I’ve mentioned before that whereas the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus are concerned with justification and how the Israelites could be pardoned by God and regarded as right in his sight, chapters 17 to 26 are concerned with their sanctification and how the Israelites must live holy lives before the Lord. In the first sixteen chapters, the people learned that they needed the right priest and they needed the right sacrifices in order to receive God’s pardon for their sins. And in chapters 17 to 26 they learned what they needed to do in order to lead holy lives and in order to keep themselves clean so that they would not be cut off, but could approach God to worship him.
And we noticed last week that while chapters 17 to 20 were directed to all the people, chapters 21 and 22 are directed to the priests in particular. The priests were to serve in the Tabernacle, which was an earthly copy of heaven; and since God — who dwells in heaven — is holy, holy, holy, the priests needed to keep themselves ceremonially clean so that they could come before this holy God, and serve him in the Tabernacle, without defiling it. And we also saw last week that priests with any form of physical defect were not permitted to serve in the Tabernacle.
So, they had to be free from defect and they had to keep themselves ceremonially clean because they pointed forwards and upwards to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is truly and really and inwardly holy and blameless and pure. And as our Great High Priest, he dealt with our sins once and for all when he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins; and he has now gone, not into a man-made and earthly copy of heaven, but into heaven itself to represent us before the Father.
Today’s chapter is also focussed on the priests; and it can be divided into three sections, each of which ends with the words:
I am the Lord, who makes them holy.
So, there’s verses 1 to 9 which are about what might prevent the priests from eating the sacred offerings. Whenever the people brought an offering to the Lord, part of the offering was burned on the altar; but part of it was given to the priests and their families for their food. Since it had been offered to God as a sacrifice, it was regarded as sacred. And since it was sacred, since it was holy, the priests could not eat it unless they were clean.
Then there’s verses 10 to 16 which are about who in the priest’s household could eat the sacred offerings.
And then verses 17 to 33 contain rules about animal sacrifices. Animals with blemishes and defects could not be offered to the Lord. So, let’s look at these three sections now.
Verses 1 to 9
And in verse 1 the Lord instructed Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to treat with respect the sacred offerings so that they will not profane his holy name. So, they’re not to dishonour the name of the Lord in the way they treat this sacred food.
And so, in verses 2 and 3 they’re warned that if they come near the sacred food whenever they’re ceremonially unclean, they will be cut off from God’s presence. Being cut off from God’s presence might mean they’ll no longer be allowed to serve in the Tabernacle. However, it may also mean that the priest will die.
In verses 4 to 8 they’re warned that none of the priests who has an infectious skin disease or a bodily discharge may eat the sacred food until he is cleansed. Also, if he touches anything unclean, he will be unclean until evening. And so, until evening, and until he washes himself with water, he cannot eat the sacred food.
And this part of the passage ends in verse 9 with a summary statement that the priests were to keep God’s requirements so that they will not become guilty before the Lord and die.
Verses 10 to 16
Verses 10 to 16 are about which of the priest’s relatives may eat the sacred food. According to verses 10 and 11, no one outside a priest’s family may eat this special food. Furthermore, neither the guest of a priest nor a hired worker may eat it. However — according to verses 12 to 13 — the priest’s slave may eat it, because the slave was regarded as part of the priest’s household, whereas a guest or a hired worker was not. A priest’s daughter was also allowed to eat the food, so long as she was not married. But if she married a lay person, her right to eat the sacred food was removed.
However, if she was ever widowed or divorced and had no one else to support her, so that she returned to her father’s household, then she may eat the food once again. Sons, of course, were entitled to eat the sacred food, because the son of a priest was also a priest. The text doesn’t refer to a priest’s wife, but we assume that there was no question that a priest’s wife had the right to share this food.
According to verse 14, if someone ate the sacred food by mistake or unintentionally, that person had to replace what they had eaten and add twenty percent to it. In other words, they were to compensate the priests as if they had stolen the food from them.
And just as the previous section had ended with a summary statement, so this section ends in the same way. According to verses 15 and 16 the priests must not desecrate or profane the sacred food by letting an unauthorised person eat it. It was sacred food; holy food, which was once offered to the Lord and no one but the priest and his family may eat it. So it was the duty of the priests to prevent the lay people from eating it, because if the lay people ate it, they would bring guilt upon themselves and become liable to punishment. And therefore it was the duty of the priests to keep the people from sinning in this way. —
Verses 17 to 33
The final section of today’s passage — verses 17 to 33 — contains rules about animal sacrifices. Animals with blemishes and defects could not be offered to the Lord. According to verses 17 to 20, whenever any of them brings a burnt offering to the Lord, it must be a male with defect. Furthermore — according to verse 21 — when they bring a fellowship offering to the Lord in order to fulfil a vow or to offer as a freewill offering, whatever animal they bring must be without defect.
Six specific conditions are listed in verse 22 that would make an animal unacceptable as an offering. However, there’s a concession in verse 23 for freewill offerings: an animal which was deformed or stunted may be offered. The word translated ‘deformed’ means ‘stretched’, so the concession probably refers to an animal with a leg which is either too long or too short. The freewill offering was optional; and therefore the requirements for them are not as strict as for other sacrifices. Verses 24 and 25 make clear that castrated animals may not be offered to the Lord.
A newborn animal may not be offered until it is at least eight days old. The reason for this law is not clear: perhaps to slaughter an animal in its first week was regarded as being cruel; perhaps the law was aimed at pagan ritual practices. Another possibility is that it was related to circumcision. A male child was circumcised on the eighth day and from then on, he was regarded as part of the covenant community; In the same way, an animal was not regarded as part of the covenant community until the eighth day. However, we’re really only guessing and it’s not clear why the Lord gave this law.
Verse 28 forbids the people from slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day. Again, the reason for this law is not known.
Verse 29 refers to the thanks-offering, which was another name for the peace or fellowship offering which we read about in chapters 3 and 7. After it was offered, the priests and the people enjoyed a fellowship meal together. According to this verse, they had to make sure they ate the food on the day it was offered to the Lord.
And this section of the chapter ends with another summary statement. The priests were to keep God’s commands and follow them. They must not profane God’s holy name or do anything to dishonour him. Why not? Because he is the Lord who makes them holy. Furthermore, he is the one who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. In other words, he is the Lord who saved them and who makes them holy. Therefore, they should demonstrate their gratitude to him by being careful to do all that he has said.
As we’ve studied each chapter of the book of Leviticus, we’ve seen how the rules and regulations and ceremonies and rituals point in some way or another to the person and work of Christ. The laws here about the need for the priests to keep themselves ceremonially clean point forward to Christ our Great High Priest who keep himself holy and blameless and pure throughout the whole of his life on earth.
The Old Testament priests had to be careful to follow God’s laws and to do his will. And when the Lord Jesus came into the world, he came, not to do his own will, but to do the will of his Father in heaven; and throughout the whole of his life, he devoted himself to following God’s commands. Throughout the whole of his life, he was careful to keep himself free from sin so that he honoured his Father in all he said and did. The Old Testament priests were warned not to do anything to profane God’s holy name; and at the end of the Lord’s ministry, the Lord Jesus was able to say to his Father in heaven:
I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.
He spent his life, glorifying his Father’s name. And so he proved himself to be the perfect High Priest.
And then from this chapter, we saw how the members of the priest’s family were able to share in the sacred food. They benefitted from his ministry. And all who are united with Christ through faith and who have been adopted into God’s family are able to benefit from Christ’s ministry, because he gives us holy food to eat: he gives us the bread and the cup of communion, which speak to us of our union with him and all the spiritual benefits we receive from trusting in him. He gives us this holy food to sustain and strengthen our faith so that we will persevere in the faith and grow in grace while we go on living on the earth.
And then all the rules and regulations about how the animal sacrifices had to be free from defect speak to us of how the Lord Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. As the Apostle says in 1 Peter 1:19, the Lord Jesus has redeemed us with his precious blood when he offered himself as the lamb without blemish or defect. He committed no sin throughout the whole of his life on the earth. And he was able to offer himself as an acceptable sacrifice, as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, in order to make us right with God. From Leviticus 22, we’re reminded that only a perfect sacrifice, free from blemish, was acceptable to God. And Jesus Christ offered himself as that perfect sacrifice; and through faith in him we’re pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight for ever and for ever.
And so, we must always trust in him and in him alone for peace with God. And we must praise God continually for Christ our Great High Priest and for his perfect sacrifice to take away our sins. And we too must seek to live holy lives, so that we will not profane our Father’s name, but will honour him in all we do and say.