I wanted to begin the meeting this evening with that version of Psalm 24, because the Psalm highlights the problem which the book of Leviticus is designed to answer:
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
The Lord is holy: perfectly pure and good and set apart from all that is evil. So how can sinful men and women ever hope to come into his presence? How could the Israelites in the days of Moses ever hope to come before the Lord in the tabernacle to worship him and to seek his help? And how can people come before the Lord today to worship him and to seek his help? And how can we ever hope to come into his presence in glory? Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy presence?
I said last week 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 other words, he’s able to provide a way for sinners to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in his holy presence. And what we discover from the book of Leviticus is that what we need are sacrifices and a priest. God provided his people in the days of the Old Testament with sacrifices and with a priest; and through the work of the priest and the offering up of sacrifices, God’s people were able to come before.
In fact, let me just point out something briefly in the way the opening chapters are arranged. The book of Exodus ended with the glory-cloud of the Lord moving from the top of Mount Sinai to cover the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle. And the Lord’s glory filled the Tabernacle so that Moses was not able to enter it. Then Leviticus 1 begins with the Lord calling to Moses who is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. And the Lord commanded Moses to speak to the Israelites about the sacrifices they’re to offer him.
And then, in the rest of chapter 1 and all the way to the end of chapter 7 we read about the different sacrifices they were to offer the Lord. And in chapter 8 what do we have? Instructions about how to ordain Aaron the priest and his sons. And then in chapter 9 we read how the priests began their work. And this opening section culminates with verses 22 to 24 of chapter 9, where we’re told:
Then Aaron [the priest] lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down. Moses and Aaron then went into the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.
Do you see? Aaron the priest sacrificed the various offerings before the Lord. And then he and Moses were able, at last, to go into the Tent of Meeting on behalf of the people. And when they came out again, they blessed the people and the people saw the glory of the Lord. Before they only saw the glory of the Lord from a distance, because the Lord was far away from them, dwelling on the top of Mount Sinai. And when they saw his glory before, it was veiled by the cloud. But now, because of the work of the priest and because of the sacrifices which were offered, God’s glory was not far away, but it was right there, among them.
Let’s remember that these sacrifices and the work of the priest were symbolic, weren’t they? They pointed beyond themselves to something else. In many ways, you see, the book of Leviticus is like the book of Revelation which we were studying last year. The book of Revelation contained all those visions which John saw and which symbolised different things. So, he saw seven golden lamp stands; and he saw seven seals and seven trumpets and so on. And we had to work out and interpret what all those things symbolised. Well, we don’t have visions in the book of Leviticus which need to be interpreted; but we do have lots of rituals and ceremonies which we need to interpret, because they symbolise the gospel of Jesus Christ who is our Great High Priest who represents us before the Father in heaven; and he’s also the perfect sacrifice for our sins. So, when we read the book of Leviticus and we read about the priests and all the sacrifices which the people offered, it points us to Christ, our Great High Priest, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to bring us to God.
Let’s turn now to the first offering which is mentioned and it’s the Burnt Offering. So, the Lord specifies that this offering could come from the herd (verse 3), or from the flock (verse 10), or it may be a bird (verse 14). So, it could be a bull from the herd, a sheep or goat from the flock, or a dove or young pigeon. Presumably what they brought depended on what they could afford. However, notice that they weren’t allowed to bring wild animals, because the sacrifice had to be costly: it was something they owned, but which they were now giving up and offering to the Lord. In the case of an offering from the herd or flock, it had to be a male animal. And it had to be without defect, so that whatever they offered the Lord was perfect and free from blemish. And we read in verse 3 how the worshipper had to present the offering at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it — the offering — or perhaps ‘he’ is better, referring to the worshipper himself — so that he will be acceptable to the Lord. In order words, the reason for bringing the offering is so that the Lord will look favourably on the worshipper and accept him instead of condemning him.
Then the worshipper had to lay his hand on the head of the offering, so that it would be accepted on his behalf. Now, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron the priest placed both of his hands on the scapegoat as a way to symbolise how the guilt of their sins was being transferred to that animal. It’s different here, because it’s the worshipper who places his hand on the animal, not Aaron the priest; and he places only one hand on the animal, not two. And the reason for placing his hand on the animal was to symbolise that this animal was taking the place of the worshipper. The animal now represented the worshipper and was taking his place.
After laying his hand on the animal, we’re told that ‘he’ — presumably the worshipper — is to slaughter it and Aaron’s sons the priests were to take the blood and sprinkle it against the altar which stood outside the Tent of Meeting. Then the worshipper had to skin the animal and cut it into pieces. Then Aaron’s sons were to get the fire going on the altar and arrange the wood. And, after washing the inner parts of the animal and its legs, Aaron’s sons were to arrange all the pieces of the animal on the altar and burn all of it. And we’re told in verse 9 that this is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.
The ritual for an offering from the flock is virtually identical. The ritual for offering a dove or pigeon is different, but only because the size of the bird. While the procedure is different, the purpose and meaning is the same.
What was the purpose of this offering? Well, go back to verse 3 first of all where we’re told the worshipper presented the offering so that he will be acceptable to the Lord. Because of his sin, the worshipper — like every sinner — is liable to God’s wrath and curse. He deserves to be punished by God. Because of his guilt, he expects the fire of God’s wrath to break out against him. And so, he needs to bring an offering so that the Lord will look upon him, not in anger, but in favour. He needs to bring an offering so that the Lord will be pleased with him and will accept him.
And so, he brings his offering, an offering which is both costly and perfect. It’s costly because it’s one of his own animals, which he raised and cared for and fed. And it’s perfect, because it’s without defect and blemish. And his offering represents him: by placing his hand on the offering, he was saying that this animal is to take my place. And according to verse 4, he brought the animal and slaughtered it and burned it up on the altar so that it would ‘make atonement’ for him. The phrase ‘make atonement’ can refer to two things: it can mean ‘to wipe clean’; or it can mean ‘to pay a ransom’.
And it’s the second meaning which applies here. You see, in Old Testament times you could pay a ransom to another person for various reasons. If you were a soldier and were captured in battle, the king might pay a ransom to your captors to pay for your release. If your ox killed someone, you became liable to the death penalty; but you could also pay a ransom so that your life was spared. If a man slept with another man’s wife, both adulterers were liable to the death penalty, unless the guilty man paid a ransom to the woman’s husband. So a prisoner could be released and a guilty person could be pardoned on the payment of a ransom. And by bringing an offering to the Lord, the worshipper was offering to the Lord a ransom to pay for his sins so that he might be pardoned and not condemned. And the Lord, who is merciful and who does not treat us as our sins deserve, was willing to accept the animal in place of the worshipper so that the worshipper escaped the death penalty. More than that, the Lord was willing to accept the worshipper and allow him to draw near to God for worship. And so, when we read in verse 9 that the aroma from the sacrifice was pleasing to the Lord, we learn that, because of this sacrifice, the Lord was no longer angry, but pleased.
And so, the worshipper brought a costly, perfect substitute, who died in his place as a ransom to pay for the guilt of his sins. And God was pleased to accept the offering and to pardon the worshipper. This was the most common offering, which was offered to the Lord every morning and every evening and on other occasions as well so that the Lord’s chosen, but sinful people could dwell with him and come before him to worship him and to seek his help.
But this burnt offering, offered every morning and every evening, year after year, has now been superseded by the Lord Jesus Christ who, as our Great High Priest, offered himself as the Lamb of God who died in our place as our ransom to pay for the guilt of our sins. Just as the animal sacrifice had to be costly, so this sacrifice was costly, because this was God’s one and only, his beloved Son. Just as the animal sacrifice had to be perfect, so this sacrifice was perfect because he never once sinned. Just as the animal sacrifice was slaughtered to make atonement, so the Lord Jesus was killed on the cross to make atonement for us. And while the Lord Jesus was not burned like the animal sacrifice was burned completely, nevertheless the Lord offered himself to his Father in heaven completely, because from the beginning of his life on earth, to the end of his life on earth, he was wholeheartedly devoted to doing his Father’s will; and he was willing to give up everything to make atonement for us and for all who believe in him.
And now that the ransom has been paid for us, by the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour — so that the guilt of our sins has been paid for in full and we have peace with God forever — we’re to offer ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to God our Father; and we’re to seek to do his will until that day when we’re able to come into God’s presence in the life to come and be with him for ever and for ever.