As the third book of the Torah, Leviticus moves almost seamlessly from Exodus to the further revelation of God. God revealed the content of the Book of Leviticus during a 30-day period between the time the tabernacle was raised up (Exodus 40:17) and the census mentioned in Numbers 1:1-3. While Moses was inspired by God to write this revelation down (Leviticus 1:1; 4:1; 6:1, 8, 19, 24; 7:22; 8:1), if there ‘were a red-letter edition of the Bible in which God’s speech in the OT directed to an individual or individuals was highlighted, nearly all of Leviticus would be in red’ (Jelinek 2014:175). Twenty out of 27 chapters of Leviticus begin with the words, ‘The LORD spoke to Moses’. Based on the first word in this book, the Hebrew title of Leviticus is wayyiqrā’ and the English title is a transliteration of the Greek word Leuitikon, used in the Septuagint, meaning ‘relating to the Levites’.
The Scope and Theme of Leviticus
Whereas Exodus ends with the tabernacle raised up and the Lord dwelling among his people (Exodus 40:17-38), Leviticus explains how Jews could corporately and individually access the presence of God in worship. Leviticus is indeed related to the tribe of Levi and its priests, but it is not only about the public worship by Israel — with the Levitical priests presenting the nation of Israel to God — since it is also a book that touches on private worship. Leviticus teaches that God has provided a way to cover sin so that people could have fellowship with God and worship Him on his terms. Since Israel is also to be a kingdom of priests — with the chosen, elect nation Israel presenting all the nations to God — it stands to reason that every Jew in Israel is supposed to be holy and part of a holy nation unto God (Exodus 19:6; Leviticus 19:2). For this reason, Leviticus provides God’s instructions of the public (chapters 1-16) and the private worship of Israelites (17-27).
The Relevance of Leviticus
Leviticus describes many sacrifices that Jews individually (Lev 1:2-6:7) and corporately as a nation (ex: Lev 16) had to bring to the altar of the tabernacle. If Jesus, however, shed his blood on the altar of the cross at Calvary once and for all, does this not make much of what is written in Leviticus redundant? However, one must still study Leviticus, for ‘all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16). In fact, holiness and increasing sanctification is as much part of Leviticus as it is of the New Testament (Romans 6:17-19; Colossians 1:22). Just as Leviticus 19:2 teaches believers to be holy because God is holy, so too does the New Testament (Ephesians 1:4; 5:27), but our expression may differ, as the table below shows:
Table 1: The Laws of Sacrifice
|Name of offering||Sacrifice||Procedure||Meaning||New Testament application|
Lev 1:3-17; 6:8-13.
|Cattle, sheep, goats, birds.||Offerer: lays on hand and kill animal.|
Priest – sprinkles blood on side of altar, puts on fire. Entirely burned.
|Atonement for sin (1:4) and voluntary, complete consecration.||Present ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2).|
Lev 2:1-16; 6:14-18.
|Raw flour, cooked cakes, roasted new grain.||Flour: labour; oil: anointing; incense: soothing aroma.||Acceptable service to God.||All our labour should be offered to God as acceptable service (Col 3:17).|
Lev 3:1-17; 7:11-36; 22; 18-30; 23:19.
|Cattle, sheep, goats.||Blood on sides of altar. Fat portions burned. Meat shared between offerer and priests.||Celebration meal (gratitude, free will).||Celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:16-18).|
Lev 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30.
|Cattle, sheep, goats, birds.||Substitution, identification, death, exchange of life.||Forgiveness by faith in a substitutionary sacrifice.||We must receive forgiveness by faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.|
|Guilt offering |
Lev 5:14-6:7; 7:1-6.
|Rams.||Blood around altar. Fat burned.||Make restitution to God (5:15-16) or to people (6:4-5).||Be reconciled and make restitution for wrong done (Mat 5:23-24).|
Source: Jelinek (2014:181).
Moreover, one has to have a basic understanding of Leviticus before one can understand Hebrews. Table 2 shows contrasts and similarities between Levitical high priests and the ministry of Christ.
Table 2: The Levitical High Priests’ Ministries and Christ’s Ministry as High Priest
|Aaron’s priesthood||Christ’s priesthood|
|Perishing sinners offered sacrifices for their own sins (Lev 4:3-12; 9:1-11; 16:6ff; Heb 8:4).||Sinless, resurrected Son needed no sacrifice for sin since He did not sin (Heb 4:15; 7:27).|
|Offered substitutes to die for their own sins and the sins of others (Heb 5:1-3).||Christ died as the Substitute for the sins of others (Isa 52-53; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:26).|
|Offered recurrent sacrifices to inaugurate, maintain, or restore a sacred space for fellowship with God (Num 28-29; Heb 9:6).||Offered one sacrifice to provide access to fellowship with God (entering the holy place once) – Heb 9:12, 26; cf. Jer 31:34; Heb 10:20.|
|Provided no expiation for rebellious, intentional sins, sons done “with a high hand” (Num 15:31).||Provides expiation and a clean conscience (Acts 13:39; Heb 9:14).|
|Offered incense to protect themselves in the presence of the Lord (Lev 16:2, 13).||Is face-to-face with God at the right hand of the Father, having accomplished cleansing for sins (John 1:1; Heb 1:3).|
|Festivals, new moons and Sabbath days are but shadows (Col 2:17a).||Christ is the substance (or reality) behind the shadows (Col 2:17b).|
|The high priest mediates access to God through the Law of Moses (Lev 8-10).||Christ is the fulfilment and end (telos) of the Law of Moses (Heb 3:1-3; 4:14; 7:17-21; 9:15).|
|Sin offerings required repetitious death and sacrifice (Lev 4:1-35).||Christ is the final Sin Offering and therefore the perfect sacrifice (Rom 3:25; Heb 7:27; 9:26-28).|
|Sacrifices presented brought a cleansing to the high priest and his family, to the people of Israel and to the earthly tabernacle (Lev 16:6, 16-17, 20, 33).||Christ’s sacrifice cleansed the heavenly ‘things’ of the heavenly tabernacle (Heb 9:23-25; defiled by Satan’s rebellion?) and the consciences of those who approach in faith. No cleansing offering was required for Christ Himself!|
|The high priest did not glory himself by taking on this role, but was chosen (Heb 5:4).||What is true of the Levitical high priests is also true of the greater high priest, Christ, who was chosen by God (Heb 5:5-6).|
|After the pattern of Aaron (Heb 5:4; 7:23).||After the pattern of Melchizedek (Heb 7:17, 23-25).|
|Took office without an oath (Heb 7:21)||Took priestly position by the Lord’s oath (Heb 7:20-28)|
Source: Jelinek (2014:192, 199).
The Structure of Leviticus
As Jelinek (2014:178) points out, a popular approach is to divide Leviticus into two main sections: (1) The means of access to God: sacrifice (chapters 1-10); and (2) The walk before God: sanctification (chapters 11-27). However, as Constable (2016:4) alludes to, the literary structure of Leviticus may be somewhat chiastic, alternating between legal and narrative sections, with the turning point reached in chapter 16: The high priest on the Day of Atonement.
A Legal (chapters 1-7)
B Narrative (8-10)
C Legal (11-15)
D Legal written as narrative (16)
C’ Legal (17:1-24:9)
B’ Narrative (24:10-23)
A’ Legal (25-27)
Evident from all the above is that Leviticus is much more than laws and intricate procedures. After redeeming Israel out of Egypt, after entering into the Mosaic Covenant with them at Mount Sinai, God teaches Israel how to worship Him and how to be and live holy. God teaches Israel about the nature of sin and the nature of atonement (substitution, imputation, blood and death) — all pointing forward to redemption which Christ purchased with his blood on the cross (cf. Constable 2016:6-10).
Would you like to read more about Leviticus? We recommend the following:
Constable, T.L., 2016, Notes on Leviticus.
Jelinek, J., 2014, ‘Leviticus’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 175-214, Moody Publishers, Chicago.
Merrill, E.H., Rooker, M.F. & Grisanti, M.A., 2011, The World and the Word, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.
Ross, A.P., 2002, Holiness to the LORD: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.
Wenham, G.J., 1979, The Book of Leviticus, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.
See also Clarence Larkin’s explanation of the feasts:
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