The Old Testament book of Leviticus is probably the least-read book among the 66 books found in the best-selling book of all time. Many people of faith desire to read Leviticus about as much as I hunger for green peas and cooked carrots, which is not at all. When I was a child, my mother tried and failed to persuade me to eat peas. To this day, with apologies to all of the pea growers across America, I gag at the sight of green peas! However, the spiritual value of Leviticus far exceeds the nutritional value of any vegetable medley.
“Leviti-Yuck!” said one person I know, and she loves the Bible. But, understandably, she finds Leviticus much more difficult to swallow than Psalms or the Gospels. However, my goal as a Bible teacher is to hear people say, “I love Leviticus!” Let’s try that. Say it aloud so the person in the next room can hear you. Say it like you mean it, even if you must say it by faith.
In Psalm 119, King David expressed his love for Leviticus. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (v. 97). Think about it. The only Bible David held in his possession was the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. He loved all of God’s word, including Leviticus, and so should we. How do we get there? I believe a better understanding of Leviticus and its many foreshadows of the future Christ will help us fall deeper in love with the book and, more importantly, the Author.
For starters, Leviticus is an ancient handbook on holiness, used by the priests in their Tabernacle duties. What health is to the body, holiness is to the soul. The word “holy,” which means “separate, set apart, or consecrated,” appears 80 times in Leviticus, on average nearly three times per chapter. God’s holiness speaks of His separateness from anything impure or defiled. In Leviticus, not only are certain rituals and observations considered holy, but the Lord also calls His special people holy, requiring them to live separate and free from worldly defilements. “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (11:45).
Yahweh was Israel’s God, and they were His chosen people. He rescued them from slavery, and then at Mount Sinai, He advanced the covenant relationship He had formed with Abraham centuries before. With that relationship came certain expectations about living a holy life. Leviticus casts a long shadow of holiness into the New Testament. The apostle Peter, for example, has Leviticus in mind when he writes, “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’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
Because the Bible is one continuous story about one main character, Jesus Christ, let us consider where we are on Route 66 in light of where we have been. In Genesis, Christ is the seed of the woman and God’s remedy for humanity’s sinful ruin. In Exodus, Christ is our Passover lamb who, by His blood, sets the captives free from the bondage of sin. In Leviticus, Christ is our great High Priest who atones for our sin and shows us how to walk with God in holiness. Are you with me so far? Here’s another way to state the big idea in Leviticus: God forgives sin and, by His mercy, makes sinful people holy through substitutionary atonement.
Though some say the book of Leviticus lacks an apparent structure and is difficult to outline, the flow of it falls into two broad categories. The focus of chapters 1-17 is sacrifice, and the aim of chapters 18-27 is sanctification. The first part of the book teaches how to worship a holy God and the second half offers instruction in how to walk with God in personal holiness.
Five holy offerings and seven celebratory festivals are among the sometimes-tedious instructions given first to the priests and Levites and then to Israel’s larger congregation. The many purification and sanitation laws might seem irrelevant to us today, but Leviticus strongly encourages the consecration of both body and spirit to the Lord. A description of the annual Day of Atonement is a high point in Leviticus and worthy of deeper reflection. All of this and more pointed to the Christ who was to come. Let us return to Mount Sinai[i] and take a closer look at the holy offerings, the sacred feasts, and the Day of Atonement.
Leviticus introduces five sacrificial offerings in chapters 1-7, including the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. The first three offerings were voluntary and said, in effect, “Thank you, Lord!” The last two offerings were mandatory and said, essentially, “Lord, I’m sorry for my sin.” Let us take a closer look at each offering.
The burnt offering (1:1-17) was a sacrifice that consumed the bull, sheep, goat, or bird and was acceptable to God as a general, substitutionary atonement for sin. This sacrifice typifies how Jesus offered His body on the cross in total submission to the Father’s will for the payment of our sin.
The grain offering (2:1-16) came from one’s food supply. Unlike a blood sacrifice required for the remission of sin, this offering was an acknowledgment of God’s provision. Because grain was in short supply in the wilderness, this could be a costly offering.
Worshippers could use an animal or grain to make the peace offering (3:1-17), sometimes called a fellowship offering, which had one of three purposes—to thank God for His generous provision, to fulfill a vow, or to give thanks to God for delivering the worshipper from a difficult situation.
A sin offering (4:1-5:13) was an animal sacrifice required by the Mosaic Law to atone for unintentional sins. God gave Moses specific instructions about the animal’s blood, body, fat, and more. The sinner was required to lay his hands on the animal’s head, a male or female goat without blemish, signifying the transfer of one’s sins to the substitute. The sin offering was a striking picture of the sacrifice Jesus, the “unblemished lamb,” made on the cross for our sins.
Finally, the trespass or guilt offering (5:14-7:38), not to be confused with the sin offering, is primarily about two things. First, this offering was required when a person unintentionally violated some of the Lord’s holy things. It was also required for making reparations when a violation had been committed against another person. Thus, this offering made atonement for sin before a holy God and brought about reconciliation in human relationships.
Together, the five Levitical offerings picture how Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross atones for sin and reconciles relationships both divine and human (Hebrews 9:15; Ephesians 2:11-22). The Israelites made these sacrifices continually. The blood nearly never stopped flowing. Thankfully, Jesus’s once for all sacrifice on the cross fulfilled the sacrificial system and put an end to it.[ii]
Seven feasts or “appointed times” on the Jewish calendar also played an important role in Israel’s religious life. Leviticus 23 begins with the Lord saying to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, they are my appointed feasts.” These solemn celebrations reminded Israel of God’s faithful activity on behalf of His chosen people. Four of them took place in the spring and three in the fall. Observant Jews still celebrate the feasts today.
Passover began the appointed feasts in the spring and reminded the Israelites of their freedom from Egyptian slavery. The Feast of Unleavened Bread followed immediately after Passover and lasted for seven days, during which time the Israelites ate bread with no yeast in remembrance of the time they fled Egypt in haste. The Feast of Firstfruits began the harvest celebration and provided a way for Israel to express her gratitude to God for His generous provision. At the end of the harvest, fifty days after Firstfruits, they celebrated Pentecost, again offering thanksgiving to God for His bountiful provision.
Jesus fulfilled the first four feasts at his first coming. As the Lamb of God, He died on the cross for our sins during the Passover observance in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 5:7). Three days later, He rose from the dead as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Fifty days later, the Holy Spirit arrived on the day of Pentecost and gave birth to the Church (Acts 2). Finally, Jesus lived a sinless life, pictured in the Feast of Unleavened Bread.[iii]
The last three feasts happened in the fall season, starting with the Feast of Trumpets, which signified the end of the agricultural and festival year. The trumpet blast alerted the Israelites that they were entering a sacred season. The Day of Atonement followed ten days later, which is the annual day when the high priest entered the Most Holy Place to make an offering for the sins of Israel. Five days later, the Israelites celebrated the seventh and final appointed time called the Feast of Tabernacles. Living in booths for seven days memorialized the sojourn made by the Israelites through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
Jesus will fulfill the last three feasts during His second advent, beginning with His two-stage return separated by seven years of tribulation on planet earth. During both the Rapture of the Church and the Second Coming of Christ, the trumpet sounds fulfilling the Feast of Trumpets (1 Thessalonians 4; Revelation 19). The trumpet blast announces both the coming of the Lord and the awesome Day of the Lord that ensues on earth. The Day of Atonement also prophetically pictures the Second Coming of Jesus Christ when Israel will recognize her Messiah. Finally, the Feast of Tabernacles prophetically points to the time when Jesus will dwell with His people by setting up His earthly kingdom for 1000 years (Revelation 20:1-6). At that time, Israel will possess all of the land God promised to them.
Are you falling in love with Leviticus? The best is yet to come. Read on.
How the Day of Atonement points to the person and work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, cannot be overestimated. Among the priest’s duties on the annual Day of Atonement was the presentation of two goats to the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Leviticus 16). One goat would be sacrificed as a sin offering while the other would serve as the scapegoat.
What is a scapegoat? A scapegoat is any group or individual that innocently bears the blame for others’ wrongdoings. In Leviticus, the scapegoat was originally a picture of the Christ to come who would innocently bear the blame and the shame for our sin (16:21-22).
After the high priest placed his hands on the goat’s head, symbolically transferring the sins of the people to the innocent goat, he cast the goat outside the camp for it never to return. In the same way, Jesus, our scapegoat, bore the blame and shame for our sin, and then He cast our sin far away from us (Psalm 103:12).
This is why I love Leviticus, and I hope you do, too. More so, I hope you love the Author of the book—your Savior, sin substitute, and willing scapegoat named Jesus.
This blog submission is from Route 66: The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Bible, an eBook written by Dr. Ron Jones. Download the complete eBook based on Road Trip 1, the Books of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) in our Store.
[i] It took two months for the Hebrews to get from Egypt to Mount Sinai. They encamped at Mount Sinai for about one year, from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10.
[ii] As New Testament believers, we are not required to make sacrifices for God to atone for our sins. Rather, we place our faith in the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. He is the substitutionary Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
[iii] In the Bible, leaven is a picture of sin. Unleavened bread is a picture of the pure, spotless, sinless life that Jesus, the Son of God, lived on this earth.