Leviticus Bible Study (Atonement)

Leviticus 17-20, Holy Living


The book of Leviticus in a book about holy living. God is holy and his people, therefore, must be holy. But we cannot make ourselves holy. God must make us holy through atonement. We examined how God by his grace provided atonement in Leviticus 16. Now consider the linkage in Leviticus. Chapter 16 is the provision for atonement so that all sins are forgiven. Chapters 17-24 describe the holy living needed because their sins have been atoned for. This is an important pattern. The picture is not to be holy and then God will atone for your sins. The picture is that atonement is provided for you. Therefore go live holy lives. In the same way, our holiness did not bring Jesus to die as the sacrifice of atonement. Rather, it was our lack of holiness that required Jesus to come to earth as a sacrifice of atonement, the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Atonement was provided through Jesus and now we are to live holy lives. In this lesson we are going to look at some of the aspects God expected of his people because God is holy and they were to be holy because of the atonement they had received.

Holy Blood (Leviticus 17)

The first verse of Leviticus 17 tells us that this message was not only to the Aaron and his sons (the priests) but also for all the people of Israel. After describing atonement in chapter 16, the people were to be keenly aware of the significance of blood. In verses 17:2-9 God commanded the people to not kill an animal for sacrifice outside the camp and leave it there. The animal was to be killed but the animal had to be brought to the tabernacle so that the blood of the animal could be thrown by the priest on the altar (17:6). Why does this matter? God will explain in a moment. In verse 10 the people were instructed to not eat the blood from an animal. Why does this matter? Verse 11 gives the explanation.

“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). Notice the two reasons for care to be given concerning blood. First, “I have given it for you.” God gave atonement. We cannot generate atonement for ourselves. Atonement is the grace of God and the blood was to represent this. This is the second reason that is given: “to make atonement for your souls.” Blood was to mean something to the people: atonement! Life was given so that atonement could be made. The only use for blood is for sacrifice to the Lord, the giver of life. They were not allowed to follow the pagan customs and consume blood. Blood was to represent life and life belongs to God. We learned this very quickly in the scriptures where we read about Cain killing Abel. Recall what the scripture says: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.'” (Genesis 4:10 ESV) Blood belonged to God. You were not to drink the blood. That law remained in effect in the New Testament, as we see from the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:20. The Gentiles Christians were commanded to abstain from blood. Blood is given to you for atonement for your very life.

Now think about what shocking declaration Jesus makes in John 6:53-56. So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53–56 ESV)

In verse 60 the disciples called this “a hard saying.” Drinking blood was condemned strongly by the Lord. Now Jesus says you had to drink his blood and the shock value was staggering to these disciples. But consider the point. Leviticus teaches that the blood is life given to you to make atonement for your souls. Jesus now makes that connection. Jesus is giving his life so that we can have eternal life. Jesus gave his life so that our sins are atoned for. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the blood that atoned for our sins, life given for us. While the Lord’s Supper reminds us of these things, Jesus’ point in John 6 was that they needed to give their lives fully to him because his life was fully given to them. Our life, our drink, our food, our breath, our joy, and our desire must be Jesus and Jesus alone.

Holy Bodies (Leviticus 18)

Chapter 18 opens with instructions to the people of Israel again. The first five verses tell Israel that they are to walk in the ways of God. They are not to practice what they see done by those who live in the land. They were not to follow the rules of the Canaanites. They were to follow God’s rules. If you walk in God’s ways and keep his rules you will live (18:5). These commands were to be seen as borders of God’s kingdom. Those who stay within those borders are proclaiming allegiance to God as king and they will remain in the sphere of his blessings. This is how we should see the commands of God. Obedience is our proclamation of allegiance to God and God will bless us and give us life for staying within his boundaries. The laws of God regulate our relationship with him. Our faithfulness is the right response to the gracious Lord who provides atonement. Faithfulness and obedience is how we stay in covenant relationship with God, belonging as citizens of his kingdom.

Chapter 18 goes on to record all kinds of sexual behaviors that are condemned by God. When you read about the people “shall not uncover the nakedness” of a person, this is one of many Hebrew idioms for having sex, and refers to unlawful sexual relations. In this section the sexual sins condemned include incest (18:6-16), promiscuity (18:17), polygamy (18:18), adultery (18:20), homosexuality (18:22), and bestiality (18:23). Doing these things made a person unclean and was an abomination to the Lord (18:24,29). I believe we can simply note that though these commands are part of the Mosaic covenant, these sexual sins are equally condemned under the covenant of Christ. The New Testament also condemns all of these behaviors. We are not to act like the world nor follow their practices.

Holy Relationships (Leviticus 19)

Chapter 19 continues the instructions to the congregation of Israel, not just the priests (19:1). The reason for these rules is because the people are to be holy because the Lord is holy. Verses 3-10 reiterate the ten commandments and God demands the people’s loyalty to the covenant. This chapter breaks down into four sections where each section God declares that they are to obey because he is the Lord their God. In verses 1-10, four times God says that he is the Lord their God. The point here is that God’s people must conform to God’s holiness by keeping his commands. God gave his laws for a reason. We are showing loyalty to the covenant through our obedience.

Verses 11-18 teach the need to love your neighbor. The people would show loyalty to the covenant and conform to God’s holiness by dealing with their neighbors in genuine love. The people were to be honest (11-12), not exploit each other (13-14), maintain justice (15-16), and love one another (17-18). Notice that the heart is involved. In verse 17 God says that you could not hate the other person in your heart. Jesus taught with the parable of the good Samaritan that loving your neighbor is doing good for another person. We cannot hate in our hearts and think that we are acceptable to God. Loving our neighbor is about having a heart for the other person so that we act to serve them.

Verses 19-31 teach the people to live different and distinct from the world. These laws deal primarily with avoiding the pagan practices of the world. They were not to eat the blood from the flesh of animal for that was a pagan practice. They were not go to fortune tellers or try to interpret omens, which would show they did not rely on the Lord. They were not to cut their hair in certain ways because that would show that they were part of the pagan culture. They were not put cuts on their bodies or have tattoos because those were also pagan markings during that time.

God is teaching his people that holiness is not merely avoiding immorality, but actively seeking obedience to God. God’s people must avoid the world’s practices and religious acts. Instead, they must seek and follow God’s holy plan. Understanding the holiness of God is to generate our obedience.

Verses 32-37 bring an important ending to this segment of God’s teaching. Even though the people were to be distinct from the world and not act like them, they were to love the outsiders. These final verses of chapter 19 were directions to not do outsiders wrong or mistreat them. So much so, notice verse 34, “You shall love him as yourself.” Loving your neighbor as yourself did not merely apply to the people of Israel to each other but also to those who were outside God’s covenant. We are treat outsiders like we would treat ourselves. Therefore, the message of the good Samaritan parable does not stop with how we treat other Christians, but includes how we treat unbelievers. We are to love them and do good by them.

Holy Punishment (Leviticus 20)

Finally, chapter 20 describes the punishments that will come to those who refuse to live within the boundaries of God’s law and kingdom. There was a price to be paid for refusing God’s laws. God again calls for their holiness because God is holy (20:7). God is bringing us to holiness by demanding holy lives and covering our failures with atonement.

You will notice by reading chapter 20 that there are many death penalty consequences. This signifies the seriousness of these violations. The list mainly contains sexual sins. Most of the sexual sins that we read condemned in chapter 18 are given the death penalty or a cutting off from the people. Now we must recognize that punishment was not God’s goal. This is the reason why these laws are given: so that we would avoid this punishment. God is warning about is required to remain in a holy relationship with God. Sexual sins are such an abomination to God that people were cut off from the congregation or put to death for the sin. We need to place the same seriousness on these sins also. These sins are not acceptable or covered by grace or excusable or whatever excuse we want to make. These people were to die for these infractions of God’s law. The New Testament speaks the same way.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:18–32 ESV)

Paul does not soften God’s stance on these sins simply because we are under the covenant of Christ. These things are worthy of death and cut us off from God. We must avoid sexual sins. The wrath of God is revealed for these sins. We must not approve these sins nor overlook them. In God’s grace we are not struck down immediately for these sins. But that does not mean that God approves of what we are doing. We need atonement for our sins and must place our hope in Jesus by faith by turning away from these sinful practices. Listen to Leviticus 20:26.

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (Leviticus 20:26 ESV)

The New Testament makes the same point for us (2 Corinthians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:15; 2:9; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2:21; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 6:19). You have been redeemed and are to separate yourself from the wicked practices of the world. God is holy and we must be made holy to be in relationship with our God. God has made holiness possible through Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. But that sacrifice is to cause us to change our way of life. Let us have holy relationships with each other and with the world, possessing holy bodies as we serve a holy God.

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