So far in the book of Leviticus we’ve seen how the various sacrifices which we read about in chapter 1 to 7 point forward to the person and work of Christ. The burnt offering teaches us that the Lord has ransomed us from our sin and misery; the fellowship or peace offering teaches us that we have peace with because of what Christ suffered; the purification offering teaches us that the Lord cleanses us from the guilt of our sin; and the guilt or reparation offering teaches us that by his death on the cross, the Lord Jesus has paid in full the debt of our sins and he has completely made up to God for what we have done wrong. All of the offerings point forward to Christ.
Then we read about the ordination of the High Priest who also points to Christ, who is our Great High Priest, who offered to God the perfect sacrifice for sins and who has entered, not a man-made sanctuary, but heaven itself to appear before the Lord on our behalf.
Then we had all the rules about cleanliness which teach us that all of us are inwardly unclean, because of the guilt of our sins. However, everyone who believes in the Saviour is cleansed and forgiven by God from all our guilt and shame so that we can come before him with confidence instead of having to stay away because of our sins.
And then last week we read about the Great Day of Atonement, when the High Priest was permitted to enter the Most Holy Place on behalf of the people and cleanse the Tabernacle and to cleanse the people from their sins so that God was able to dwell with his chosen, but sinful people. And do you remember? One goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled for cleansing. And then there was a second goat; and the priest confessed over it the sins of the people; and that goat was led out of the camp to signify how God had taken their sins away. And in the New Testament, we learn that Christ has taken away our sins. Everything we’ve read so far points in one way or another to the person and work of Christ and to the salvation we find in him.
Today we come to a new section of the book of Leviticus which begins in chapter 17 and which continues until the end of chapter 26 and which contains what are known as the Laws of Holiness. One commentator has suggested that the first 16 chapters of Leviticus are about our justification and how sinners are pardoned by God and accepted by him; and the Laws of Holiness are about our sanctification and how God’s pardoned people must live holy lives before him. And there’s perhaps something in that. But today’s chapter — chapter 17 — begins with rules forbidding idolatry and with rules concerning blood. After two introductory verses, the remainder of the chapter is divided into four parts: first of all, we have verses 3 to 7 which begin with the words:
Then we have verses 8 and 9 which begin with the words:
Then we have verses 10 to 12 which begin with the words:
And finally there’s verses 13 to 16 which also begin with the words:
The words ‘Any Israelite’ mark the beginning of each new section of this chapter.
Let’s look at each section now. In the opening two verses, we see that these instructions are directed not only to Aaron and his sons, the priests, but to all the Israelites. Much of what we have already read in Leviticus was directed at the priests alone to show them what their duty was. But the rules in this part of Leviticus are for all the people. And, of course, we’re reminded in verse 2, that these laws are from the Lord. Though we often refer to the Mosaic Law or the Law of Moses, Moses didn’t command the people to do these things; these things came from the Lord.
In verses 3 to 7, the people were banned from killing animals in any place other than the Tabernacle. If they were going to kill an animal, it had to be done at the entrance to the Tabernacle as an offering to the Lord. Some commentators believe this ban applied not only to sacrifices, but to any occasion when an animal was slaughtered. So, if you were having lamb for dinner, you first had to bring a portion of the meat to the Lord as an offering. Other commentators think the law applied only when killing an animal for sacrifice. The NIV reflects that view by translating the Hebrew word for ‘kill’ in verse 3 by the word ‘sacrifice’.
Failure to abide by this rule had serious consequences according to verse 4: whoever sacrifices an animal in any place other than in the Tabernacle was to be treated as guilty of bloodshed, which is another term for murder; and the guilty person must be cut off from the people. The commentators are unsure what exactly that means: being cut off from the people might mean they must be killed; or it may mean that God would cause them to die prematurely; or it might mean they’re must be ex-communicated so that they’re no longer regarded as part of God’s covenant community. Whichever it is, the penalty shows this was regarded as a serious offence.
Verses 5 to 7 explain the purpose of this law: according to verse 5, at that time the people were offering sacrifices in the open fields and not in the Tabernacle; furthermore, according to verse 7, when they offered such sacrifices in the open fields, they were being offered, not to the Lord, but to goat idols. So, despite all that the Lord had done for them, some of the Israelites were worshipping idols. That practice had to stop; and so this law forbade them from sacrificing offerings anywhere except in the Tabernacle; and to anyone except to the Lord.
Verse 5 referred to fellowship or peace offerings. There were, of course, other kinds of offering and they are included in the next section, verses 8 and 9, which also bans the Israelites from offering them in any place other than in the Tabernacle. Furthermore, this ban applies not only to the Israelites, but to the alien living among them. From time to time, people from other nations would join the Israelites and live among them.
In verses 10 to 12 the Lord commanded the people not to eat any blood. Whereas the pagans at that time used to eat and drink blood, here God forbids his people from doing such things; and he warned that he will set his face against the person who eats any blood; and that person will be cut off from the people. Two reasons for this law are given in verse 11. First of all, the life of a creature is in the blood. That is, it’s the source of life so that an animal is alive whenever blood is coursing through its veins; and it’s dead whenever it loses its blood. And then, secondly, blood has a special significance, because the blood of an animal can be used to atone for the sins of the people. And therefore it’s not to be used for food.
Finally, in verses 13 to 16 there are rules about eating animals they have hunted and animals which they have found dead in the fields. Before eating what they have hunted and killed, they must drain away the blood. But whoever eats anything found dead in the fields has become unclean and must wash his or her clothes in order to become clean again. Presumably this is because there is no way to drain away its blood if it has been dead for some time.
Chapter 17 taught the Israelites they were to remain faithful to the Lord. As we’ve been learning on Sunday evenings, the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, warning them to flee from idolatry, because though idols are nothing, lurking behind the idols are demons who want to destroy our faith in the Saviour. There is only one God and it is our duty to love, trust and worship him above all others and to have no other gods before him. We are to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and we’re to remain faithful to him always. The Israelites were often tempted to worship idols; in fact, whenever Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving God’s law, the people down in the camp were bowing down to the golden calf they had made.
And today, God’s people are often tempted to turn away from him. The Devil wants to lead us astray; the unbelieving world wants to lead us astray; our own sinful flesh wants to lead us astray. The path to heaven is narrow, whereas the road to hell is broad; and how easy it is for us to veer from the narrow way onto the broad road. And so we must stay alert and stand firm against every temptation and we’re to remain faithful to our Saviour by making diligent use of the means of grace by which our faith is strengthened so that we will not turn away from him, but will persevere to the end.
And the instructions in this chapter about the importance of blood point forward to the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, blood had to be shed to make atonement for the people. And you’ll remember perhaps that the word ‘atonement’ means both ‘to wipe clean’ and ‘to pay a ransom’. The blood of an animal was sprinkled before the Lord to wash away the stain of their sin; and the blood of an animal was offered as a ransom to pay for their sins so that they could be pardoned by God and not condemned. The people were taught that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.
But the Old Testament ceremonies were only shadows, pointing forward to the true sacrifice for sins and to the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one who has freed us from our sins by his blood, because by his blood we are cleansed; and by his blood he has paid for our sins. He did not come into the world to be served by us, but to serve us by shedding his blood and by giving his life as a ransom for sins. And so, we’re justified by his blood; and we’ve been redeemed through his blood; and we’re reconciled to God by his blood; and our consciences are cleansed by his blood; and by his blood we may enter God’s presence; and by his blood we have been sprinkled. Again and again throughout the New Testament, we are taught that we are saved from condemnation and reconciled to God by means of the blood of Christ which was shed for us on the cross.
And so, in the book of Revelation, the Apostle John saw the 24 elders around the throne of God, and they sang a song of praise to the Lamb of God, because he was slain; and with his blood he purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And whenever he saw the saints in heaven, John saw they were wearing robes which had been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.
The Israelites were commanded not to eat blood; that’s how they honoured it. But believers today are commanded to drink the blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This is one of the ways we honour him, because by eating the bread which speaks to us of his body, and by drinking the cup of the new covenant in his blood, we proclaim his death and how the Eternal Son of God shed his precious blood for us and for our salvation. And while we wait for him to come again, we’re to praise his name, because he’s the one who has freed us from our sins by his blood.