The third chapter of Leviticus gives the worshipers instructions concerning the peace offering. Some translations call this the fellowship offering (HCSB, NIV). Both peace and fellowship are accurate representations of what this offering is showing the worshiper. This is an offering symbolizing the peace that exists between God and the worshiper so that there can be fellowship between the two parties. Leviticus 7 reveals that the peace offering was commonly used in fulfilling a vow (7:16), as an offering of thankfulness (7:13), or as a freewill offering (7:16).
The High Cost of Peace and Fellowship
The first thing that we observe concerning the peace offering is the high cost of peace. The initial instructions concerning the peace offering are similar to the burnt offering. Notice that the animal is selected by the worshiper from the herd and must be without blemish. This time, however, the animal can be a male or a female. The worshiper lays his hand on the head of the animal, again identifying oneself with the animal as this animal dies to bring peace for the worshiper. The worshiper did not hand the animal off to the priest to do the work. The worshiper kills the animal and the priest collects the blood and throws the collected blood against the side of the altar. The immediate message is that blood must be shed for peace. Peace between God and the worshiper is not free. Not only is peace with God and fellowship with God not free, but it only comes through the shedding of blood.
However, there is something more in the symbolism of the peace offering. Notice in verse 5 that the peace offering was to be placed on top of the burnt offering. The burnt offering was to make atonement for the worshiper (Leviticus 1:4). It is interesting that the first offering to be made was the burnt offering and only then could a peace offering be made. The message is very clear from God. There cannot be peace with God until atonement is made first. There cannot be fellowship between God and the worshiper until atonement has been accomplished. Grace always comes before peace. Atonement is the basis for enjoying peace and fellowship with your God. A cost must be paid before fellowship can be enjoyed.
The peace that Jesus brought through his death was a twofold peace, according to the New Testament. First, the blood of Jesus brought peace in that two separate groups, Jews and Gentiles, would become one new people in the family of God.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:14–17 NIV 2011)
Second, the blood of Jesus brought peace between God and us. The apostle Paul also elaborates on this great truth.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1 ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6–11 ESV)
We have peace with God through the sacrifice of Jesus. We are justified by his blood so that we are no longer enemies, but are now reconciled. Through the blood of Jesus we can have fellowship and peace with God.
The Focus on Fat
The next interesting detail is the focus made on the fat of the offering. In the peace offering the fat was to be removed from the animal. This is not the fat in the meat, but the fat that surround the internal organs of the animal. There were no such instructions for the burnt offering. God makes this point very clear in verse 16. “All fat is the Lord’s.” Of course we must try to understand why the fat belong to the Lord.
The fat was considered the choice part of the animal. The fat represented the very best of the animal. An animal that was fat was well fed and healthy. When Israel was able to eat “the fat of the land” it meant that they enjoyed the abundance of the land (cf. Genesis 45:18). Thus, the giving of the fat of the animal represented giving God the very best.
The pagan religions also viewed the fat as choice food. Curiously, the pagans believed that eating the fat gave spiritual and sometimes supernatural boost to their lives. God is taking away all of this idolatrous material. The Israelites were not to turn the worship of God into pagan rituals. They were to look to God and give to God the very best.
The Communal Meal
Finally, we must also notice that this is the offering where everyone shares in the meal. The fat, considered the best of the animal, was offered to God. Notice this part is described as a food offering to the Lord (3:3,5,11,14,16). The breast and the right thigh of the animal was given to the priest to eat (cf. Leviticus 7:31). The rest of the animal was given to the worshiper to eat, along with his family and any invited guests. Some have read these commands with a pagan lens. The pagans believed that they needed to feed their gods and therefore would bring food offerings to the Lord. This is not the purpose of this peace offering. Nothing in the text indicates that this is some sort of sustenance for God. I think we can see the symbolism. This is a communal meal between the Lord, the priest, and the worshiper. Leviticus 7:15 makes it clear that peace offerings made out of thanksgiving were to be eaten that very day and none of it was to be left until morning. If the peace offering was made out of a fulfillment of a vow or freewill offering, then they must eat the day of the offering and could eat of it the next day, but that was all. This solidifies the picture that God is eating with the priest and the worshiper. This is a communal meal showing that the worshiper is in fellowship with God. The animal’s death has brought peace between God and the worshiper as well has brought life as a meal to the worshiper.
This offering is also called a pleasing aroma to God. As we learned with the burnt offering that God wants worshipers and makes a way for all people to receive atonement, so also with the peace offering. God delights in fellowship with his people. God wants to be joined in peace with them. The ultimate proof is the sending of his Son for us. God wants fellowship with his people so dearly that he sent his only Son to die for us. God could have accepted that fellowship would not be possible because of our sins. But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died.
The imagery of a communal meal between God and the worshiper is found in many locations in the New Testament. Consider that Paul makes this connection to the participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? (1 Corinthians 10:14–18 ESV)
Notice that Paul speaks about the people of Israel who eat the sacrifices. Of the five sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus 1-7, only the peace offering was one where the worshiper ate a portion of the meal. Think about how Paul was relating this argument to the Corinthians. When they ate from the pagan food that came from pagan temples, they were participating and joining themselves in fellowship with that pagan idol. When they ate of the Lord’s Supper they were participating and joining themselves in fellowship with Christ. The Lord’s Supper contains a picture of the peace offering, reminding us of the fellowship that we have with Christ who died for us.
Jesus also used a communal meal image to describe our complete reliance and devotion to God.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6:52–64 ESV)
Notice that Jesus is not describing the Lord’s Supper memorial but is speaking about our sustenance coming from the life that only Jesus can provide.
Those who surrender their hearts to God and come before him on the basis of shed blood can celebrate being at peace with God. Only through atonement can there be fellowship with God. Jesus is the fulfillment of the peace offering symbolism. Only through Christ can we be in fellowship with God.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19–20 ESV)