Understanding Leviticus, Part I: The Old Testament Sacrifice

When people set out to read the Bible from start to finish, they make their way through Genesis and Exodus without much problem, although their eyes will often glaze over when they get into the details of the Law that begin in the second half of the Book of Exodus.  But then they reach Leviticus and they quickly find themselves bewildered by the emphasis on sacrifice and all the laundry lists of various and sundry laws, much of which seem to say, “Do not touch,” or “Do not taste.” (Col. 2.21)  At this point, many people will either give up on reading the Old Testament and jump over to the New, or else they will give up on reading the Bible altogether in frustration.

There is a perception that the Book of Leviticus is largely inconsequential, and that there is no value in reading it, let alone value in applying its teachings to our lives here and now in the 21st Century.  It also does not help that President Barack Obama, when he was a senator running for his first term in the presidency, said in a keynote address that he gave at a conference in 2006,

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?  Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?  How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?  Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount—a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?  So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.  Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.

Biblical literacy consists not only in not being aware of the Bible’s content, but also in understanding its meaning.  In this quote, President Obama demonstrated that he was passingly familiar with at least some of the contents of Leviticus, but he did not demonstrate that he knew of any Biblical principles that explain why Christians should oppose slavery when Leviticus permits it (Lev. 25.39-55), or why Christians should not regard the eating of shellfish as an abomination when Leviticus teaches that it is (Lev. 11.9-12).

Leviticus is a sticking point today because it contains two of the proscriptions against the practice of homosexuality (Lev. 18.22, 20.13), which Christians cite as Biblical evidence that God regards the practice as sin.  Those who support the practice of homosexuality often respond to this citation by referring to passages in Leviticus that seem bizarre in our modern context, such as Leviticus 19.19, which states, “You shall keep my statutes.  You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind.  You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of two kinds of material.”  On this, such individuals say that if we were to interpret this passage “literally” (that is, taking it at face value and reading with no genuine Biblical discernment), we would have to say that God regards wearing a shirt made from a cotton and polyester blend as a sin, which, of course, sounds ludicrous to us.  These individuals imply (if not outright say) that if we don’t believe Leviticus when it speaks about wearing clothing made from different materials, why should we believe it when it speaks about homosexuality being an abomination?

But we also must remember that when the Lord Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mt. 22.39, Mk. 12.31), he was quoting Leviticus 19.17-18, which says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  Similarly, when the Apostle Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy,’” (I Pet. 1.14-16) he was quoting from Leviticus 11.45.

When we approach the Book of Leviticus, we need to understand that it was not written to us.  To be sure, it was written for our edification as God’s people, but it was not written to us.  Specifically, it was written to the Ancient Israelites in the 15th Century B.C., who were wandering in the desert on their way from Egypt to Canaan.  Nevertheless, it is part of God’s Word, and as such, it needs to be held in high regard.  And despite not having been written to us, it was written for our benefit and for the benefit of the Church of Jesus Christ in every age.  Therefore, it behooves us to study it and learn its lessons as they apply to us today.

Leviticus was written by Moses immediately after he wrote the Book of Exodus, and Leviticus points back to Exodus, especially for the details of the ordination and installation of the High Priests in Leviticus 8-10, and in the reference to the Sabbath and Passover as two of the appointed feasts of the Lord in Leviticus 23.  Consequently, the individual passages in Leviticus need to be interpreted first in the context of the whole of the Book of Leviticus and secondly in the context of the Book of Exodus, which was written before it.  Thirdly, Leviticus needs to be interpreted in the context of the whole Old Testament revelation, for the sacrifices introduced in Leviticus were central in the life of Ancient Israel.  Finally, and most important for us today, Leviticus must be interpreted in the context of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, for the Lord Jesus did “not come to abolish (the Law—including Leviticus—or the Prophets) but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5.17)

That Moses is the author of Leviticus is not merely inferred from tradition but is stated in the text as well.  In the first two verses of the book, it is written, “The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting (i.e., the Tabernacle), saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…’”  This formula, or variations thereof, is repeated throughout the book (e.g., “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying…’” [Lev. 6.8-9]; “And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, saying…’” [Lev. 11.1-2]; “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them…’” [Lev. 17.1-2]; see also Lev. 4.1-2, 5.14, 6.1,19,24-25, 7.22-23,28-29, 8.1,31, 9.1-2, 10.3,8,12, 12.1-2, 13.1, 14.1,33, 15.1-2, 16.1-2, 18.1-2, 19.1-2, 20.1-2, 21.1,16-17, 22.1-2,17-18,26, 23.1-2,9-10,23-24,26,33-34, 24.1-2,13,15, 25.1-2, 27.1-2).  Similarly, several sections of the book end with phrases clarifying that what is written is the law that the Lord commanded Moses on behalf of the people of Israel (Lev. 7.37-38, 26.46, 27.34).  And although not explicitly stated in Leviticus, “Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD,” (Ex. 24.4, Dt. 31.9) which infers that, in addition to Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, he wrote down the words of the Book of Leviticus, inasmuch as the Lord spoke them to him as part of the Law that would govern Ancient Israel until its destruction in AD 70.

The Sacrifice

The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus detail the requirements of five of the six offerings that the Lord required of the Israelites:

  • The Burnt Offering (Lev. 1.1-17, 6.8-13)
  • The Grain Offering (Lev. 2.1-16, 6.14-23)
  • The Peace Offering (Lev. 3.1-17, 7.11-36)
  • The Sin Offering (Lev. 4.1-5.13, 6.24-30)
  • The Guilt Offering (Lev. 5.14-6.7, 7.1-10)

The sixth offering, the drink offering, does not have special regulations regarding its preparation as do the others, and is only mentioned as being required in conjunction with other offerings (Lev. 23.13,18,37, Num. 15.5,7,10, 28.7-8).

The Burnt Offering was the most basic offering the Lord required of the Israelites.  In it, the death of the animal symbolized the death of the person offering it in just recompense for his or her sin.  The burnt offering was required to be a bull, ram, or billy goat without blemish, although a poor person was allowed to bring a turtledove or pigeon if he could not afford one of the specified animals.  The one offering the animal was required to lay his hand on its head, identifying himself with the animal and symbolically transferring his sin to the animal.  Then he was required to kill the animal at the altar before the Tabernacle or Temple in the presence of the priest—if the offering was a bird, the priest was required to wring off its head.  Then the priest was required to throw the blood of the bull, ram, or billy goat against the sides of the altar—or to drain the bird’s blood out on the side of the altar.  Next, the one offering the animal was required to skin it and cut it into pieces—or the priest handling the bird was required to remove its feathers and dispose of them in the ash heap next to the altar and then tear the bird open by its wings without severing it completely.  Then the priest was to arrange the animal’s pieces on the altar, wash the entrails and legs, and then burn the whole animal on the altar.

Unlike the other types of offerings identified in the first seven chapters of Leviticus, none of the priests were to be given a portion of the burnt offering, for it was to be devoted wholly to the Lord.  The priests were required to keep the fires of the altar burning perpetually.  After a burnt offering had been reduced to ash, the priests were required to don a special linen garment and undergarment (Ex. 28.42-43, 39.28) and remove the ashes from the altar and place them in a heap beside the altar.  Periodically, the priests were required to remove their priestly garments and don ordinary clothes to remove the ashes and take them to a clean place outside the camp (or outside the city walls after the Israelites were established in the Promised Land).

The Grain Offering was typically offered along with the animal sacrifices as part of a food offering to the Lord (Lev. 2.3,10,16; see also Lev. 1.9,13,17, 3.5,11,16 for references to the burnt and peace offerings as food offerings; the drink offering previously referenced also constituted part of the food offering, Lev. 23.13,18, Num. 15.10, 28.8).  Unlike the animal sacrifices, the donor did not identify himself with the grain offering.  Rather, the grain offering—especially the firstfruits grain offering—was like a tithe to the Lord, an offering of the sustenance of the donor’s life, which in turn was used to sustain the livelihood of the priests and their families as part of their portion of the offerings.

The Lord established three kinds of grain offerings—fine flour, unleavened loaves or wafers of bread baked from fine flour, and the firstfruits of the grain reaped at the beginning of harvest.  The donor of the unbaked fine flour was required to pour oil and frankincense on it and then bring it to the priest, who would take a handful of it to burn on the altar as a memorial portion to the Lord.  (Although the Lord does not here specify the amounts of fine flour and oil required for the offering, Numbers 15.4-9 specifies the differing amounts, based upon the type of animal sacrifice and what kind of animal was being sacrificed.)

The donor of the baked loaves or wafers was required to either bake the unleavened loaves with oil or smear the oil on the unleavened wafers.  If he baked the bread on a griddle (as opposed to a pan), he was required to break it into pieces and pour oil on it.  He was forbidden from baking the bread with either honey or leaven.  Then he was required to take the baked bread to the priest, who was required to take part of the offering and burn it on the altar as a memorial portion to the Lord.

The donor of the firstfruits was required to bring the first sheaf he harvested, crushed and roasted and mixed with oil and frankincense, as a grain offering to the priest, who was required to burn some of the grain on the altar as a memorial portion.

The remainder of the grain offering was the priests’ portion.  It was to be regarded as most holy, and as such could not be baked with leaven.  It could only be eaten by the priests and the male members (but apparently not by the female members) of their households only in the court of the Tabernacle, where they dwelt.

The Peace Offering, unlike the other animal sacrifices, was not directly related to sin.  Rather, it was used in offering thanksgiving, when making a vow, or as a freewill offering.  It could be a bull or cow, a ram or ewe, or a billy-goat or nanny-goat, but it had to be without blemish.  (Lev. 22.23 allowed that an animal with a limb too long or too short was acceptable for a freewill offering but not for a vow offering or any other kind of offering.  No other blemish—especially not those identified in Lev. 22.22-24—was acceptable for any kind of offering.)  Unlike the burnt offering, the peace offering was intended to be eaten—only certain parts were to be burned on the altar.  As with the burnt offering, the person offering the sacrifice was required to bring the animal to the altar before the Tabernacle (or Temple), where he would lay his hand on its head and then kill it.  The priest would throw the animal’s blood on the sides of the altar.  Next, the donor of the peace offering was required to remove the animal’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail (cut close to the base of the spine), which he would give to the priest, who would burn them on the altar of burnt offering.  Leviticus 3.17 made a special point that eating an animal’s fat or blood was strictly forbidden, and Leviticus 7.22-27 expands upon this, stating that those who consumed the fat of an ox, sheep, or goat and those who consumed blood were required to be put to death (the prohibition against eating blood is expanded upon in Lev. 17.10-16).

In addition to the fat, entrails, etc., the donor of the peace offering was required to remove the animal’s breast and right thigh and give them to the priests as their portion of the peace offering.  All the priests had a right to share in the breast, but the right thigh was given specifically to the priest who offered the animal’s blood, fat, entrails, etc.  The priests were required to wave the breast as a wave offering before the Lord and could then eat the meat of the breast and right thigh with their families.  (Given that there is no restriction, as in Lev. 6.18, that only the male members of the priest’s household could eat their portion of the peace offering, it should be understood that the females of his household could likewise partake of it.)

Scripture indicates that the peace offering for thanksgiving must not be made alone, but should be accompanied by a grain offering comprised of unleavened loaves of bread mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and loaves of fine flour well-mixed with oil.  One loaf from each offering was to be given to the priest who threw the animal’s blood against the side of the altar as his portion.  The meat from an animal offered as a peace offering for thanksgiving was required to be eaten on the same day that the peace offering was made—any leftovers were required to be burned.

Scripture does not indicate that vow or freewill offerings had to be accompanied by grain offerings or any other offerings.  The meat from a vow or freewill peace offering was required to be eaten either on the same day that the peace offering was made or the next.  But any meat left over until the third day was required to be burned, and anyone who ate the meat of the vow or freewill offering would bear his iniquity, and the Lord would not accept his peace offering.

Any meat from a peace offering that touched anything ceremonially unclean was thereby made unclean and had to be burned.  Only ceremonially clean people were permitted to eat of the peace offering.  People who were ceremonially unclean—because of a physical condition or from having touched something unclean—were ineligible from partaking of the peace offering, and any unclean people who did so partake were to “be cut off from (their) people” (i.e., put to death).

The Sin Offering, as the name implies, was intended to atone for the sins of the person or people who sinned, or who bore the guilt of the person or people who sinned.  The sins covered by the sin offering were sins committed unintentionally or by mistake (Lev. 4.2,13,22,27).  Other sins required the death of the offender, especially those committed intentionally, which demonstrated despite toward God and His Law.  Examples of the sins covered by the sin offering are given in Leviticus 5.1-4.  These include:

  • A witness to a crime who does not testify (i.e., sins of omission)
  • Anyone who has touched the carcass of an unclean animal or human uncleanness of any sort (i.e., inadvertent sins)
  • Anyone who utters a rash oath (i.e., sins of rashness)

When those who had committed such offenses realized their guilt for having thus sinned, they were required to confess their sins and bring the required sin offering to the priest as the Lord’s compensation for having sinned against His Law, and the priest would then offer the sacrifice and thus make atonement for their sins.

There were four different classifications of sin offerings based upon who it was that sinned:

  • For the Anointed (High) Priest, whose sin brought guilt on all the people of Israel
  • For the whole congregation of Israel
  • For a leader (other than the High Priest) of the people of Israel
  • For anyone of the common people of Israel

The sin offerings for the High Priest and for the whole congregation were essentially identical, for their sins detrimentally affected the holiness of the people of Israel as a whole.  A bull without blemish from the herd was required in both cases for the sin offering.  If the High Priest was the one who sinned, then he was required to put his hand on the bull’s head to identify himself with it and to symbolically transfer his sin to it.  If it was the congregation that sinned, then the elders of the congregation were required to lay their hands on the bull’s head.  Then the one who sinned—either the High Priest or one of the elders representing the people—was required to kill the bull at the altar before the Tabernacle (or the Temple).  Next, the High Priest was required to take some of the bull’s blood (presumably in a bowl) into the Tabernacle, where he would dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times in front of the veil cordoning off the Holy of Holies.  Then he would take some of the bull’s blood and smear it on the four horns of the altar of incense in the Tabernacle.  Sprinkling the blood in front of the veil and smearing it on the horns of the altar was intended “to make atonement for the Holy Place” (Lev. 6.30), which was defiled by the sin of the High Priest or of the congregation.  The rest of the bull’s blood was to be poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.  Next, the High Priest was required to remove the bull’s fat, entrails, kidneys, and liver and burn them on the altar of burnt offering, as he did with the peace offering.  But the rest of the bull’s carcass was to be taken out of the camp to the clean place where the priests disposed of the ashes from the burnt offering, where the rest of the bull’s carcass would be burned.  Because this type of sin offering atoned for the High Priest, both for his sin as an individual and for the whole congregation, of which the High Priest was a part, the priests were not allotted a portion of the bull as they were of other types of offerings.

The sin offerings for a leader of the people (other than the High Priest) and for a common person were basically the same, except that the leader was required to offer a billy-goat without blemish, whereas the common person was required to offer a ewe or nanny-goat without blemish, and the poor common person was permitted to bring a less expensive offering based on what he could afford.  Once the person seeking atonement realized his sin, he was required to take the goat or lamb to the Tabernacle, where he would lay his hand on the animal’s head and kill it on the north side of the altar.  Then the priest would take some of the animal’s blood and smear it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour the rest out at the base of the altar.  Next, the priest would burn the animal’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail on the altar, just as with the peace offering.

The poor person, if he could not afford a ewe or a nanny-goat, was permitted to substitute a pair of turtledoves or a pair of pigeons.  The priest was required to wring the head of one bird from its neck without severing it completely, sprinkle some of its blood on the side of the altar, and drain the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.  Then he was required to offer the second bird as a burnt offering in accordance with the procedures specified in Leviticus 1.14-17.  But if the poor person was unable to afford a pair of either turtledoves or pigeons, then he was permitted to substitute a tenth of an ephah (an ephah was approximately 3/5 bushel or 22 liters) of fine flour without the oil and frankincense required with the grain offering.  The priest was required to burn a handful of the fine flour on the altar.

Having thus atoned for the person who offered the sin offering, the remainder of the ewe, goat, or flour, or the one bird that was not offered as a burnt offering, was to be regarded as most holy and belonged to the priest who offered it as a sin offering as his portion.  He and the males of his household were permitted, indeed required, to eat of it in a holy place.  As Leviticus 10.17 makes clear, the sin offering was given to the priests in order that they “may bear the iniquity of the congregation (or of the one[s] for whom the sin offering was made), to make atonement for them before the LORD.”  The priests were required to eat their portion of the sin offering “in a holy place,” specifically, “in the court of the (Tabernacle),” where they dwelt.

The Guilt Offering was much like the sin offering, except there was only one prescribed offering—a ram without blemish or its monetary equivalent, valued in shekels (a shekel was approximately 2/5 ounce or eleven grams).  Moreover, whereas the sin offering was intended more for the sinner’s purification, the guilt offering was intended more for the guilty person to make restitution.  The sacrifice itself was essentially the same as the sin offering, with the ritual of the guilty person laying his hand on the ram’s head and then slaughtering it at the altar of burnt offering.  Then the priest would throw the ram’s blood against the sides of the altar and offer up the ram’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail on the altar.  And as with the sin offering, the rest of the sacrifice of the guilt offering belonged to the priest who offered it, to be regarded as most holy and eaten only by the priest and the male members of his household in a holy place.

The guilt offering was stipulated for three categories of offenses:

  • Sins against the holy things of the Lord
  • Sins forbidden by the Law that ought not be done
  • Sins against one’s neighbor

In sins against the holy things of the Lord, the guilty person was required to make restitution to the Tabernacle (or Temple).  This presumes that the guilty person took or withheld something from the Tabernacle or the priests that did not belong to him, such as inadvertently eating the priests’ portion of one of the offerings.  In addition to restoring that which he had misappropriated, he was required to pay an additional twenty percent of the monetary value of the item(s) that he had taken or withheld.

Moses did not elaborate on “the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done.”  As with the other two categories, it is presumed that such sins were done unintentionally, but inasmuch as no restitution is stipulated—unlike the other two categories—the guilty person presumably did not merit his guilt by having taken or withheld something that did not belong to him.

The sins identified against the guilty person’s neighbor all deal with his misappropriation of his neighbor’s property—whether through deceit on a matter of security, outright theft, opposing his neighbor, or lying about finding his neighbor’s lost property.  The guilty person was required to return that which he had misappropriated plus an additional twenty percent of the monetary value of the stolen property.

Regardless of the category, the guilty person was required to make restitution and pay the assessed penalty before offering the ram for the guilt offering (Mt. 5.23-24).

The Necessity of the Sacrifice

In Leviticus 17.11, the Lord said, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”  The author of Hebrews paraphrased this idea and said it more succinctly when he wrote, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb. 9.22)

Death is the punishment that God has decreed for sin.  To Adam before the Fall, He said, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.17)  As He said through the Prophet Ezekiel, “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18.4)  And as the Apostle Paul more famously said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and, “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 3.23, 6.23)

Sin, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it, “is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Q. 14)  God is holy—He is separate from evil and wickedness.  He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” (Hab. 1.13)  As the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and destroy its sinners from it. … ‘I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.’” (Is. 13.9,11)  As Abraham rhetorically asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18.25)  Indeed, He must.  All have sinned against the Lord, and therefore all deserve to die and suffer eternally for their sins.  There is no exception—the holiness of God demands it.

What is more, our sin is endemic to our fallen nature.  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  We are condemned to death because we sin and we sin because we are sinners.  Note the order: We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6.5)  Again, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21)  “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9)  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt. 15.18-19)  We cannot keep from sinning—especially not on our own strength.  This, by no means, excuses our behavior; it only explains it.  We are sinners by nature, and when we sin, we are being true to our nature.  And in just recompense for our sin, we deserve to die.

Yet God, who is rich in mercy (Eph. 2.4), was not willing to leave His creature man, whom He made in His own image (Gen. 1.26-27, 5.1, 9.6, I Cor. 11.7, Jas. 3.9), utterly to the punishment that awaited him.  He appointed a substitute.

After Adam and Eve fell, the Lord made garments of skin for them and clothed them in these skins to cover the shame of their nakedness (Gen. 3.21; cf. 2.25, 3.7).  This entailed killing an animal on their behalf—the first sacrifice.  In Genesis 4.4, Abel son of Adam sacrificed the firstborn of his flock and offered their fat portions as a sin offering.  In Genesis 8.20, after the Flood, Noah “took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.”  Thus, the Lord appointed certain animals to serve as substitutes that men could offer up in atonement for their sins—oxen, sheep, and goats.

In Genesis 22, the Lord commanded Abraham, as a test of his obedience, to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah (vv. 1-2).  When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” (vv. 7-8)  Indeed, at the point where Abraham had raised his knife to sacrifice his son, the Lord stayed his hand and revealed a ram caught in a thicket by its horns that He had provided as a substitute for Abraham’s son (vv. 10-13).

Again, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb. 9.22)  But, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (and sheep) to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)  Thus, as a means to make atonement for our sins, the sacrifices made in accordance with Leviticus 1-7 are totally without effect.  The significance of the sacrificial laws in Leviticus 1-7 cannot be found in the effect of making atonement for our sins, but rather in the heavenly reality to which they point.  The Levitical sacrifices “serve (as) a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb. 8.5)  Again, “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” (Heb. 10.1)  And the “true form of these realities” of which the Levitical sacrifices are but “a copy and shadow” is the atonement made by Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4.4-5)

At the hour that God the Father had appointed, He sent forth His only begotten Son (Jn. 3.16), God the Son, who was with God the Father in the beginning (Jn. 1.1-2), and who shared in the divine being and glory of His Father (Jn. 1.1, 10.30, 14.10, 17.5, Phil. 2.6), into this world of fallen, mortal men and women, to empty Himself of His divine glory and to take on our nature (Mt. 1.21-23, Lk. 1.31-35, Jn. 1.14, Phil. 2.6).  He was heralded by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1.29,36)  He was the Lamb that God provided for Himself in fulfillment of Abraham’s prophecy in Genesis 22.8.  As was required of the sacrifice, He was without blemish (Ex. 12.5, 29.1, Lev. 1.10, 5.15, 9.2), which is to say, He alone among men was without sin (II Cor. 5.21, Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).

He was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice (Ex. 12), for on account of the “propitiation by his blood,” God “passed over former sins” (Rom. 3.25).  He was the fulfillment of the sin offering, for “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” (I Cor. 15.3)  He was the fulfillment of the guilt offering, with its requirements of reparation, for in Christ’s death, God “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, setting it aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2.14; see also Mt. 20.28, I Tim. 2.6, I Pet. 1.18-19).  He was the fulfillment of the burnt offering in that as He partook of the cup of His Father’s wrath poured out on Him for the sins of the world, draining it to its bitter dregs (Mt. 20.22, 26.39,42, Mk. 10.38, 14.36, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11; cf. Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22, Jer. 25.15-16), the Father’s wrath consumed Him, for in His wrath, “our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12.29, Dt. 4.24)  He is the fulfillment of the grain and drink offerings, for the bread represents His body, which is given for us, and the wine represents His “blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26.26-28, Mk. 14.22-24, Lk. 22.19-20, I Cor. 11.24-25; see also Jn. 6.53-56)  And He is the fulfillment of the peace offering, for “the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him.” (Is. 53.5; see also Eph. 2.13-18, Col. 1.20)

Jesus Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9.12-14)  “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.  But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9.24-26)

What, then, of the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7?  Are they passed away, or are they still required?  If they are still required, then for what purpose?  To atone for sins?  But this cannot be, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb. 10.4) and what is more, Jesus Christ has “once for all…put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9.24)

So then, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are not effectual in atoning for sin; but does God take delight in them?  No, for it is written, “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear.  Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Ps. 40.6, Heb. 10.5-6)  And again, “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51.16-17)  And again, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (I Sam. 15.22)

So then, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 do not please the Lord; He does not require them of us, and He does not delight in them.  They are ineffectual for atoning for sin, and their purpose in the Old Testament was to teach the people of God that a blood sacrifice was required to atone for their sins and to point forward to the One whose blood alone God would accept for the remission of sins, namely Jesus Christ.  They formed the heart and soul of the Old Covenant that governed the people of God from Adam to John the Baptist.  But with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, the Old Covenant is abolished and the New Covenant in His blood is established (Heb. 10.9).  And with the abolition of the Old Covenant, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are passed away.  For as the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the perfect comes (that is, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross), the partial (that is, the sacrifices of Lev. 1-7) will pass away.” (I Cor. 13.10)  And this fundamental truth has a profound influence on how we are obligated to interpret the Book of Leviticus.

Lessons from the Sacrifices

Although the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are passed away and we are no longer obligated to observe them (indeed, we are prohibited from doing so, for if we were to observe them, we would be showing despite for Christ’s finished work upon the Cross; by our actions, we would be saying that His one sacrifice for all sins for all time was insufficient to atone for His elect), they still have lessons to teach us, which we would do well to learn.

When reading through the requirements for preparing the offerings, one can see the level of detail prescribed, such as which animals were prescribed for which sacrifice, how the animal or bread was to be prepared, where the animal was to be sacrificed, which parts of the animal were required to be burned, to what use the blood was to be put and how it was to be handled, which parts of which sacrifices were to be given to the priests as their portion, how long the people were permitted to partake of the sacrifice before it had to be burned, etc.  All of this points to the fact that God is quite concerned with the details of how we worship Him.  He wants us to be careful to observe the elements of worship in order to demonstrate our love for Him.  There is, of course, an element of walking through the motions that comes about when we become so practiced in performing the steps that we neglect the reason for and the significance of the actions, and we fall into the trap of the Pharisees, who honored the Lord with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Is. 29.13, Mt. 15.8).  But the reverse is a careless disregard for what the Lord wants us to give Him in worship.

As Moses commanded the people of Israel on the eve of their entrance into the Promised Land, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’  You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.  Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do.  You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Dt. 12.29-32; see also Lev. 18.24-30, Dt. 19.9-14)

And we see examples of this in the later histories of the kings of Israel and Judah (I Kg. 16.29-34, II Kg. 21.1-26, II Chron. 21.11-15, 24.17-19, 25.14-16, 26.16-21, 28.1-4,22-27, 33.1-9,21-23).  Indeed, even in the first century, the Churches of Pergamum and Thyatira compromised themselves by tolerating teachers who taught the parishioners of those churches to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality (Rev. 2.14-15,20-21).  Likewise today, there are churches whose pastors preach that sexual immorality is not a sin in God’s sight and churches that study the teachings and doctrines of non-Christian religions in order that they might integrate their practices into their services, as if the Lord might be pleased with such syncretism.  Such churches were and are in violation of the commandment given in Dt. 12.32 (see also Dt. 4.2, Prov. 30.5-6, Rev. 22.18-19) to neither add to nor detract from the revealed Word of God.  As we shall see in Leviticus 10, the Lord takes a very dim view, to put it mildly, of those who treat His commandments carelessly.

Second, one notices that those who minister before the Lord merit compensation.  To be sure, the tribe of Levi, to which the Aaronic priesthood belonged, was not to be given tribal lands in the Promised Land, as were the other twelve tribes.  Instead, as the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them.  I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.  To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the (Tabernacle).” (Num. 18.20-21)  And again, the Levites were required to give “a tithe of a tithe” of the contributions they received to the priests, indeed, “from each its best parts to be dedicated” (Num. 18.29) as the priests’ portion as directed in the laws of the grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings.

To be sure, there were those priests who abused this privilege, as with Hophni and Phinehas (I Sam. 2.12-17), whom the Lord executed for their sin, divesting their descendants of the priesthood (I Sam. 2.27-36, 4.4-11).  Yet as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (I Tim. 5.17-18; quotations from Dt. 25.4, Mt. 10.10)  Thus, the pastors who serve the Lord in teaching us the Word of God and shepherding us with the Lord’s discipline deserve a portion of our tithes and offerings to the Church.

Now, the Lord said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified,” (Lev. 10.3) and He established specific rules above and beyond the rules governing the laity that applied specifically to the priests (Lev. 21.1-22.16).  Likewise, the Lord tells us through James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (Jas. 3.1)  But all the more for this, our pastors rightly deserve our honor and a portion of our tithes and offerings for the work of the Church, as indicated in the establishment of the priests’ portion of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Finally, we should not leave our study of the Old Testament sacrifices without having been duly impressed by the fact that our sins are so grievous that they require a death to atone for them.  “The wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6.23) “The soul who sins shall die,” (Ezek. 18.4,20) and “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23)  And to make matters worse, the end of the sinner is not simply to fester in the grave.  “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. … For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10.26-27,30-31; quotations from Dt. 32.35-36)  Indeed, at the end of time, when the Lord Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10.42, II Tim. 4.1, I Pet. 4.5), He will sit on a great white throne, and every man, woman, and child will be gathered before Him to receive judgment.  There, books will be opened in which is recorded every sinful or thoughtless deed, every false or carelessly spoken word (Mt. 12.36), indeed, even the thoughts and intentions of our wicked hearts (Heb. 4.12-13).  And by what is written in these books, we will be judged (Rev. 20.11-15).  “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21.8; see also Rev. 22.15)  This is the just desert that awaits every man, woman, and child who has ever sinned, in just recompense for their sins committed against the Law of the Lord.  And none is without excuse (Rom. 1.20), for God has written His Law on every human heart (Rom. 2.15), the seared consciences of liars notwithstanding (I Tim. 4.2).

To be sure, God would be fully justified if He consigned every member of our race to this fate, for all have sinned, and all deserve to die.  However, He was not willing to consign man, whom He had created in His own image, wholly unto this fate, and yet the justice and moral perfection of His holy character demands the death of the sinner in order to satisfy the debt that he or she has incurred on account of his or her transgression of His morally perfect and just Law.  Consequently, He appointed a substitute.  In the Old Testament, this substitute manifested itself as oxen, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons.  This was a tangible reminder, often repeated, that drove home the point to God’s covenant people that on account of their sins, these animals had to die.  It was intended to make them sober so that they would strive all the more to obey the Lord and not transgress His commandments.  It also exacted a cost from them, inasmuch as these animals had a financial value that the Israelites were required to pay in order to acquire them and which was lost when they offered them up as a holy sacrifice unto the Lord.  But “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)  So then, it could not have been in the sacrifices themselves that the Israelites trusted to atone for their sins and satisfy the demands of God’s justice and holiness, but rather it could only have been in the promise inherent in those sacrifices that pointed to the greater reality that was then yet future, namely, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (Jn. 1.29), Jesus Christ.

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.

As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what they heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

—Isaiah 52.13-53.12

Just as the Ancient Israelites had the tangible reminder of sheep and goats bearing their sins to see the cost of those sins, so, too, we look “on him whom (we) have crucified, (we) shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zech. 12.10)  Whenever we, who are called by His name, sin, the penalty of our sin is laid on Him; He bears the guilt of our sin on the Cross, and it is as if we are there in place of the Roman soldiers, mocking Him, putting the crown of thorns on His brow, spitting on Him and striking Him with the reed that we placed in His hand as a mock scepter.  It is as if we are there, putting His Cross on His shoulders to bear to Golgotha, casting lots for His garments, nailing His hands and feet to the Cross, and raising His Cross to subject Him to the scorn of the unbelieving world.  And even as we do so, He intercedes with the Father on our behalf, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Mt. 27.27-44, Mk. 15.16-32, Lk. 23.26-39, Jn. 19.16-24)

And so, Paul asks,

What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin. … For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

—Romans 6.1-12

So then, Christ died upon the Cross not in order to pay the penalty for our sin only, but also in order to deliver us from the power of sin.  In this, His is a superior sacrifice to that of bulls, sheep, and goats, for even if the Lord accepted the blood of animals as satisfaction for the sin of men, it had no power to deliver those for whose sin it atoned from the power and dominion of sin.  To be sure, this power to deliver us from the dominion of sin does not reside inherently in us, for then we would be self-sufficient.  But the Lord, in His wisdom, does not want us to be self-sufficient for our righteousness but to rely solely upon Christ’s sufficiency in faith.  As He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12.9)  And so, we pray not only, “Forgive us our sins,” (Lk. 11.4, Mt. 6.12) but also, “Lead us not into temptation, (and) deliver us from evil.” (Mt. 6.13, Lk. 11.4)  Indeed, He is ever “able to keep (us) from stumbling and to present (us) blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” (Jude 24)