At the end of the book of Exodus we read how the tabernacle was set up according to the plan which the Lord had given to Moses on Mount Sinai. So, there was the Tent of Meeting, comprising the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, which contained the ark of the covenant. And there was the courtyard around the Tent of Meeting. And there were all the different pieces of furniture which were set up in the tabernacle: the table for the bread of Presence; the lampstand with its seven lamps; the altar for burnt offerings; and the altar for incense; and the basin for washing.
And then, when everything was ready, we read in verse 34 of Exodus 40 that the cloud — that’s the glory-cloud which signified God’s presence and which up to then had appeared at the top of Mount Sinai — the cloud moved from the top of Mount Sinai to cover the Tent of Meeting and to fill the tabernacle with God’s glory. So, just as the Lord had dwelt for a time on Mount Sinai, and his people were camped around the mountain, so now the Lord was going to dwell in the tabernacle, with his people camped around him.
And in verse 35 we read how Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting because the glory-cloud had settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And in verses 36 and 36 we’re told that whether the cloud moved or not was the signal for whether or not the people needed to continue their journey: so long as the cloud did not move, they remained where they were; but whenever the cloud lifted, the Israelites would pack up their tents and move on. But throughout all their travels, the glory-cloud of the Lord remained with them, continually reminding them that the Lord was with them.
And that’s how the book of Exodus ends. And if you turn over the page, you’ll see that the book of Leviticus begins with the Lord calling to Moses and speaking to him from the Tent of Meeting. So, Moses stood outside the Tent of Meeting in the courtyard of the tabernacle; and the Lord — who was in the Tent of Meeting — spoke to him. And in the rest of the book of Leviticus we read what the Lord said to Moses at various times. And I thought that, having studied the books of Genesis and Exodus on Sundays evenings, we might study the book of Leviticus on Wednesday evenings this year.
We’re not going to get very far today. All I’m going to do this evening is to introduce you to this book. And I’m going to do that by pointing out to you the structure of the Pentateuch; that’s the first five books of the Bible. And the reason we’re going to think about the structure of those five books is because the way they’re structured highlights for us the importance of the book of Leviticus.
And then I’m going to say something about the structure of the book of Leviticus in order to show you the most important chapter of Leviticus.
Let’s think about the structure of the Pentateuch. And the first thing to notice is that the book of Leviticus is the central book of the Pentateuch. So, you have Genesis and Exodus on one side of Leviticus; and you have Numbers and Deuteronomy on the other side.
Furthermore, Genesis and Deuteronomy match one another; and Exodus and Numbers match one another. So, in Genesis, after the prologue of chapters 1 to 11, we see how the Lord set apart a people for himself and promised to give them a land where he would dwell with them. Deuteronomy is about how the Israelites were God’s chosen people; and they were to get ready to enter the Promised Land where they would dwell with the Lord. So, those two books correspond to one another.
Then the book of Exodus tells us about their wilderness wanderings and how they often sinned against the Lord. Likewise, the book of Numbers tells us about their wilderness wanderings and how they often sinned against the Lord. So, those two books correspond to one another.
Genesis and Deuteronomy match one another: God has chosen a people for himself to dwell with him in the Promised Land. Exodus and Numbers match one another: God’s chosen people are sinners who sin against him continually. And at the middle of those four books is the book of Leviticus. It’s at the heart of the Pentateuch. And that suggests that the book of Leviticus — which I daresay we all find difficult and which we rarely read — is extremely important.
Let’s think about the book of Leviticus now; and let me begin by saying that the book of Leviticus is about how the Lord is able to provide a way for his chosen, but sinful people to dwell with him.
In chapters 1 to 7 we have instructions about the various sacrifices the people were to offer to the Lord. If you have an NIV Bible, you can read the headings: the burnt offering; the grain offering; the fellowship offering; the sin offering; and the guilt offering. And then we read about the same offerings again, but this time the instructions are directed to the priests, and not to the people. So, that’s chapters 1 to 7.
Then in chapters 8 to 10 there are instructions about how to ordain the priests; as well as the account of the death of two priests who offered unauthorised fire.
There follows, in chapters 11 to 15, a series of what we might call ‘personal laws’ about what makes a person or an object unclean and how they can be purified and made clean.
So, that’s chapters 1 to 15. Let’s jump over chapter 16 for now, and you’ll see that chapters 17 to 20 contain more ‘personal laws’ about what defiles a person so that they are no longer holy.
Then chapters 21 and 22 contains further legislation about the priests.
And chapters 23 to 27 contains instructions about the special days and feasts they’re to observe, including: the weekly Sabbath; the passover and feast of unleavened bread; the firstfruits; the feast of weeks; the feast of trumpets; the Day of Atonement; the feast of tabernacles; and the Year of Jubilee when all debts were cancelled and all property was returned to its original owner. But this section also contains the account of the death of a man who blasphemed the name of the Lord.
There’s some correspondence between these sections. Chapters 1 to 7 and chapters 23 to 27 contain instructions about how to worship the Lord. Chapters 8 to 10 and chapters 21 and 22 contain instructions about the priests. Chapters 11 to 15 and chapters 17 to 20 contain those ‘personal laws’ about being clean and unclean and holy and defiled. So, they correspond to one another, or they match one another.
The Day of Atonement
What’s left? Well, what’s left is the centre of the book of Leviticus; and it’s chapter 16. And if you look up chapter 16 now you’ll see that it contains instructions about the Day of Atonement, which is the day when the sins of the people were covered over by the blood of a goat which was killed. The goat was killed in place of the people.
Now think back for a moment to chapter 10 when two men were killed because of their sin. And think back for a moment to chapter 24 when another man was killed because of his sin. You see, the wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death, but on the Day of Atonement a goat died in place of the people. The goat was killed in place of the people in order to satisfy the justice of God and to make peace between God and his chosen, but sinful people.
But there was another goat, wasn’t there? And this goat was kept alive; and the priest placed both hands on the goat and confessed their sins over it; and then it was sent away into the desert to signify how the guilt of their sins has been removed from them as far as the east is from the west.
And so, right at the centre of Leviticus, which is right at the heart of the Pentateuch, are these instructions about the Day of Atonement, when the sins of the people were covered over to make peace between God and his people. The book of Leviticus is about how the Lord was able to provide a way for his chosen, but sinful people to dwell with him. And the way he provided for them involved the death of a substitute and the shedding of blood.
But, of course, the blood of a goat wasn’t really able to pay for their sins; its blood could not really take away their guilt. The Lord gave the Israelites these instructions about the Day of Atonement for the time being only and to make do until the time came for the Son of God to come into the world and to die in our place to pay for our sins before rising again to give us life. And whenever a sinner trusts in him — the Lamb of God who takes away our sin — the guilt of our sins is removed from us as far as the east is from the west and we have peace with God for ever and can look forward to dwelling in his presence for ever and for ever.
Right at the beginning of the Bible, we read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, enjoying the presence of God who would come and walk in the garden in the cool of the evening. And the Tree of Life was there to signify the fullness of life which God’s people can enjoy in his presence forever. But Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord; and as a result they were sent out of the garden, away from the Tree of Life, and away from the presence of the Lord who now lives in a high and holy place, where we cannot come because we’re sinners.
But the Lord, who is gracious and merciful, was able to provide the one true and only way for his chosen, but sinful people to come into his presence and to dwell with him forever. To the Israelites in the book of Leviticus, he gave all kinds of instructions about rituals and ceremonies which were for the time being only; and which pointed forward to the one true and only way. And when the time was right, he sent his Son who is the one true and only way, because he died to pay for our sins and he was raised to give us life; and through faith in him we have peace with God and the sure and certain hope of coming into the new heaven and new earth to enjoy the fullness of life in the presence of God forever. The Lord Jesus Christ is the one true and only way; and the book of Leviticus — with all its strange rituals and ceremonies — points us to Christ and to the salvation we find in him.
And so our job in the weeks to come is to study this book in order to see how it points to Christ so that our understanding of what he did for us will deepen; and our faith in him will be strengthened; and our love for him will grow.