Lecture 10: The Holiness of God (Leviticus)
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: The Holiness of God
Introduction to Leviticus
This morning I want to look at one of the most intensely theological books in the entire Old Testament. A book permeated with the doctrine of the holiness of God, that He is separate from sin and He expects His people, likewise, to be holy. He expects His people to be different from the rest of the world. It is a book that tells us what sin is so we can avoid it and do the will of God. It is a book that says God is a forgiving and merciful God when we fail, and that the chief benefit of that forgiveness is the very presence of God. This morning I want to look at the the third book of the bible, Leviticus, which is a book of instructions given to Moses while he is on Mt. Sinai. At first glance the book seems to be a pretty strange book with strange regulations about strange things. All these rules on how to sacrifice animals, what to do if an ox gores your neighbor a second time, and all kinds of relevant stuff like that. Of course, if you were gored a second time by your neighbor’s ox, you probably would want to know what to do. There are rules about special festivals, blood, fat and hindquarters. It is strange stuff at first glance, yet Leviticus is consumed with the very presence and the holiness of God, that He is separate from sin. Holiness means separate from sin, and God expects his people to be more like Him than the rest of the world.
There are many passages we could look at to corroborate this idea of separation. For example, Leviticus 18, starting at verse 2, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes, you shall follow My rules and keep My statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.’” Chapter 19, verse 18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” In truth, the principles set in Leviticus are timely and relevant as much today as they were in the days when we slaughtered bulls, goats and lambs. There are a lot of passages we could look this morning in Leviticus, but I want to focus on the sacrificial system. There are many types of sacrifices and rules given for how you sacrifice animals, but they are all basically the same. So turn to the first chapter of Leviticus and look at the first set of instructions. (I am giong to supply antecedents to a few of the pronouns to clear it up. Leviticus Chapter 1, starting with verse 3, “If his (the person bringing the offering) offering is a burnt offering from the herd, here is how you do it. He shall offer a male without blemish.” (In other words, “Don’t bring Me your runts of the litter. Don’t bring Me the crippled animals. Bring me the best ones you have because I am worthy of that.”) “And the person bringing the offering shall bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting that he may be accepted before the Lord. And then he (the person bringing the offering) shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And then he (again, the person bringing the sacrifice), he shall kill the bull before the Lord and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And then he (again, the person bringing the sacrifice) shall slay the burnt offering, (skin it, in other words), and cut it into pieces and the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. And Aaron’s son, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head and the fat on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. But it’s the animal’s entrails and its legs, he (the person bringing the sacrifice) shall wash with water and the priests shall burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering. A food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” And by “pleasing aroma,” that is Leviticus’ way of saying that God will accept the sacrifice and will forgive the sin. That point is made explicit in Chapter 4, verse 20. It is an interesting passage that clearly explains how the person who brings the sacrifice is a participant. The person bringing the sacrifice is not an observer in this process at all. It is the person who has sinned who gets the animal, brings it to the Tent of Meeting, puts his hand on the head of the animal and cuts its throat. Then he skins the animal, hacks it into pieces, washes the guts and then all these things are given to the priest who burns them on the fire. He takes some of the blood and throws it on the altar. Sometimes the blood is poured out before the altar, and in a few cases, the blood is actually thrown back on the person sacrificing, as well. There is no question who is responsible for his sin. When you look at the process, you can see that there is no one else to blame. The person has sinned, they have brought a sacrifice, they are a participant in the process, and they are forgivin as a result.
God is a Holy God
The general procedure for sacrificing is repeatedly explained in Leviticus, and many of the themes regarding how to be clean and how not to follow after the ways of the world can be seein in other parts of Leviticus. Among the many things Leviticus teaches, we learn about God in the sacrificial system. First and foremost we learn that God is a holy God, that He does not sin and is totally separate from sin. Through the Old Testament is this idea of the holiness of God. It is present implicitly in the Garden of Eden; it starts to become more explicit in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3 where God says to Moses, “Take your sandals off for you are on holy ground.” The ground was holy because the holy God was present in the midst of the burning bush. We see God’s holiness portrayed in places like Exodus 19 where they are getting ready for Moses to go up to Mt. Sinai and we see the Ten Commandments. And there is almost a whole chapter of instructions about not letting any animal or any person on Mt. Sinai. Why? Because the holy God is present at the top and if any sinful creature touches the mountain when a holy God is on it, that sinful creature, whether it be a person or an animal, will be killed instantly. You start seeing God teaching His people what it means to be a holy God. When you get to the book of Leviticus, God is driving this point home because it is God’ holiness that drives the entire sacrificial system. It is critical for you all to see that. God does not hate animals. God is not cruel or capricious. That is not what is driving the sacrificial system. What is driving the system is the fact that God is holy. Leviticus asks the question: why should you sacrifice? Well, obviously because you sin. Well, what is the big deal about sin? Well, sin cuts you off from the presence of a holy God and therefore something has to be done about it. See, it is God’s holiness that’s driving everything. If I could state that in reverse, as we grow in our awareness of God’s holiness, what happens? We also grow in an awareness of our own sin. As we grow in our awareness of God’s holiness, and of our own sin, we come to understand that there must be a punishment for our sin. It is just part and parcel of the same thing.
The passage from Isaiah 6 makes the statement so clearly. When Isaiah in his vision sees God high and lifted up and they are declaring, “holy, holy, holy,” what does he do? He does not jump in and worship Him. It is his sin that is overwhelming to him and he says, “I cannot look, I am an unclean man, living amongst an unclean people. I have to be forgiven.” That is what happens when you see the holiness of God, and that is why it is so important to see that it is not some cruelty to animals idea that is pushing Leviticus What is pushing Leiticus is that God is a holy God and we are a sinful people. Those two cannot go together. I remember hearing about a comment that a pastor made once and publicly proclaimed that never again will sin be preached from his pulpit. Guess what? Never again was holiness ever preached from his pulpit. Ever. We learn a lot about God, but most importantly we learn that God is a holy, holy God.
What else do we learn from the sacrificial system? Well, we learn a lot about sin and there are a lot of aspects of sin that we could talk about. Let me share two things about sin that come out of the sacrificial system. Number one: The sacrificial system in Leviticus teaches us that sin is the breaking of God’s rules. Sin is what brings us to the point of needing to have a sacrifice so that we can enjoy the presence of a holy God; sin is the breaking of God’s rules. God alone decides the rules in Leviticus. He does not ask for Moses’, Aaron’s Miriam, or Mike Murray’s opinion. God alone makes the rules and sin is the breaking of His rules. That is important to understand because it leads us to another truth, which is that sin ultimately is always against God. One of the things that we learn from the Levitical system is that sin is the breaking of God’s rules, that God and God alone determines what is sin and what is not sin. This is ultimately why all sin is against God. Joseph certainly understood this. When Potipher’s wife was trying to seduce him, he knew that if he had succumbed to that, he would have sinned against Potipher and God and he said to her, “How could I do this evil thing and sin against God?” He knows that the rules for adultery come from God and therefore, by committing adultery, he would be breaking God’s rules. Therefore the sin is against God. Psalm 51 is one of the most powerful Psalms in the Bible. This is the Psalm of David after he has been confronted by Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. Listen to how he confesses his sin, Psalm 51, starting at verse 1, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love, according to Your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” And then he says, “Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.” Yes, David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, but at the deepest most fundamental level, David understood that it was God’s rules and when he broke God’s rules, he sinned against God. Certainly the Levitical system is helping us see this. The ramifications of this are pretty relevant. It means that if you and I are cruel to our sister or our brother, we are sinning against God. If we devalue people by excluding them from our little clique at school, we are sinning against God. If you and I disrespect our spouse, we are sinning against God. If our private thoughts and our private actions are full of lust and hatred, then we are sinning against God. That is what the Levitical system is trying to help us understand. See, you do not sacrifice to anyone else in Leviticus, do you? You do not kill a little animal to placate your wife’s anger and then the bull to placate God’s anger. I mean, you should deal with your spouse, but sin ultimately is against God. It is a different way of looking at sin, but it is the Biblical way. That is the first thing we learn about sin from the Levitical system, that it is a breaking of God’ laws, God’s rules, and therefore sin is against God ultimately. Yes, other people are involved, but ultimately it is God. Certainly second of all, the Levitical system teaches us the tremendously high cost of sin. That is why I read Leviticus 1; that is why I made it clear that you would know who puts his hand on the animal, who slits its throat, who skins it, who hacks it into pieces, who washes its guts, who hands it to the priest. It is the sinner that does it. It is the person bringing the sacrifice and God is trying to help us understand how bad sin really is.
We certainly live in a world that belittles sin. We live in a world that ridicules holiness, that mocks righteousness. We live in a world that says purity is only for the weak and the Philippians 4 test (“Whatever is good and honorable and lovely, dwell on these things’”) is just for losers. Is that not what the world says? When was the last time you heard of sexual purity upheld on television or in the movies? Leviticus says that sin is so serious that the only acceptable punishment for it is death. Now, I am going to drive this point home a little further. What I am about to say is a perceived as being morbid, but it is Biblical. I do not know how to say it except to tell you to go home and do it, but I do not actually want you to. Anyway, go home and get Fluffy or your Fido and put him on your lap, put your hand on his head, get a butter knife, hold it to Fluffy’s throat, and then you tell God that white lies are not that bad, that the private sins are no one else’s business. That little sins are not an issue. Leviticus has people slaughtering bulls for unintentional sin. You see the power of the picture of sacrifice? You can not imagine doing that and at the same time saying, “Yes, Fluffy, you are going to die for my sin” and then at the same time say, “Sin is not that bad.” That’s the power of the sacrificial system that sin is horrible. The fact of the matter is that if someone feels that sin isn’t that bad, they have not read Leviticus. If someone thinks that sin is not that bad, they simply have not come to grips with the holiness of God. That is just the way it is. Leviticus teaches us many things about sin but those two are paramount, that it is the breaking of God’s laws and it is very, very serious.
Leviticus also teaches us a lot about forgiveness and this is often missed, but in the book of Leviticus is one of the strongest pictures there is in the entire Bible short of the cross that God is a forgiving God who forgives us not because we deserve it, but because He is a God of mercy and grace and He is glad to extend forgiveness to those who are repentant so that they can enjoy His presence. Does God have to forgive you and me? Does God have to forgive Moses and any of the people who lived in Israel at that time? No. There is nothing in God’s character that requires Him to forgive and God can be perfectly just and perfectly holy and perfectly loving and allow every person who has sinned to die in their sin and to spend eternity in hell. He is perfectly loving and just if that is what He chose to do. But because of His mercy and grace, God decides to extend forgiveness to those of us who do not deserve it. It is only because of God’s mercy and grace that He said the killing of an animal will affect atonement and He will forgive you. Do you remember back in Exodus 34 when Moses says, ‘I want to see Your glory, God. I want to know You so I can follow You.”? So when God’s presence comes in a mighty way in Exodus 34 and God’s glory goes before Moses as he is in the cleft of the rock, remember how God proclaims Himself? Exodus 34, starting at verse 6, “The Lord passed before him (Moses), and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” See, that is also the message of Leviticus, that God is a merciful and a gracious God who extends forgiveness to me who does not deserve it and He extends forgiveness to you who do not deserve it. God is a forgiving God. I need to quickly add on this, that forgiveness is not automatic. It is not automatic in Leviticus and it is not automatic now. Let me explain that. The first impression that you can get when you read Leviticus is “Hey, if I do something wrong, I slaughter an animal and God has to forgive me and nothing else matters.” You can mistakenly read that into Leviticus, but as you read through the Old Testament, especially when you get to the prophets, it is easy to see that God’s intention in sacrifice was not to somehow automatically forgive you and let you live any way that you want. You had to be exercising faith, believing that God would forgive, and you had to repent, change your evil ways, otherwise the sacrifices didn’t do anything. There are many passages that we could look at, but for now look at Isaiah 1. In Isaiah Chapter 1, both God and Isaiah are fed up with this idea that if I just go through certain motions, then somehow God is going to have to forgive me. It is kind of like God is a Coke machine, you put in your quarter and you can make God do whatever you want. But both Isaiah and God are tired of people offering sacrifices but refusing to repent, refusing to respond as God wants them to. So starting at verse 11, God says to Isaiah, “‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices’, says the Lord. ‘I’ve had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats.’” He is talking about Leviticus here, “When you come to appear before Me, who has required of you this trampling of My courts. Bring no more vain offerings.” In other word, they are not affecting forgiveness. They are not doing what they were designed to do. “Incense is an abomination to Me, new moon and Sabbath and the calling of congregations.” Now, why God? I mean, they are just doing what Leviticus says to do. Why are You so mad at the children of Israel? “Let Me tell you why I am mad. I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. I cannot stand it when you come to the temple and you go through your religious motions and you do the religious things and you keep the external letter of the Law but you are harboring sin in your hearts, you are full of iniquity you are refusing to repent and change your ways.” God says, in a sense, “This makes Me sick! It makes Me sick to watch you go through the religious motions and live in sin. That is why your sacrifices are vain.” If you are going to live in iniquity, it is like God says, “Do not even offer the sacrifices.”
I remember when I took my SAT’s, they had just instituted a new rule that if you leave a question unanswered it is minus one point. If you answer it incorrectly, you have minus two. And I was thinking, you know, that is what is going on in verse 13. “It would have been better for you never even to offer the sacrifice if you are going to harbor sin in your heart and refuse to repent. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates. They have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands I will hide My eyes from you even though you make many prayers, I will not listen. Why? Because your hands are full of blood. Rather, what should you do? Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” There is nothing automatic about forgiveness in the book of Leviticus. There is nothing automatic today about going through religious actions, going to church, and putting your five dollars in the plate if you are harboring iniquity in your heart. The same is true today as it was then. God is a forgiving God. He forgives because of his mercy and because of His grace, but He requires true repentance, true repentance, not religiosity. He requires true repentance.
Leviticus Prepares Us for the Cross
Well, we are learning about God, sin and forgiveness. But I cannot leave Leviticus without making the most important point: the book of Leviticus, helped by the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, prepares us for understanding what the cross of Jesus Christ is all about. In fact, you simply cannot understand the cross unless you understand Leviticus. It is not really possible because Leviticus teaches us that our sins have separated us from a holy God, that we have broken his rules. Leviticus teaches us that the penalty of this sin is death. As Paul says to the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Leviticus teaches us that forgiveness is only through the mercy and grace of God. We cannot earn it. Leviticus teaches us that forgiveness is received only when we stand before the altar in true repentance and offer the sacrifices that He desires. And you take that and then you put it in light of the New Testament teaching, and especially Hebrews, and you realize that finally the ultimate sacrifice was paid on the cross. Forgiveness was finally made available in all its fullness and all its completeness. The cross becomes the altar and on the altar hangs, as John says, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice and, in fact, the Bible teaches that He fulfills the sacrificial system. Do you want to know why we do not kill bulls and goats anymore? Because Jesus, the Lamb of God, fulfilled the sacrificial system. He was the ultimate sacrifice and He finally has made forgiveness available. The book of Hebrews explains this and let me mention some passages briefly; Hebrews 9:22 says without the shedding of blood there’s no remission of sins. There is no forgiveness without life being spilled in blood, yet in Hebrews 10:4, in an interesting twist, the author says that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. And you look at it and scratch your head saying, “Well, what’s going on in Leviticus?” What is going on in Leviticus is that God knows that His Son is going to die. God knows that His Son is going to provide the only true sacrifice for sin. He is beginning to teach His people about Himself and about sin and about forgiveness. He honors the sacrifice because He knows at one time in the future ‘’the’’ sacrifice was going to be given the death of the Lamb of God. On the cross our holy God provides the perfect sacrifice to secure forgiveness forever. We do not have to sacrifice any more animals. The Lamb of God has already done it. You know, I use the ABC’s all the time with you to share the gospel. That we have to ‘’Admit’’ that we are sinners. Any clearer picture than killing a bull? We have to ‘’Believe’’ that salvation, the forgiveness of sins, is in God alone. God alone accepts the sacrifice. And after the New Testament, it is Jesus alone in whom lies forgiveness. Then we move into the presence of God, just as they did in Leviticus. They sacrificed the animal and they moved into God’s forgiveness once the sin had been forgiven. So also you and I, as we become disciples of Jesus Christ, move into His presence and live with Him. ABC. I want you to come away with the image of the sacrifice forever planted in your head. I want you to know I resisted bringing my dog this morning to make this point. I want you to leave here forever with the image of sacrifice embedded in your head. The image of you putting your hand on the animal God accepting it as the punishment for your sins. You would slit its throat, you would skin it, you would hack it to pieces, and you would wash its guts. Then the priest would take it, burn it and sprinkle its blood on the altar and sometimes sprinkle it back on you. If I could take that image and extend it, it just seems to me that if we could simply understand that it was our hands that killed Jesus. If we could only understand that it was our hands that pounded the nails.
Do you remember Thomas Blackshear’s picture ‘’Forgiven’’ ? This is the point that he is trying to make. If we could only understand what it means when we say that Jesus was our sacrifice, then we would fall at the feet of the cross, the place of the sacrifice, and we would worship Him. We would be overwhelmed with thankfulness for His forgiveness that comes, not because I deserve it, but because of His mercy and grace. Then out of that would come a desire to please Him, to enjoy the presence of a holy God. Remember Romans 12:1? It is by the mercies of God because of everything that God has done for us, because of His mercy that we are to present our bodies as “living sacrifices.” That is the message of Leviticus. Perhaps more than a vision of the sacrifice, I want you to leave with a vision of God’s holiness. That sin is so bad because God is so holy.
Let’s pray. Father, in the words of Moses in Exodus 34, we invite you into our midst. We invite you into our midst as a family. Father, I pray if there is anyone here who is not one of your children, that they would invite you into their heart, into their midst. We are a stiff-necked people Father. We do sin. We have broken your commandments and as David says, “Against You, and You alone” we have sinned. Please pardon our iniquity, pardon our sin. We thank you Father, that you do. Take us for Your inheritance. Father, thank you for the cross, that place of the final sacrifice, the sacrifice that was sufficient to cover all sins. Because of the cross, in Christ alone is forgiveness and in Christ alone, because of His sacrifice for our sins, is access to You in all Your holiness. Father we thank You for Your forgiveness and Your holiness through what Christ has done on the cross. Amen. Understand that there is a holy God. And aren’t you glad, not that we are sinners, but that we understand that there is only one way to get from the depths of our sin to the holiness of God and His presence forevermore. It is not through religion; it is not through meaningless, unrepentant sacrifice. It is through Christ alone after what He did on the cross. If any of you are stiff-necked people and have not acknowledged your sin, have not confessed your faith of what Jesus did on the cross will save you from that sin, and have committed your life to Him to live in His presence now and forevermore, I would invite you to come and talk to us afterwards. But may you go, a stiff-necked people, forgiven because of what Christ alone has done on the cross.
- Have you ever read through Leviticus? If not, why? If you have, what were your general impressions?
- Okay. So maybe the illustration of “Fluffy” is a bit over the top, but how would you convey to your friends the lessons of the sacrificial system in a way that wouldn’t lessen the horror of sin?
- Have you thought about God’s holiness being the root cause of the need to punish sin? If not, why did you think sin had to be punished? What are some other reasons why punishment is necessary?
- How does a knowledge of the holiness of God and the subsequent necessity of punishment affect how you talk about sin and punishment and judgment to a non-believer?
- What it take to really come to an understanding that all sin, ultimately, is against God? How can we so personalize our sin so that we may flee from it?
- What are we going to do about white lies? Where do we draw the line? Do we shade the truth so as to avoid the consequences? Do we come to a complete stop at a stop sign? What should we do about those times in our lives when we are not “rigorously honest”?
- The Old Testament is full of God’s condemnation of religious rituals done apart from a heart cleansed of sin. It would be foolish, would it not, to assume that this is true of everyone else except our church? How can we come to a deeper and truer understanding that religious rituals undertaken by a heart full of unconfessed sin (gossip, slander, anger, lack of forgiveness, pride, etc.) make God sick to his stomach?