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Occasional Letters: Sticking in Leviticus

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the commonest experiences of the believer who sets himself to read right through the Bible – and unless we do this in a systematic manner we implicitly deny God's right to speak to us in every part of His Word – is the difficulty faced in the middle of the Pentateuch. "I enjoyed Genesis", said a young friend, "because it's packed with good stories, and so is Exodus, although the tabernacle details became a bit too technical for me. But I got completely stuck in Leviticus with all those offerings".

Now, there is no shame in admitting that this particular book is tough. Even the title is slightly off-putting ("Pertaining to the Levites") and indeed somewhat misleading as the rules relate largely to the entire people of Israel. It was written nearly four thousand years ago to a nation just rescued from slavery to become God's special representatives on the earth. In order to protect them from the spiritual contamination of neighbouring pagans He gave them instructions about worship and behaviour. For example, Leviticus chapter 11 records their unique dietary code, which banned the eating of pork products and shellfish. This taught Israel the importance of separation. Lest anyone assume that saved people today are therefore debarred from the delights of smoked bacon for breakfast or prawn sandwiches for lunch, the New Testament teaching is beautifully direct.

Three passages make the point. First is the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Though "born under the law" (Gal 4.4, ASV) He anticipated its termination as a rule of life. In the course of demonstrating the inadequacy of Jewish ritual, He taught that neither our surroundings nor the food we eat defiles us – the problem is inside our own sinful hearts: "And he said to them, Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)" (Mk 7.18-19, ESV). Mark (writing in inspired retrospect) recognized that the Lord's words effectively abrogated the food laws of Judaism. An incident in the Acts goes further. Peter is being prepared for an encounter with Gentiles thirsty for God's salvation: "And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" (Acts 10.10-16). By cancelling dietary restrictions which had kept the Jews scrupulously apart, the Lord now showed that the old barriers had come down and that Peter could freely associate with non-Jews.

In case any doubt remains, Paul's first letter to Timothy clinches the matter. Responding to false teachers who sought to bring believers under ritualistic bondage (for man-made religion loves to impose rules so as to control people) Paul made it as clear as possible that saints of this dispensation can eat anything they fancy. Why? "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim 4.4-5). We may freely eat and be grateful to God for His kindness.

But, if the Levitical laws do not relate directly to Christians, why then bother to read the book at all? Let me offer one simple reason (and you'll think of many others): if we are ignorant of Leviticus much of the New Testament will not make sense. Here are five examples.

Childbirth purification, briefly mentioned in Luke 2.21-24, is not explained in the Gospel at all; for the details we have to go back to Leviticus 12.6-8. In so doing we learn of Mary's poverty. Obviously "not able to bring a lamb", she therefore followed God's provision for the needy, who were allowed to offer "A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" (Lk 2.24). Grace shines even through law.

The leprosy ritual recorded in Leviticus 14 is essential background to the Lord's instruction to a newly cured leper to "go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them" (Mt 8.4). It is probable that even that priest would have had to consult his Leviticus, for lepers weren't often cured! In fact, I can think of only two examples in the Old Testament. When therefore this miraculously recovered man presented himself for ceremonial cleansing it would have been a trumpet blast to the religious leadership of the nation, announcing that there was present in the land of Israel a man able to heal leprosy. What infinite power resides in Christ Jesus!

The annual appointments listed in Leviticus 23 provide a context for the incidental comment that the Saviour's "parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover" (Lk 2.41). Annual pilgrimages are noted in Exodus, but only in Leviticus are they fully categorized and specifically named as "appointed seasons" (Young's Literal Translation). Appointments God makes must not be missed. And though, unlike Israel, Christians have not been given any yearly observances, we are told "as often as ye" eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord's Supper (which implies frequency rather than rarity) we "announce the death of the Lord, until he come" (1 Cor 11.26, JND). Because it is such an honour to gather to remember Him, let us attend well prepared in mind and heart.

Informing his Gentile audience that "it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation" (Acts 10.28), Peter alludes to Israel's religious separation. But to which law was he referring? This passage may help: "I am the Lord your God, which have separated you from other people. Ye shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean: and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that creepeth on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine" (Lev 20.24-26). To preserve their testimony, God's people in every age must be distinct from the wicked world around.

Finally, the language Paul uses to describe what Christ's death meant to God assumes that we've grasped the Levitical systemization of Israel's sacrifices. When he writes that "Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour" (Eph 5.2), he expects us to know the basic difference between those offerings which arose to God as a pleasing aroma (Lev 1-3) and those which spoke rather of divine punishment descending upon sin (Lev 4-5). At Calvary the Saviour rendered to God a perfect devotion that delighted His heart, while receiving from God the judgment due to His people's sins. Leviticus constitutes what might be called an advance guidebook to the unfathomable wonders of Calvary.

So if you're feeling bogged down in Leviticus, don't give up. Stick with it and you'll eventually find much to educate and enrich your soul.

To be continued.


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