Leviticus Bible Study (Atonement)

Leviticus overview: Holiness By Grace


Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14 ESV)

The writer of Hebrews tells us that we must strive for holiness because without it we will not see the Lord.  Holiness is critically important, therefore, to the life of Christian. But how do we strive for holiness? What does holiness look like in our lives? If I asked you to take me to the book that instructs us about holiness, which book would you direct me to? The book about how to be holy is one of the most neglected books in the scriptures: Leviticus. The book is poorly named because the book is misunderstood. The name of the book has contributed to the bad rap this book has received. The book is not about the Levites. It is not a book to the priests. Very few commands are given to the priests or the Levites. If you look at the first two verses of the book, the Lord calls Moses to the tent of meeting and gives him instructions to speak to the people, not to the priests. If you turn to the last sentence of the book you will see that these are the commandments given to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. This is a book to the people.

A better name for this book is “Holiness.” The word “holy” occurs 92 times in the book. The other word to describe this book is “Atonement” which occurs 51 times in the book. In fact, the word atonement is found in almost every chapter (1,4,5,6,7,10,12,14,15,16,17,19,23,25). So what is the function and purpose of this book? The book of Exodus concludes with the completion of the construction of the tabernacle. Notice in Exodus 40:34-38 the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Further, throughout all their journeys, we see God in their midst and traveling with them, as the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night. Exodus ends with God desiring to dwell with his people. God has come down and is with his people. But there is a natural problem with this picture. How can the holy Creator God be with his sinful people? How is it possible for God to be with us without his wrath consuming us for our lack of holiness?

The Hope of Leviticus

This is the function of the book of Leviticus. The book is not a bunch of monotonous rules and senseless commands that are meaningless today. Rather, the book is teaching how we can remain with God who has come down to us. How can we dwell with a holy God? This changes everything about how we read this book. This is not a book of rules, but an invitation to join ourselves in fellowship with God. Leviticus is not a burden but a blessing. How are we to live in relationship to the Lord and reflect his holy character to the watching world? This book is the answer for God’s people. The overwhelming answer from the book of Leviticus is atonement. Atonement is the means by which we can be holy so that God can dwell with his people.

Let us take a moment to look at an overview of the book of Leviticus to see how this book shows how we can dwell with a holy God. The book begins with the first seven chapters describing the need for sacrifices. The sacrifices address sin and enable the people to worship the Lord rightly. We need to offer sacrifices so that we can been in relationship with God. Chapters 8-10 teach us that we need priests to intercede on our behalf so that we can dwell with a holy God. Chapters 11-15 teach us how to deal with the impurities of the world and in our lives. Since God is holy, we must follow his instructions that will keep us from becoming impure. Chapter 16 teaches us that we need atonement. Our sins must be atoned for if God is going to dwell with his people. Thus, an annual ceremony was necessary to remove every drop of sin and impurity from the people. Finally, chapters 17-27 teach us that we need to be holy so that we can be in relationship with God. These are the directions for living as a holy nation. I want us to see that Leviticus is not a burden and should have never been understood to be a burden. The book of Leviticus is a life preserver, informing us how to live with a holy God and not be consumed because of our sinfulness. The laws of Leviticus were given as directions for how the Lord’s holy people worship him in grateful obedience and love.

Holiness In Leviticus

Considered where the call to holiness comes in the life of the history of Israel. Consider that the book of Leviticus does not come before Exodus but after. God does not come to Israel and tell them to be holy, and if they are holy, he will redeem them from slavery. Rather, the Law comes after redemption. God comes to them and redeems them from slavery. Now God presents these directions as his gift so as to remain in his presence. Obedience flows from grace. Obedience does not buy grace. These are the directions on how to live in grace. Now that God has redeemed you and saved you, you must be different for God to remain with you. You must be holy for his presence to stay with you. This is the grace of God. He is transforming slaves into his holy people.

The writer of Hebrews says that we must strive for holiness for without which no one will see the Lord. What makes something holy? This is important to think about for a moment. What makes something holy? The first time in the scriptures we see a picture of something being holy is at the creation. Genesis 2:3 reads, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Why was the seventh day holy and not the other days? The reason is because God said it was holy. The next time we see a picture of holiness is in Exodus 3:5 when God calls Moses. Remember that God tells Moses to take off his sandals because the place that he is standing is holy ground. What made that ground holy in contrast to the rest of the ground that was around that desert? God called that dirt holy. God said that he was there and declared the dirt to be holy. The utensils that were used in worship to God in the tabernacle were holy because God declared them holy. There was not anything different with those utensils than any other utensils. These things were set apart for a unique and particular use, thus making them holy by God’s declaration.

Once the object was declared holy by the Lord, no one was to treat that holy object as common. The utensils that were declared holy and put into service in the tabernacle were not be used for eating dinner or for some other activity. They were only to be used in the way God prescribed. Now, I want us to think about this concept for a moment. If the only way that something is holy is if God calls it holy, then how can the writer of Hebrews tell us to strive for holiness? Leviticus teaches us something amazing.

There are three major messages about holiness in the book of Leviticus that occur in a very important order. First, God is holy (10:3; 11:44-45; 19:2). This is his nature and character. Second, because God is holy, you must be holy (11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). Have you thought about the difficulty of this? If left to ourselves and the simply command to be holy, we would all be doomed. No day went by in which the people did not defile the holiness of God by their actions or lifestyles. Yet, how often this is the picture that is presented to us. God is holy, so you must be holy. But we are missing the third part of the picture that Leviticus gives us. Third, God makes you holy (20:8; 21:8; 22:9,16,32). You cannot make yourself holy. We just talked about that a moment ago. What makes something holy? God declares it to be holy. What makes someone holy? God declares that person to be holy. The message of Leviticus is that God is holy, you must be holy, and God will make you holy.

The Need For Atonement

Since God is holy and his people must be holy for him to dwell with his people, atonement is necessary. Atonement is characterized by two aspects in the book of Leviticus. First, atonement is characterized by the payment of the ransom on behalf of the guilty party to the offended party. Ransom is a picture of payment to rescue. Listen to how describes how atonement works in Leviticus.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Leviticus 17:11 ESV)

The life of the flesh is the blood and it is through blood that atonement is made for your sinful souls. Atonement requires life to be sacrificed.

The second aspect of atonement in Leviticus is purification. This gives the picture of an uncleanness that sin causes which must be purified by the sacrifice of atonement. To put these pictures together, sin endangers our souls (requiring ransom) and pollutes (requiring purification). Atonement must cleanse the impurity and rescue the endangered person. God showed that blood was the most powerful cleansing agent available. Atonement restored peace to the relationship between the sinner and the Lord. Think about this: the ability for guilty sinners to ransom their lives by means of sacrificial lifeblood was a gracious gift of God! The sacrifice was not about what the worshiper was giving to God, but what God graciously granted the worshiper as a means of atoning for sins and receiving forgiveness. Atonement is the answer for how a holy God can dwell with his people.

New Testament Holiness

God is holy and demands that his people be holy. But they cannot be holy on their own. God must make them holy. The means of holiness is atonement. Atonement is how God can dwell with his people. He will make them holy. But atonement must be made so that they can be declared holy. But there is a problem.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1–4 ESV)

The animal sacrifices were unable to take away sins. God was forgiving sins on the basis of the sacrifices offered as prescribed in Leviticus. But the need for perpetual sacrifices each day and each year reminded the worshipers of their sinfulness. People were forgiven and atonement was made, which the scriptures throughout Leviticus clearly teach. But they were forgiven on credit. This is what the apostle Paul argues in Romans 3:25, as God passed over those sins until the sacrifice of atonement (propitiation) was made. God knew that full atonement would need to be made and that these sacrifices were only a picture of what was necessary in the future. Lifeblood must be offered to pay the ransom for our sins.

Therefore, the New Testament becomes shocking. The offended party, God himself, has provided an atoning sacrifice to ransom guilty sinners, not because of what we have done, but because of his love for them (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4-10). With the picture of Leviticus in mind, listen to what the writer of Hebrews says:

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. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12–14 ESV)

God is holy. We must be holy. But God must make us holy. God makes us holy through the single sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians:

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV)

God sanctified you. God made you holy. Now, walk worthy of your calling. Live in a way that reflects that God is holy and he has paid the ultimate ransom price so that you can be holy. Now strive for holiness because without it we cannot remain in relationship with our Lord and see him in eternity.

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