We are noticing that Leviticus 17-24 is the section where God commands holy living. Their holy living comes from the fact that atonement had been made for them (Leviticus 16). God is holy. Therefore, for his people to remain in fellowship with him, they must also be holy. God is bringing about their holiness by giving them directions on how to live so they do not experience the wrath of God. Please consider how God’s laws are the grace of God. God’s demonstrates his love and tells us how to remain in his kingdom, enjoying his blessings. As we continue to look at God’s rules for Israel regarding holy living, we will continue to learn about God’s character, his expectations for his people, and what this all means for us in Christ.
Holy Priests (21:1-22:16)
Chapters 21 and 22 open with the Lord now giving instructions to the priests and not the people of Israel. In verses 1-6 of chapter 21 God instructs the priests to not make themselves unclean for the dead among the people. Remember that a person became unclean by touching a dead body. Touching a dead body was necessary when a family member died and you had to prepare the body for burial (like we see Jesus’ disciples doing when his body was taken down from the cross). As we studied earlier in the book, a person could become unclean even by not doing sinful things. We saw that just living life and being human made one defiled. So notice the serious restriction given to the priests. A priest could only touch the dead body of his closest relatives. The priest could not shave his head or beard as an act of mourning for those who died either, since these were pagan practices. Verse 7 reveals that the priests could not marry a divorced woman, a defiled woman, or a prostitute because he was to be holy to the Lord. The point being made is that the priesthood was not a job but a way of life. The priests did not just perform services before God. They were living as priests in all aspects of life, even away from the tabernacle worship. The life of a priest was not something you turned on and turned off. Being a priest meant holiness in all circumstances. Notice in verse 8 that God is making his priests holy by giving these instructions. As we read these directions we should consider how Jesus is our high priest (Hebrews 2:17) and that we are priests under his priesthood (1 Peter 2:4-10; Revelation 1:6; Isaiah 61:6). The point is not that these priesthood rules apply to us, for these laws are for the Aaronic priesthood and we are under Christ’s priesthood. Rather, we are learning about holiness is for all ways of life. We are priests before God all of the time, not just on Sunday. Being a priest is not something you turn on and off but live all the time.
To further emphasize this picture, the high priest could not marry a woman who had been defiled sexually. Now consider that Jesus is our high priest and the New Testament pictures that we are bride being prepared to be married to Jesus.
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2 ESV)
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27 ESV)
Do you see why we are called to purity? But listen to the image in Ephesians 5. The picture is not that we cleaned ourselves up so that we can belong to Christ. Rather, Christ cleaned us up so that we could belong to him. He cleanses us from our sins. We are just maintaining what Christ has accomplished for us. This is what Leviticus is showing. Atonement has been made. Now we live differently with hearts that desire to obey the Lord because he has atoned for our sins.
Another requirement of all the priests was that they could not offer any food or sacrifices to God that had defect. Not only this, no priest could approach God if he had a blemish or defect. God is not speaking of moral defect but of physical defect. If a priest injured his hand, he could not come near and make offerings.
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26–28 ESV)
The directions concerning the high priest was foreshadowing the perfect high priest that we needed for our atonement to be brought about.
Holy Sacrifices (22:17-33)
Leviticus 22:17 returns to giving directions not only to the priests but also to the people of Israel. This section describes what sacrifices will be accepted before the Lord. The key in this paragraph is that nothing can be offered that has a blemish. Faithful worshipers approach God with acceptable sacrifices. Paul makes the same message to God’s people under Christ’s covenant.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)
Notice that Paul’s message is the same: faithful worshipers approach God with acceptable sacrifices. But the acceptable sacrifices required under Christ’s covenant are not unblemished animals, but unblemished lives. Our acceptable sacrifice is the giving of ourselves. We try to keep God’s commands so that we will be holy because our Lord is holy.
Holy Days (23:1-24:9)
Chapter 23 gives the list of the holy feast days that the people were to keep. A simple message is certainly given to us that humans need reminders and memorials. We will forget what God has done for us if memorials are not instituted. Thus, God gave many feasts and holy days so that the people would remember what God had done.
The Sabbath (23:1-3) was a weekly opportunity to stop and worship God. God gave the Sabbath, not because humans need a break or some other self-centered reason, but it was to recall their deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Hebrew word for “rest” (sabat) does not refer to rest from exhaustion. We should understand this just from reading Genesis 1-2. God rested from his works of creation but not because of exhaustion. The word means “to cease.” God stopped creating. The people were to stop their works on the Sabbath and remember God’s deliverance and worship him. Under Christ, God gave us the first day of the week to remember God’s deliverance from our sins through Christ.
The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (23:4-8) was an annual reminder of the deliverance God brought them from Egyptian slavery. The day after the Passover was to be a Sabbath for the people to worship the Lord as well as the seventh day of this week long feast.
The Feast of Firstfruits (23:9-14) centered on the harvest. The people would give to the Lord first of what he had provided them in the harvest. This feast looked forward to the rest of the harvest that God would bring.
The Feast of Weeks (23:15-22) was a period of thanksgiving for the bounty of the harvest that had been provided by God. The Feast of Firstfruits was an offering of the first of the harvest. The Feast of Weeks was the offering at the end of the harvest, thanking God for his abundant provision. The Feast of Weeks was also known in the days of the New Testament as Pentecost.
The Feast of Trumpets (23:23-25) acknowledged God’s favor toward them and was the signal of the new year.
As we have studied in chapter 16, Atonement Day (23:26-32) was a very special day when the high priest entered into the inner sanctuary, the presence of the Lord, and atonement was made for their sins.
The Feast of Shelters (23:33-44) took place five days after Atonement Day. The people lived in shelters to remember when they were in the wilderness after God had delivered them from Egyptian slavery. This feast recalled the blessings God gave to them those 40 years that they were in the desert.
Every holy feast and holy day was to remind the people what God had done for them so that they would acknowledge God’s greatness, worship God for his goodness, and be thankful for his blessings. But all of these actions looked forward to what the Messiah would bring when the Messiah would bring true rest, true deliverance, true blessings, and true renewal.
Finally, the people are commanded to bring pure oil beaten from olives regularly so that a light for the lamp in the tabernacle would continue burning. The lamp was to continue burning and bread was to always be provided for the Lord (24:1-9). This is a picture of the priesthood always working and always ready, keeping the lamps burning and the food prepared. This is why Jesus would use this imagery in the New Testament for the need for his people to be ready.
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning…” (Luke 12:35 ESV). Jesus also told a parable about five wise and five foolish virgins who needed to keep their lamps burning (Matthew 25:1-13). God’s holy people always stand ready. They are always worshiping. They are always working. They are always serving. Being a priest of God is a lifestyle, not an occasional act.
Holy Justice (24:10-23)
If you remember the beginning of Leviticus, you will recall that after giving the directions of the sacrifices in Leviticus 1-9, the tenth chapter recorded the error of Nadab and Abihu who disregarded the holiness of God, offered unauthorized fire, and were stuck dead by God. Now, after giving all these directions concerning holy living, notice that Leviticus 24:10-16 illustrates the situation.
The story illustrates the holiness of the name of the Lord. The son curses the name of the Lord, is charged with blasphemy, and put to death by stoning. Why does the name mean so much? Why not take the name of the Lord flippantly? The reason is that the name represents the person. If you hate my name, then you hate me as a person. If you do not respect the name of the Lord, then you do not respect the person the name represents. The name of the Lord is to be our hope and trust. Consider what horrible ways the name of the Lord is used today. It is truly shameful that the one who is worthy of the most honor and respect is the one whose name is regarded as nothing and cursed. God says that anyone who cursed his name was to be charged with blasphemy and put to death.
The final paragraph teaches the principle of an eye for an eye. It is important to understand that “an eye for eye” was not the license for vengeance but the call for justice. The punishment was to fit the crime is what this saying means. So think about the message when God says that the cursing of his name deserves death and then declares that punishments fit the crimes committed.
Think about the great irony that we read in the New Testament. The charge the high priest used to charge Jesus with the death penalty was blasphemy. The only person who has ever lived to never ruin, sully, or shame the name of the Lord was Jesus. We are told that Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of God’s very nature (Hebrews 1:3). We are told that when we see Jesus we have seen God (John 1:18; 6:46; 14:9). The one who perfectly upheld the name of God was charged with blasphemy, of all things.
We are the ones deserving of punishments. Yet Jesus comes and dies for our sins so that we would live holy lives before God. Faithful worshipers approach God with acceptable sacrifices.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28–29 ESV)
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5 ESV)