Learn to Worship from Leviticus?

Have you ever begun reading through the Bible from cover to cover only to get bogged down in Leviticus? That is, if you made it through the genealogies in Genesis! Well, then this article is for you—to inspire you with new interest in the book of torat kohanim, a title that can be translated both “instruction for the priests” and “instruction by the priests.”

You may wonder, what was the over-arching purpose behind these instructions both for and by the priests? Leviticus is designed to teach a holy people how to live in fellowship with a holy God. But more than that, by gifting Israel with laws that secure their well-being, God enables His people to be a blessing to the nations.[1]

I’m struck by the sacramental nature of this description. Do we understand the role of God’s commandments, wherever they might appear in Scripture, as existing to train, teach, and prepare the people of God to be His instrument of grace to an observing world? We are to be visible signs of an invisible grace, imparted to a called-out people as we walk according to the Holy Spirit and submit our minds to the Law of God (Rom. 8:1-7).[2]

As the perennial Passover story reminds us, God was intent on securing a people; a people who would reflect His character to the world. This would require a series of laws, teachings and instructions designed to distinguish God’s people from the teeming masses. His holiness dictates that any approach to God must acknowledge the yawning gulf between the character of God and the flawed nature of humanity. The distinctions of Leviticus help mortals realize that God is un-approachably different from His creation.

It is only after apprehending a proper fear of God that we can begin to comprehend Him as a loving and benevolent Father. “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you…then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”[3] It is often recalled that knowing in the Hebraic sense implies intimacy, so we should understand that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of an intimate relationship with Him.

Paradoxically, by emphasizing His radical otherness God prepared His people for their world mission; the task of revealing a totally holy but completely loving Father. As our Creator, God realized we would be tempted to short-circuit our relationship with Him. We want to re-make Him as a glorified buddy; we want all the ooey-gooey and none of the wonder; all the blessing and none of the consequence. Leviticus reminds us that God’s divine transcendence requires He be separate from sin, and calls His followers to be likewise holy. Yet every call for distinction is accompanied by a way of re-establishing connection, displaying God’s mercy.

These thoughts prompt us to ask a rather obvious question. Given that there is no Aaronic priesthood, no earthly Temple, no Theocratic government, how are we to set about applying the instructions of a book like Leviticus? King Messiah Fellowship’s Statement of Foundational Beliefs suggests the following approach:

We believe the Bible is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and a description of the lifestyle of the redeemed community throughout history. While God’s commandments are to be considered prescriptive, we acknowledge that they require adaptation from generation to generation.

But what does that look like? I suggest you begin by contemplating the idea that the laws of Leviticus should somehow apply to you. As you meditate on God’s laws, He will begin to make clear to you how they might be made use of in your day-to-day existence. We have a wonderful treasure in the traditions of the Jews; the record of a people who have wrestled with how to practically obey God’s laws for centuries. We can mine their history and culture for suggestions on what a particular obedience might look like.

True worship is where the external forms of religion meet the day-to-day activities of life. And God wants us to understand that day-to-day is the greatest opportunity to sanctify ourselves as we partner with Him in the repair of the world. How do we repair the world? By finding and celebrating the image of God that is reflected in those around us. As for you, and as for me, let’s be distinct—so the reflection of God is easier to spot!

Remember, Leviticus is designed to prepare God’s people to accomplish their world mission—to display God’s character to the watching world. How will a bit more wonder change your life?

[1] Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. “The Book of Leviticus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible – Vol. 1, ed Keck, Leander. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 987, 998

[2] Note that “walk” and “mind” indicates that there must be a whole life commitment; one cannot separate mental acknowledgement from practical outworking.

[3] Proverbs 2:1,5 (ESV) cf. Job 28:28

3 thoughts on “Learn to Worship from Leviticus?

  1. Nate,

    Your post is very timely! I just posted some of my own struggles concerning holiness, and then read this. WOW! I love it. The quotes by Kaiser are like a breath of fresh air to me.

    Blessings to you my friend!

  2. Leviticus is truly an incredible book! A white, pure honeycomb wherein is sweet honey that gives life (see Joseph and Aseneth 16:1-17:3).

    >> “Given that there is no Aaronic priesthood, no earthly Temple, no Theocratic government, how are we to set about applying the instructions of a book like Leviticus?”

    One of the great disappointments of Modern Judaism and scholarship has been to base the meaning that holiness and purity has on the Temple. This “temple-centered purity” probably arose in the time of the early Amoraim. Some have suggested that in order to lessen the burden of halakah, they made the purity laws as obsolete as the temple (thus the dictum “since the day when the Temple was destroyed, there is neither uncleanness nor cleanness”). And later on, great Jewish leaders were responsible for influencing the populace in this direction:

    All that is prescribed in the Torah and in other parts of Scripture regarding levitical cleanness and uncleanness applies only to the Temple, its holy things, heave-offerings, and second tithe…
    –Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Tumat Okelim 16:8-9

    But anyone who truly deals with the Biblical, Post-Biblical, and archaeological evidence—not to mention the Dead Sea Scrolls—cannot but realize that this is wrong. The Temple increased the strictures of holiness and purity, but did not define them. Just because there is no temple in no way means that there is no such thing as holiness and purity anymore.

    One thing that NEEDS to be taken into account, however, is the fact that this Torah was given to Israel. If you are not an Israelite, there is nothing necessary or obligatory about Leviticus. That does not mean, of course, that a gentile cannot chose to take on the Law.

  3. Yes, given to Israel…who was a mixed multitude, and we as Gentiles who believe in Messiah have been adopted into the Commonwealth of Israel.

    So, as Paul said, “all who believe are the sons of Abraham.”

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