Leviticus: The God who is Holy
Today we launch into a book that often gets a reputation for being kind of the Black Sheep of the Bible. I’ll even confess that there are times that I have tried to read through the Bible and I come to the book of Leviticus and all of a sudden I’m thinking so what’s in Matthew? In many ways, Leviticus gets a bad rap. It’s a manual of what worshipping God was supposed to look like in the Old Testament. More often than not, it’s skipped over because it just seems so weird. What can a book about religious codes say to us today? We might miss the power of how this book speaks to us. It strikes me that one of the deepest human needs is the need to belong. It’s here that the book of Leviticus tells the powerful story of a God who stands alone, distinct in the universe and needs no one. Out of the overflow of His love, His desire has always been to build a family that could be in a relationship with Him.In fact, I believe that the central verse of this entire book is found in . So if you have your bible, would you open with me there.
Today we’re continuing in this series called His Story: Discovering the God of Scripture. Each week, we are going book by book through each of the books of the bible and looking at what they teach us about the character of God. Underlying the entire book of Leviticus is this notion of the Holiness of God. It picks up right after the glory of God fills the tabernacle. In each of these laws, I believe God is revealing something powerful about himself that goes far beyond rules and regulations. In fact, when we understand what’s happening in the book of Leviticus, we find a God who is completely distinct and completely different from all of humanity. And to give us a sense of what the book of Leviticus is about, I want to look again to our friends at the Bible Project to help us understand what this book is all about.
1. Understanding the power of holiness
Holiness is one of those words that we often use, but in many ways I think its misunderstood. This word “Holy” in Hebrew QDSH most literally means different. When people think of God’s holiness, they think of the fact that He is without sin. As the video reminded us, God’s holiness is so much more. Its the unbridled purity of God that is simply who He is. Humans can't survive being in its presence. Perhaps one of the best pictures of that holiness is found in the book of Isaiah. In (ESV)
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
When Isaiah sees this picture of God’s holiness, he panics! When He says I am lost, the Hebrew carries a sense that I am unraveled. Kind of like a sweater when you pull the string on it. As Isaiah saw how awesome and powerful God’s glory really was, there was this fear that every cell in His body would be vaporized before the awesome power of the person He stood before.
I often heard people say, that God can't be in the presence of sin. I’m convinced that view comes from where we’re told that God can't look upon sin. Truthfully, when we say that God can’t be in sins’ presence, I think we’ve got it backwards. It’s why Isaiah says, I’m undone because God is here. He’s so pure, so holy that anyone who approaches Him in sin finds themselves in the nuclear reactor of that holiness. Its not that God can’t be in the presence of sin, its that sin can’t be in the presence of God! It’s why at the end of the book of Exodus, Moses couldn’t enter into the tent of meeting. Even Leviticus opens with God speaking to Moses from the tent. At its core, Holiness is the unbridled presence and power of God. In probably my favorite book on this issue, The Holiness of God, RC Sproul tells us just how central this idea of God’s holiness really is.
“The Bible says that God is Holy, Holy, Holy. Not that he is merely holy or even holy, holy. He is Holy, Holy, Holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy and the whole earth is filled with His glory.” (26)
One of the great dangers of walking this life with God is that life with him becomes so common place, that we fail to marvel at His holiness. He is more powerful, more loving, and more holy than we can comprehend. In light of that holiness, the book of Leviticus becomes less about trying to live up to an impossible standard and more to do with God taking the initiative to repair the breach between he and humanity.
2. Embracing the mystery of Holiness
In , we find this incredible phrase that we are to be holy as He is holy. One of the natural implications of being people who live in God’s presence is that we too become different- Holy. Have you ever asked the question, why would God want His people to be holy?The answer is that God wants to be in relationship with his people. More than that, he wants us to enjoy life with him. Years ago, Tami and I took a dancing class. It was a disaster. I am probably the worst dancer on the face of the planet. To make matters worse, there was this older woman in the class who decided to make me her project. Each week she’d choose me as her partner and try to teach me dance. Before long, I started to almost enjoy dancing because once I knew how to dance, I could enjoy it. This week it really struck me that God’s desire for his people to be holy isn't rooted in laying something burdensome on them. Rather its an invitation to learn the dance of the kingdom of God. The biggest mistake we make about holiness is assuming that we do it. That if we pray, read our bibles, some how we can be better for God. We can’t. What we do in the things we do is to align with God not to earn his transformation, but to learn to dance like him and receive His love.
One expression in Leviticus is through that sacrifices and the observance of seven key festivals. The common thread in all of these sacrifices is a recognition that at the end of the day, every blessing we receive comes from God and in many ways we are in his debt. These sacrifices can be divides into two categories, the offerings to say thank you and offerings to say I’m sorry. It really brings us to this whole idea of giving. When giving becomes a matter of worship, its powerful way to teach our remind our hearts that what takes care of us is God’s provision. I hear people say, I give my time, its the same, but it isn’t. Because the one who gives you time and every other resource is God. What we do when we give is we’re really saying I trust you. If you're not giving, I want to challenge you to give. Not for the money, but because it brings freedom in our lives.
These second sacrifices are really important. The common thread in all of these sacrifices is this action where the person lays their hand on the animal and confesses their sin- then they kill it. Its a powerful reminder that our sin, our love for things other than God, is a kind of cosmic treason that warrants death. This animal is sacrificed on our behalf. It’s bearing the price that we deserve. Though it seems gruesome, I think it is a chance for us to reflect on how gruesome our sin is. These sacrifices would find their high point in the celebration of what’s know as the day of atonement. Essentially, the high priest goes into the holiest place in the tabernacle. In fact, He’s only allowed to go in once a year. Sprinkles blood on the altar. It atones or covers the sin. Atonement simply is a way for people to be in relationship with God. It doesn’t remove the sin. I believe its why this sacrifice ultimately points to what Jesus would do for us. Listen to the author of the ,.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.
This is what is so amazing about the Gospel. The sacrifices only covered the sins, what Christ does as He dies on the cross is He pays for it all. The only way anyone learns the steps of this dance is because of what Christ has done for us. This week I was reading an article by Jonathan Edwards and he said something that was a powerful reminder. He writes, “The only thing I can bring to my salvation is the sin that made it necessary.” What makes us holy is the presence of God and as His people, were invited to radically reorient our lives around that reality. Key idea: We don’t become holy, but are being made holy. What makes a person Holy is not their strenuous efforts or even the keeping of the law. Its that God is among them and has called them His people.
The other two sections of the book deal with how that life plays itself out. This appointment of the priests and the various festivals that Israel would celebrate. While I’d like to get into those, we can’t today. But before I wrap up, the thing that most people really wrestle with are the various purity laws. These deal with everything from cleanliness of a home and what you’re supposed to do when it grows mold and laws of how people can interact with God when there going through things. I hope you caught in the video that the connection between all of these things is that they are representative of death. These things are not a matter of good and evil- they just a recognition that death has no place in the presence of God. You simply wash, offer a sacrifice and you are clean again. We might look at these as random or heavy handed laws, but I’m convinced their purpose was to protect people not separate them. They’re simply a way for people to live with God in their midst.
So what does all this have to do with us? I don’t believe that these ritualistic laws are binding on us today, but they remind us of two things that I want us to take away from Leviticus.
Are we willing to obey a holy God who is making us holy? He is more beautiful than we can imagine, more pure than we can fathom, more powerful than we can comprehend. Everyday we should marvel at the mystery of that love. That God wants a relationship with us. He knew our sin, He knew our brokenness, and yet in spite of it all He loved us. He delighted in being with us. His desire is to open our hearts and lives that we might receive those blessings and enjoy them. As Jerry Bridges puts it, “We obey…not to be loved but because we are loved in Christ.” Holiness is simply making room for more of God in our lives.
Far from being the black sheep of Scripture, Leviticus reminds us that God breaks every notion of what we can comprehend of who he is. He wants to be with you. Today, may we marvel at the mystery of this kind of grace and may He guide us and may we marvel at His holiness and love.