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Leviticus, Holiness and the Christian

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Since I am rereading Leviticus at the moment, it is not surprising that several articles have been generated concerning this book. Let me do one more piece, offering a more broad-brush look at this Old Testament book, and why it is so important for the contemporary Christian.

Too many believers today avoid the Old Testament in general, and books like Leviticus in particular. That is a big mistake. This is a vitally important book and one which directly impacts our New Testament faith. As Allen Ross remarks,

“It must be recognized that Leviticus was and is one of the most important books of the Old Testament. It not only presents the entire religious system of Israel, but it also lays the theological foundation for the New Testament teaching about the atoning work of Jesus Christ.”

Holiness is the main focus of this book because God is the main focus of this book, and he is above all else a holy God. As John Hartley comments, “In Leviticus Yahweh makes himself known to Israel as their holy God. Holiness is not one attribute of Yahweh’s among others; rather it is the quintessential nature of Yahweh as God. This is supported by the declaration that his name is holy (20:3; 22;32).”

As David Pawson writes, “There is no book in the Bible which is stronger on the holiness of God than Leviticus.” Various verses speak to this major theme of holiness. For example, Lev. 11:44, 19:2; 20:26 all repeat this key topic: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’.

And Lev 10:10-11 is also critical here, where God instructs Aaron and his sons to keep sober “so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses.”

holiness 2To love God is to be holy, and to make a distinction between the holy and the unholy. And as Pawson reminds us, we need to understand the love of God in light of this holiness:

God’s understanding of love is a little different from ours. Ours is a sentimental love, his is holy love. His love is so great that he hates evil. Very few of us love enough to hate evil. We learn about the holiness of God from the book of Leviticus. We learn to love God with reverence, with holy fear. Hebrews says, ‘Let us worship God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’ This is a sentiment the writer got straight out of Leviticus. It is vital for Christians today to read Leviticus, in order to keep hold of this sense of God’s holiness.

Hartley notes the connection between holiness, fear and love as well: “Since reverential fear is the proper human response to the manifestation of the holy God, ‘fear of God,’ a Hebraic expression somewhat similar to the NT term ‘faith,’ is the inner attitude of one living a holy life. Fear is a mixture of love, respect and honor. … Fear of God, then, is the inner disposition essential for developing a holy character.”

And this holiness is a two-way street. It is both something God does for us, and something we are to pursue and work out as well. As I have written in other posts recently, sanctification and the holy life are something both God and the believer contribute to. See here eg.: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/01/standing-and-state/

In his commentary on Leviticus Gordon Wenham nicely expresses this dual aspect of holiness:

Leviticus stresses that there are two aspects to sanctification, a divine act and human actions. God sanctifies and man also sanctifies. Only those people whom God calls to be holy can become holy in reality. “The man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one” (Num. 16:7). The divine side to sanctification is expressed in the frequent refrain “I am the Lord your sanctifier” (Lev. 20:8; 21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). Sometimes the divine part in sanctification and the human side are mentioned together:

“You must sanctify him … for I the Lord sanctify you” (Lev. 21:8). Another example is in the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day to sanctify it. . . . and the Lord sanctified it”
(Exod. 20:8, 11).

So how does the New Testament Christian relate to such a book? I have already hinted at this above, but let me say a bit more. Simply to understand the NT properly, we need to know about what is in Leviticus. As Hartley comments, there are at least four significant contributions found here:

First, the information on the sacrificial system is vital to understanding Jesus’ sacrificial death….
Second, according to the NT, Jesus is the ultimate high priest….

Three, the tabernacle and its operation were a gift under the covenant in order that the congregation might continue to have access to the holy God. In the New Covenant, Jesus himself becomes the sanctuary for all who believe on him….

Fourth, the call to be holy like Yahweh is clearly restated in the NT.

While much of the specific material on sacrifices and offerings and so on is no longer in play for Christians (since there is no longer a tabernacle/temple, and since Christ fulfills all this in his once and for all sacrificial offering of himself), what is carried through are the broad principles and truths which these rituals and rules reflect.

As Mark Rooker writes, “Since the Book of Leviticus is mainly concerned with the preservation of the covenant relationship between sinful people and their holy God, the principles and theology of the passages are directly applicable to the believer’s contemporary life because these conditions are not time bound.”

And the whole idea of being a people set apart (which is what holiness is essentially all about) in order to reach the world is a theme just as much central to NT revelation as that of the OT. As R. K. Harrison states about what Israel was meant to be:

Theoretically, this distinctiveness would enable the people, when asked, to testify to their faith in the living God of Sinai, who above all other deities in the ancient Near East was unique. Thus the covenant people would be able to witness to those around them as to the true meaning of holiness. As they became progressively conformed to the world of secular culture (cf. Rom. 12:2), their distinctiveness disappeared and their witness was compromised correspondingly.

We too are meant to be a covenant people who are supposed to be distinct and different from the surrounding culture, in order that we can be a powerful witness to it and lead people to Christ, but far too often it is the world that gets the upper edge in all this.

Holiness as distinction and being set apart is a key concept then not only in Leviticus but all of Scripture. The fundamental issue of holiness is never culture bound or specific to certain times, places or peoples. As Derek Tidball states,

Holiness, then, is a statement about God, a command to his people, and a promise concerning his Spirit. The summons of Leviticus leaps across the yawning cultural divide and the intervening centuries to call us once again to holy living. Christian believers, no less than Israel, are called to be holy and to pursue holiness in every dimension of their lives. Like Israel, we too have been set free, by Christ, but not so that we might continue to live in sin or with indifference to God; rather, we have been set free to be holy.

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