For many Christians, the book of Leviticus is a tough nut to crack. We know it’s important because it’s in the Bible, but we often still avoid preaching from this Old Testament book. It’s much more fun (and popular) to talk about the Law from the perspective of Romans or Galatians. If we truly believe that all of the Bible is about Jesus (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 and John 5:39, 46), then we must not shy away from using this text in our sermons.

Here is how Moseley in the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary handles this discussion:

The Importance of Leviticus

Perhaps this is the most basic question about Leviticus. Many have committed themselves to read through the Bible, beginning with the dramatic narratives of Genesis and continuing with the spectacular miracles of Exodus. They read along until they arrive in Leviticus where they bog down in molasses. Inside, they read about sacrifices that aren’t offered anymore, a priesthood that no longer exists, and laws we no longer need to obey. Some ask, “Why is this in the Bible, and what does it mean for us today?” Leviticus is challenging, but what if the result of studying it is that in future years, every time we read it we see powerful truths about God and ourselves that will profoundly affect the way we think and live? What if we see how Jesus is exalted in the book of Leviticus? Such outcomes are possible; they are the goals of this book.

Leviticus is important for at least five reasons:

  1. Leviticus describes the entire religious system of ancient Israel. If we hope to get how religion worked in Israel, we must understand Leviticus.
  2. Leviticus provides the theological foundation for Christ’s atoning work. The idea of a substitutionary sacrifice receives its fullest explication here.
  3. Leviticus demonstrates how important holiness is to God. Holiness is the main theme—God’s holiness and the holiness God expects from His people. Holiness is still important to God, and God reminds His people of that crucial fact in this book.
  4. Leviticus is a record of the words of God in direct speech with His servant Moses. The book opens with the statement, “The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him” (1:1). The book states 38 times that the Lord spoke to Moses and/or Aaron. Also, 18 times the book records that the Lord “commanded” Moses, Aaron, and the people. Leviticus is important because it contains the very words of God in direct speech.
  5. The New Testament frequently alludes to the contents of Leviticus. At numerous points New Testament writers seem to have assumed knowledge of Leviticus, and readers of the New Testament need this knowledge to understand what the writer was describing. For example, the New Testament writers explain none of the following practices: purification after childbirth, washing after the healing of a leper, journeys to the festivals in Jerusalem, and separation from the Gentiles in eating. All these originate in the book of Leviticus, and these practices were so ingrained in the thinking of first-century Jews that they needed no explanation. If modern people are to understand such practices, they should be familiar with the contents of Leviticus.

The book of Leviticus has had more impact on Judaism than any other book in the Old Testament. Over half the commentary of the Talmud (the basis for rabbinic law) is concerned with this book. This influence of Leviticus on Judaism continued even after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. That is remarkable in light of the fact that Leviticus primarily concerns the execution of worship in the tabernacle and temple. For centuries rabbis taught Hebrew to their students by having them memorize much of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew, perhaps concurrently learning how to translate it. Why wouldn’t contemporary Christians be highly interested in a book so influential in the ancient world and therefore part of the foundations of our faith?

Interpreting and Applying Old Testament Law

One challenge in applying this book practically is that we don’t know how to interpret it well. A brief description of a Christian method of interpreting OT Law could help. Many Christians divide the laws into three categories: ceremonial laws, civil laws, and moral laws. Ceremonial laws have to do with rituals regarding worship, leadership of worship, and preparation for worship. Jesus made this ceremonial system obsolete when He became our high priest and the final sacrifice for sin (Heb 8:13; 9:11–10:18). Also, the civil laws no longer apply to us in the new covenant age, since their purpose was to govern the society of Israel during the period of the old covenant. Clearly, however, the moral laws of the Old Testament still apply to us, since most or all of them repeat in the New Testament.

Thus, such a division of Old Testament laws into three categories can be helpful. However, we must admit that such categories are extraneous to the Bible. Furthermore, even though new covenant believers are not required to obey old covenant ceremonial and civil laws, can’t such laws teach us something about God? God gave the laws, after all. He gave them to His people in a specific place for a specific time, but they are in the Bible and the whole Bible is important. So what do they mean for today?

The following is a simple seven-step method that I have found helpful for interpreting and applying the law.

First, affirm inspiration and helpfulness.

2 Timothy 3:16 says,

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.

When the apostle Paul wrote that, the New Testament did not exist. He was writing about the Old Testament Scripture that includes Leviticus, and he wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God”. “All Scripture,” including the books of law like Leviticus. So we affirm inspiration—God breathed out, inspired, Leviticus. Also we affirm its helpfulness. So, all Scripture is not only inspired; all of it is also helpful. In the new covenant period the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws are not law for us; our disobedience to individual laws receives no punishment as was the case in ancient Israel. However, they are profitable in that they teach us about God, His will, and how to live for Him in today’s world.

Second, affirm fulfillment in Jesus.

The whole Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus, even the legal sections like Leviticus. After the resurrection of Jesus, He met a few of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. He told them that His life, death, and resurrection were prophesied in the Old Testament. He said in Luke 24:44,

Everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.

The law of Moses, including Leviticus, is somehow about Jesus. Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law. How does Jesus do that? We’ll see that as we go through Leviticus, but for now let’s affirm Jesus’ statement that He fulfills it.

Third, determine what the law/text meant in its original context.

We study what originally happened. What does the Bible say about how a particular sacrifice was offered, or how the Day of Atonement was observed? The contemporary meaning is based on the original meaning; the contemporary application is based on the original application. A text in the Bible cannot mean what it never meant. How would this passage have been understood and applied in its original setting? We base our interpretation on that.

Fourth, note the similarities with today’s context.

For example, Leviticus 11:7 directs God’s people to refrain from eating pork. I like pork. Barbequed pork is so common in North Carolina that if I did not eat it I would likely be breaking some state law. However, I would not be breaking any law in the new covenant. Evidently some people were pressuring Christians in Colossae to follow the dietary regulations of the old covenant. The apostle Paul wrote to them: “Don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink. . . . These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah” (Col 2:16-17). So the Old Testament dietary laws no longer apply in the age of the new covenant; faith in Jesus makes them obsolete.

But what did the command against eating pork mean in its original context? The pagan peoples around Israel ate pork. In commanding His people not to eat pork God was creating a distinction between His people and others. God’s people were to observe that distinction; they were to be different, separate. What is the similarity with today’s context? People still do things God forbids, and God’s people are to be different. That’s the connection to today’s context.

Fifth, identify principles that apply to both ancient and modern contexts.

With respect to refraining from eating pork, what’s the principle? God still doesn’t want His people to be exactly like the people around them. That principle applies today, so we’ve identified a principle that applies to both ancient and modern contexts. Walter Kaiser refers to this as “principlization”. What is the underlying principle(s) communicated by this law? Answering that question is essential in the task of interpreting and applying old covenant laws.

Sixth, consider what the New Testament teaches about each principle.

Does the New Testament teach, for example, about the separation of God’s people from those who don’t know and love God? It does. Did Jesus say anything about that? He did, and He fulfills that part of the Law because He lived separate from the sin of the world. He empowers His followers to be different and is the difference between His followers and those who don’t know and love God.

Seventh, apply the principle to your life.

The principle is that God wants us to be different from those who don’t know Him. I apply that principle by rejecting the sinful practices of the world and separating myself from them and to Jesus.

Keep Reading

Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary Leviticus

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