March 13, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
As we saw in part two of this series, the Israelites broke the covenant through their idolatry. Then God forgave them due to Moses’ supplication, and the covenant was renewed. Later Moses, under God’s direction, built the tabernacle where God’s presence resided. The tabernacle was a tent separated into two parts: the inner part was called the “holy of holies,” and contained the Ark of the Covenant where God was understood to dwell; and the outer section was called the “holy place.” The holy place held the table of presence, which held twelve loaves of bread that are referred to as the “bread of presence.” Only the priests could eat this bread, and they were required to eat it in the tabernacle. This was to remind the twelve tribes of Israel that it was God who sustained them. The holy place also contained the altar of incense, which stood directly opposite the Ark of the Covenant, though it was separated by a veil, since the Ark was in the holy of holies area of the tent. A third item was a golden lampstand that held seven lamps which gave light to the holy place. Outside the tabernacle was the main altar, where sacrifices were performed. God told Moses that this altar would be where He would meet with the people of Israel.
“For the generations to come this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting before the LORD. There I will meet you and speak to you; there also I will meet with the Israelites, and the place will be consecrated by my glory. So I will consecrate the Tent of Meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.”1
The realization that God dwelt among the people of Israel helps to put the Laws of Moses in context. One of God’s attributes is holiness. Holiness implies that God is distinct from His creation, from human beings.
God’s holiness, in relation to His essential being, stands for everything in God that makes Him different and greater than we are. It represents God’s divinity. God’s holiness is the essential difference between God and man. God alone is God; there is none like Him. He is sacred. He is the Creator, man is the creature. He is superior to man in every way. He is divine. As one author says, “holiness is the Godness of God.”2
Since God is holy, and therefore couldn’t be in the presence of anything unholy, the Israelites too needed to be holy for God to dwell among them. As such, He instructed His people to consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.3
You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.4
God instructed Moses to set up a priesthood and sacrificial system which would enable people to return to a state of holiness after they had sinned. Because the Jewish priests served God, they were required to be holy to an even greater degree than the average Israelite. God gave specific restrictions that they were required to adhere to in order to remain holy.5
The priest is holy to his God. You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the LORD, who sanctify you, am holy.6
The book of Leviticus outlines what the people of Israel needed to do to be holy so that God could dwell with them. So while we may look at the Laws of Moses as being restrictive, the Israelites saw them as the means of having the great privilege of God dwelling among them.
The laws given through Moses constantly reminded the Israelites that God wanted them to be morally and ritually pure, holy (often referred to as being “clean”), so that He could dwell with them. The importance of being holy or clean, as opposed to unclean, is made clear in Leviticus where holy and its synonyms—holiness and sanctify—occur 152 times. Clean and related terms occur 74 times.7 These terms are also used throughout the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Of course, there were going to be times when one was not in a state of holiness. This didn’t necessarily mean that the person was morally unclean or unholy, as they could become temporarily unclean because of certain illnesses, bodily functions, or activities such as touching something that God had designated as unclean. Anyone who entered the state of being unclean had to follow a certain ritual to become clean—or holy—once again.
While there are a number of different opinions on why God designated some things as clean and others as unclean, no one knows exactly what criteria He used. Some of the reasons commentators give are: 1) The distinctions are arbitrary and known only to God; 2) The unclean animals were associated with pagan worship, or were associated with non-Israelite deities; 3) Unclean creatures shouldn’t be eaten because they are carriers of disease (though, if that were true, it raises the question: why does the New Testament teach that we are not bound by these food laws?)8 4) The behavior and habits of the clean animals are living illustrations of how the righteous Israelite ought to behave, while the unclean represent sinful men. All of these suggestions are understood to have major weaknesses.
The interpretation which seems the strongest is that the clean/unclean regulations expressed the concept of God’s holiness or separation, and were the means for Israel to express their holiness and difference from Gentiles. Throughout their daily lives, through the food they ate and the clothes they wore, the cleanliness rules reminded them that God had redeemed them and that they were a people who were called out and separated from the rest of humanity as God’s chosen people. The laws were a continual reminder that they were to be characterized by purity and integrity, as a special people dedicated to God.
Another aspect of holiness within the laws of Leviticus had to do with wholeness or completeness, as opposed to mixing or confusion. For example, the Israelites weren’t allowed to crossbreed their cattle or sow their fields with two kinds of seed at the same time, or wear clothes which were made of mixed materials.
While the Israelites were to abide by the details of the instructions God had revealed in order to be holy, it wasn’t sufficient to follow the letter of the Law, keep the rituals, eat the right food, etc. They were also called to love their Creator—not only to be physically set apart from the rest of the nations, but to be spiritually distinct as God’s holy people.
You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.9
Of course, the Israelites weren’t perfect and would undoubtedly sin, and thus at times be unholy. So God made the means for sinners to be forgiven and to become clean once again. When people sinned, they found forgiveness by making a purification offering, in which the blood of an animal was shed. The shedding of blood was also required when someone had an illness which made them unclean. While sin and disease would lead to an unholy state, sacrifice reversed the process. So even though the people of Israel became holy at Mount Sinai, after that, as individuals sinned or disobeyed the Law and thus became unclean, they had to go through the process of sanctification to be renewed and restored both to God and the community.
The death of the sacrificial animal atoned for the sins of the sinner. As explained in the book of Hebrews:
Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.10
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice was required for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world—the ultimate sacrifice—did away once and for all with the need for any further animal sacrifice. Forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God is possible through the one-time shedding of Jesus’ blood. Because of His death on the cross, we have been forgiven for our sins, which means that God can dwell within us through the Holy Spirit. God made a new covenant with His people through the shedding of Jesus’ blood.
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”11
In the book of Hebrews we read:
The ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs [the Old Testament priests] as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the [Old Testament Jewish] people and said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt… This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete.12
As Christians, we are not bound by the old covenant, but rather live under the new one forged through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and His atonement for our sins. This raises the question of what place the Old Testament books of the Law have in our lives as Christians. Do the laws found in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy apply to us today?
Some of them seem to apply, since Jesus is recorded as quoting them, such as:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.13
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.14
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.17
It’s interesting that while we are not bound to the Law in the way the Old Testament Israelites were, the New Testament teaches many of the same principles. For example, Jesus said to the Devil: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve,’”18 which is the first commandment. In 1 John we read: Little children, keep yourselves from idols.19 This echoes the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”20 The Commandments state that God’s people shouldn’t steal, as does the New Testament: Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands.21 Much teaching throughout the New Testament echoes that of the Old Testament.
It’s safe to say that the New Testament expresses the same standard of personal morality as the Old. In the Old Testament, the call was to “be holy, for I am holy.” Jesus echoed this same concept when He said, You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.22
Of course, many of the laws were given to Israel in their specific situation and setting, and therefore aren’t specifically applicable to us today. However, many of the principles in those laws can be applied to our lives. For example, in Deuteronomy we read:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.”23
Roofs in Israel were flat, and people would spend time on them, even sleeping on them, so the law which told them to put a small wall around the edges of the roof was to make sure people didn’t fall off, which coincided with the commandment not to kill. So while this law doesn’t specifically apply to us today, the principle of keeping people safe, of making sure that there are no danger points in our homes or workplaces, does apply.
Another example is:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”24
While we don’t each have fields of grain from which we can leave some of the grain unpicked so the poor can benefit, the concept of helping the poor is the same. We may go about it in a different manner, but the principle of helping those in need still stands.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”25
They asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.26
While it isn’t necessary for believers today to follow the hundreds of ritual Old Testament laws listed in the book of Leviticus, it’s helpful to understand that these laws are expressions of the value of the One who gave the laws. One author explained it like this:
Because most societies value life, they have very clear laws prohibiting murder; because they value the right to personal property, they have very clear laws against stealing. So too with the laws the Lord gives in Leviticus: they are an expression of his values. This connection between the Lord’s laws and his values is important for the simple reason that, since his values flow from his character, and his character is perfect and constant, it should be expected that the values behind these laws gives us a window into the Lord’s heart, meaning there is much to learn from them for those seeking to reflect his image as well.27
While we are not bound to the laws in the same way the Israelites were in the Old Testament, the call to believers today remains the same: “Be holy as I am holy.” Many of the principles expressed in the Old Testament apply to us, as those principles are found throughout the New Testament. The presence of God dwelt among the Israelites in biblical times, and they were called to be holy. Today, God’s presence dwells within us through the Holy Spirit, and we too are called to be holy.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.28
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”29
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Exodus 29:42–45 NIV.
3 Leviticus 11:44.
4 Leviticus 20:26. See also Leviticus 11:44, 19:1–2, 20:7–8.
5 See Leviticus 21:1–8 for some of the restrictions.
6 Leviticus 21:7–8.
7 Gordon J. Wenham. The Book of Leviticus. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 18 footnote 25.
8 Acts 10:9–16, 1 Timothy 4:1–3, Mark 7:19.
9 Leviticus 20:26.
10 Hebrews 9:22.
11 Mark 14:23–25, Luke 22:20, Matthew 26:26–28.
12 Hebrews 8:6–13 NIV.
13 Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:36–38; Mark 12:29–30, 33.
14 Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31.
15 Matthew 19:16–19.
16 Romans 13:8–10.
17 Romans 13:8–10 NIV.
18 Matthew 4:10.
19 1 John 5:21.
20 Exodus 20:4–5.
21 Ephesians 4:28.
22 Matthew 5:48.
23 Deuteronomy 22:8.
24 Leviticus 19:9–10.
25 Mark 10:21.
26 Galatians 2:10.
27 Jay Sklar, Leviticus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 57.
28 Ephesians 1:3–4 NIV.
29 1 Peter 1:14–16 NIV.