Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place? That’s what the book of Leviticus is about. The book of Exodus ended with the construction of the Tabernacle. Then the glory-cloud of the Lord — which signified the Lord’s presence — 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 God had dwelt for a time on Mount Sinai, and his people were camped around him at the base of the mountain, so now the Lord was going to dwell in the Tabernacle with his people camped around him.
But since God is holy, holy, holy, how can his chosen, but sinful people dwell in his midst? How can they hope to live in his presence; and how can they ever hope to come before him in worship? In Leviticus 10 we read how two of Aaron’s sons were killed when they came before the Lord in the wrong way. Fire came out of the presence of the Lord and destroyed them. In that case, how can any of them hope to live in the presence of the Lord and come before him in worship? Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place?
In the book of Leviticus the Lord revealed to his people that he was able to provide a way for his chosen, but sinful people to dwell with him. He was able to provide them with a way to come into his holy presence. And so, what they needed, first of all, were the right sacrifices. And in chapters 1 to 7, the Lord described the sacrifices they were to bring before him.
Then they also needed a priest, and in chapter 8 we read about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests; and in chapter 9 we read how the priests began their work; and in chapter 10, we have the account of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who were priests, but who appeared before the Lord with the wrong kind of offering. So, the point is clear: they need a priest and the right kind of sacrifice. And, of course, we’ve seen how those two things point forward to the person and work of Christ, who is our Great High Priest and who offered up himself as the perfect sacrifice to take away our sins and to make peace with God on our behalf.
Then in chapters 11 to 16 there were lots of rules about ceremonial cleanliness and how the people need to wash themselves if they became ceremonially unclean; and how on the Great Day of Atonement sacrifices had to be offered and blood had to be shed to cleanse the Tabernacle and the people from the guilt of their sins which was like a stain which covered them and which covered the Tabernacle. And the Lord gave his people all of those rules to teach his people in every generation how we need to be cleansed from the guilt of our sins if we hope to come before him with confidence and without fear. And the only way to be cleansed from the guilt of our sins is by trusting in Christ whose blood was shed to cleanse us from our sin forever.
And from chapter 17 onwards we have what are known as the Laws of Holiness: all kinds of rules and regulations about how the Israelites were to live holy lives before the Lord. Instead of doing what their pagan neighbours did, they were to live a different kind of life. So, there were rules for all the people; and there were rules for the priests in particular.
And in chapter 23 — which we looked at last week — there were rules about the religious festivals they were to keep. And do you remember? There were seven in total: the weekly Sabbath; the Passover; the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost; the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement; and the Feast of Booths. And each one of those festivals, as well as each of the other rules and regulations in the Laws of Holiness point forward in one way or another either to the gospel of Jesus Christ which we’re to believe or to how we’re to live as God’s people who have believed the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although the book of Leviticus contains lots of rules and regulations and ceremonies and festivals which seem strange to us, nevertheless by means of this book, the Lord was revealing to his people in every generation the good news of the gospel and how — through the work of Christ our Saviour — God’s chosen, but sinful people can come before him in worship in this life; and we can look forward to coming into his presence in the new heaven and the new earth to be with him for ever in the life to come. Though we’re sinners who deserve to be sent out of the presence of the Lord and condemned forever because of our sins, we can look forward with hope to ascending the hill of the Lord and standing in his presence forever, because Christ our Great Redeemer has opened the way for us.
We come today to chapter 24 which can be divided neatly into two parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 9 we have instructions about the oil required for the lights on the lampstand which was kept in the Tabernacle; and we also have instruction about the bread which they had to leave out on the table which was kept in the Tabernacle. Secondly, in verses 10 to 23 there’s an account of what the Lord commanded them to do with a man who blasphemed the name of the Lord. Let’s look at those two parts now.
We read in verses 1 to 9 how the Lord instructed the Israelites to bring clear oil of pressed olives so that the lamps may be kept burning continually. They had to bring clear oil because only the best will do; clear oil would burn brightly and without giving off much smoke. When the Lord refers here to the lamps, he’s referring to the seven lamps on the lampstand which was kept in the Holy Place. The Holy Place — you might remember — was separated from the Most Holy Place — containin the ark of the covenant — by a curtain, which is referred to in verse 3 as the curtain of the Testimony. You’ll also see that Aaron was to tend the lamps from evening to morning, to ensure that the lamps remained lit throughout the night. It’s not clear, but it seems likely that the lights were kept lit during the night only and there was no need to keep them burning during the day.
The construction of this lampstand is described in Exodus 25 which we looked at when we went through the book of Exodus on Sunday evenings. It was made of pure gold and was designed to look like an almond tree, with six branches extending from the main trunk, each decorated with cups which would hold the oil and which were designed to look like flowers. Since there was one cup on each of the six branches and an additional cup at the end of the main trunk, then there were seven lights altogether.
Some commentators think that the lampstand with its seven lights represent the lights in the sky and it was a reminder to the people that the Lord is the one who made all things including the heavens above and the lights in the sky. Furthermore the Lord is also the one who led his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness by means of the pillar of fire. It therefore points forward to Jesus Christ who is the Light of the World who is able to lead us all the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life. Moreover, since the lampstand looked like a tree, it’s a reminder of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and to the promise of eternal life, which Adam forfeited because of his sin, but which we receive through faith in Jesus Christ. However another interesting suggestion is that the lights of the lampstand symbolise the blessing of God. Think of the Aaronic Blessing which we find in Numbers 6:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord…?
What comes next?
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.
We’re to think of God’s face shining on his people to bless them. And God’s shining face is symbolised by the lamps on the lampstand. And the significance of that is seen when we consider what comes next in Leviticus 24.
Bread of Presence
What comes next are the instructions about the bread they needed to bring into the Tabernacle. We read in verse 5 that they were to take fine flour — again only the best will do — and make twelve loaves of bread to be set in two rows of six loaves on the gold table which was kept in the Holy Place. As well as the bread, they were to add incense which was offered to the Lord by fire. You’ll see from verse 8 that fresh bread was to be set out every Sabbath as a sign of the covenant. In other words, it was a continual reminder of God’s covenant with his people by which he promised to be their God and to take them as his people. And at the end of the week, Aaron and his sons could take the bread and eat it themselves. But since it was holy, they had to eat it in a holy place.
Once again, there are instructions about the construction of the table in Exodus 25. In that place we’re told that the bread was known as the Bread of the Presence. There are two main interpretations to explain the purpose of this bread. One is that the loaves were gifts which the Israelites were to present to the Lord as a sign of their gratitude to him. So, the way we might bring a gift to a friend whenever we visit, the Israelites were to bring a gift to the Lord. And since the bread was to be there ‘at all times’, it was a sign of how our thanks and praise should be never-ending.
However, I prefer the second interpretation. The Tabernacle was God’s dwelling place, his home. And when anyone went into God’s house, they would find the table set, with food laid out on it, because the Lord was always ready and willing to enjoy fellowship with his people. Since there were twelve tribes of Israel, there had to be twelve loaves of bread to show that the Lord was willing to have fellowship with all of his people; none were excluded. And so, the name ‘Bread of the Presence’ was fitting because the bread signified God’s presence with his people.
The bread on the table represents God’s presence with his people and his willingness to enjoy fellowship with them. And so, of course, it points forward to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, when all of God’s people are invited by God to gather around the table of the Lord and to enjoy a meal in his presence and where we remember all that he has done for us to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us into his presence in the life to come. And so, the Bread of the Presence also points beyond the sacrament to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, which all of God’s people will enjoy in the life to come.
But if we combine the Bread of the Presence with the lampstand what do we get? The twelve loaves of bread represent God’s people. And above the twelve loaves is the lampstand which is shining down on the bread. And so, it’s a picture of how God’s face shines on his people who have gathered in his presence.
Though we deserve to be sent away from God’s presence because we’re sinners, nevertheless God has provided a way for his chosen, but sinful people to come before him and to remain with him for ever and ever. He has provided us with the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice to deal with our sins forever so that we can come before the Lord today with confidence to worship him and to pray to him; and we can look forward to coming before the Lord in the new heaven and earth to be with him for ever. In the book of Revelation we’re told that in the new creation, we will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give us light and he will shine on us forever with the light of his countenance, for we have been reconciled to him forever through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
So once again we see how these instructions were given by God to reveal to his people the good news of the gospel and the great hope God has given to his believing people of everlasting life in his glorious presence, a hope we do not deserve, but which he has freely given to us.
But then we come to verses 10 to 23 and the story of the man who blasphemed the name of the Lord. And the commentators are puzzled as to why this story appears here. One suggestion is that this incident occurred just as Moses was reading out God’s instructions to the people. So, just as Moses was reading to them about the lampstand and the bread, they were interrupted by this fight which broke out. However, it seems more likely to me that this story is recorded here to show the Israelites that not only must they obey the Lord in the Tabernacle, but they’re to obey him at all other times. They’re not only to honour him when they come for worship, but they’re to honour him continually.
So, we read how this man — whose mother was an Israelite, but whose father was an Egyptian — got into a fight with an Israelite. In the course of the fight, the man blasphemed the name of the Lord with a curse. In other words, he cursed the Lord. Those who heard him brought him to Moses to see what should be done. And you’ll see from verse 12 that they put him in custody until God’s will became clear to them.
And in verses 13 and 14 the Lord made clear his will: the man must be taken out of the camp; they should then lay their hands on him; and then everyone should stone him.
And in the following verses the Lord set down some principles for them to follow. If anyone curses God, he will be held responsible and will be stoned to death. If anyone takes the life of another human, he must be put to death. Whoever kills another person’s animal must make restitution. And when anyone injures his neighbour, what he has done to his neighbour must be done to him in return: so, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Now, there’s no evidence that this principle was followed literally, but it was intended to make the point that the punishment must fit the crime. When punishing someone, the punishment must not be too lenient or, more importantly, too severe. And these laws applied to everyone: to the Israelites and to any aliens living among them.
And so, in the final verse we read how the blasphemer was taken out of the camp and stoned by the people. The Israelites did what the Lord commanded.
So, what’s the point of this story? It was to show the Israelites that not only must they obey the Lord in the Tabernacle, but they’re to obey him at all other times. Because the Lord is holy, they must worship him in the right way. So, they’re to set up the Tabernacle in the right way and make sure the lampstand is burning and that there’s bread on the table. They must worship him in the right way. But because the Lord is holy, they must regard him as holy at all times and be careful to obey him on all occasions.
In our daily lives, in the things we do and say, in the way we treat one another, in the way we treat one another’s property, we’re to be careful to do the will of the Lord and to keep ourselves from sinning against him. God’s name is holy; he is holy; and so God’s people must be careful not to dishonour him by the things we say and do; instead, by the things we say and do, we’re to honour him and show the world that we love him and fear him. In other words, we’re to be careful to honour him not just in church on Sundays, but wherever we are throughout the rest of the week. We’re to honour him in church; and we’re to honour him out in the world.
But since we’re sinners who sin against the Lord continually and because we’re sinners who dishonour him continually, we’re to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ our Saviour, because he took upon himself the guilt of our sin and suffered in our place the punishment we deserve for all those times when we have dishonoured the Lord. There’s not one of us who has honoured the Lord perfectly and at times; all of us have sinned as this blasphemer sinned. But the good news of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus was killed in our place; and through faith in him we receive the free gift of eternal life. And so, as we read this story of the man who was stoned to death, we must give thanks to God for Christ our Saviour who bore the punishment we deserve in our place; and we must look to God for the help of his Holy Spirit so that we will live holy lives and honour his name in all we do and say.
And before we come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we’re to confess our sins to the Lord for those times when we have offended him; and we’re to confess our sins to one another for those times when we have offended them; and we’re to forgive one another just as God in Christ has forgiven us. And as those who have been pardoned by God, and accepted by him in his Beloved Son, we can come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday with joy and gratitude for his kindness to us; and we can come with hope, as we look forward to the time when we will gather in his presence in glory, and feel the light of his countenance upon us for ever and for ever.