with people and the environment. The post about ‘A Beautiful Blueprint’ looked in more detail at this, but there are countless applications for us today that spring out of God’s insistence on social justice, sustainable living and Sabbath rest. Whether it’s the way we farm, the contracts we sign, the relationships we engage with or refrain from or the conflicts we must resolve, Leviticus has so much to teach us if we can just see past the differences.
And speaking of rest, it could be said that Leviticus is itself a rest. It’s a break in the action between Exodus and Numbers, a pause for breath. It was a time to take stock for the Israelites, to reflect on what God had done for them and a chance to re-align themselves with Him after a string of mistakes. What if it serves the same purpose for us? Not only to teach us the value of building rest and margin into our lives, but also to remind us that we need to re-align with Him.
This world buffets us off course so easily and so often. That means a course correction needs to happen regularly, weekly if not daily. We make so many mistakes and go chasing after ungodly things so unconsciously that we can’t afford to wait from one Sunday to another to get right with God. Like the Israelites, we’ve no sooner been saved than we sin, and like them no sooner have we sinned than we need to re-centre in Him. Rest involves spiritual recalibration as much as it does physical recharging. Like wheels that are not in the right place, there can be no rest for us without right alignment.
Which brings me to my final point. The end of Leviticus paints a very clear picture of the consequences of our actions. When we obey God or when we disobey Him, there are implications. Across the chasm of centuries that truth is eternal and unchanging. We have a better salvation through a better High Priest as part of a better covenant than Moses and the Israelites, but our blessings depend no less on obedience than did theirs. What Leviticus teaches the rest of the Bible echoes – obedience is the key to blessing.
But let’s not dress blessing up in the customary outfit of comfort and endless pleasure – that’s a caricature of blessing, not a true portrait. True blessing can and often is found in discomfort, in disappointment and in dearth. Just because things are hard doesn’t mean we’re not blessed; and if life’s going well it doesn’t automatically follow that we’re blessed. Likewise, we can be saved and destined for heaven, yet missing out on a million blessings because we’re being disobedient.
So hear what Leviticus says to you: to enjoy to the utmost the relationship that God has made possible between you and Him, you need to respond to His salvation with humble obedience. Otherwise you could be forfeiting so much, and not even realise.
So Leviticus is couched in grace and focused on holiness. It’s come after the rescue of Exodus but before the blessings of Joshua. It’s a strategic pause that reflects the Sabbath rest of God. It’s a book which prioritises right relationships and cherishes justice in both rarefied theory and practical application. It’s a book which maps out true freedom and hinges on restoring the broken: broken people, broken relationships and a broken environment. I see all too much of this brokenness in the world today, and so I’m persuaded of the on-going relevance of Leviticus. When we still grapple with human trafficking, degraded ecosystems and dysfunctional families and communities, how could God’s word about all these things be anything other than pertinent? Far from falling further into obsolescence, we actually need to learn its lessons more than ever.
The system of atonement has changed for the better, as has its adequacy and durability, but Leviticus still paves the way for and foreshadows Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus’ life and death only make sense in the light of Leviticus.
So we shouldn’t dismiss, ignore or skip past Leviticus. We shouldn’t start there, which leads to legalism; but not should we end there, which deprives us of a whole Bible’s worth of blessing and instruction as God’s people. Let’s restore this book to its proper place and celebrate the God who reaches out in grace and provides atonement.
I hope I’ve persuaded you of plenty of reasons to read Leviticus, perhaps cleared up a few misunderstandings, and maybe even shown you things you hadn’t realised were there. If you’ve enjoyed this series, go and read the book for yourself, but come back soon, because Numbers is next.