In the secrecy of our hearts, many of us may wish Leviticus were excluded from every Bible-in-a-year reading plan we might take on. It usually isn’t the book of choice when deciding where we should study in Scripture. Leviticus is 27 dense chapters of seemingly impertinent laws and rituals and unsettling descriptions of bodily diseases, at the surface at least. In my own reading, I found what little narrative is included in the book is easily confusing (and perhaps even terrifying).
Would you believe me, though, if I told you that Leviticus’ could stir the affections of your heart? That Leviticus could shape our imagination in a way would let us grab hold of the gospel? There is much more to this book than its rites, laws, and celebrations. In fact, intentionally and divinely woven into the book of Leviticus is the truth of the gospel and the work of Christ, poetically foreshadowed.
We know Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice in our place. However, when we think of his sacrifice on the cross, we often think of it in our modern terms, and we miss the depth of what this meant to ancient Israel. Every day, the Israelites watched smoke rise from the tabernacle as a burnt offering went up in flames. On top of daily, morning, and evening offerings, Israelites likewise had to bring one when they were made ritually unclean (which was often) or when they sinned. As an Israelite placed their hand on top of the beast’s head, this signified the animal taking on their punishment and dying in their place. And they were reminded periodically of their sins and desperate need of a Savior.
The burnt offering was costly, just as sin is a costly offense against God. While other offerings allowed you to eat the cooked meat, this offering was to leave nothing but ash. Furthermore, this offering had to be without blemish because it had to be free (figuratively) of the curse of sin; to pay the penalty for another’s sins, the sacrificed can’t have its own sins and curses to pay for. The payment must be perfect. However, we (and the Israelites), know that this wasn’t truly a perfect offering. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” the pastor of Hebrews wrote (Heb 10:4). He continued:
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb 8–10)
While Israel had to bring many burnt offerings, Christ’s work atoned for all of his people in his one death on the cross.
This is not the only offering that pictures the work of Christ on our behalf. The grain offering came as a necessary, “pleasing aroma” in order to be before God — yet in Christ, we have full access to God (Heb 10:19–25). In the peace offering, Israelites brought family and friends together to enjoy a sacrificial meal of celebration of what God has done. While this pictures the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, both offerings foreshadow the reality to come: the wedding feast in eternal life, which all believers will enjoy in God’s presence.
As Leviticus moves to a discussion of the tabernacle and the priesthood, we see the redemptive storyline put on display once again: We see Eden repictured in the flowers and blossoms carved into the lamps and in the cherubim sewn into the curtains guarding the entrance.
Pastor Zach Keele pointed out, in a sermon on Leviticus, how the priest’s garb poetically parallels the tabernacle itself: The tunic, made of the same material as the fence guarding the tabernacle, covered the priest’s body (the source of his sin) to guard it from the holiness of God. His sash was made of the same material as the outer gate curtains, mimicking the entry into God’s presence. This outfit alone would have communicated that even the priest wasn’t perfect enough to come before their holy God.
Priests likewise had to make offerings for themselves, showing that they were in no place to truly walk into God’s presence and make true atonement for the people before them. Their garments acted as a barrier between them and God, and as they came before his presence in the Holy of Holies, they burned incense to shield themselves further from God. The need for a greater priest was clear.
Only Christ, in his holy, sinless life, could offer himself to God to atone for our sins. He didn’t merely pass through a recreation of God’s holy presence — he stepped fully into Heaven and brought our names before the Father. Christ did not need to offer symbols of atonement because he truly atoned our sins in his own body: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb 4:14).
Sabbath and Celebration
Near the end of Leviticus, God instructs his people in the observance of the holy calendar. He reminds them of the weekly Sabbath, from which all other days are built, and he institutes the other holy days of remembrance and worship. In these days, God’s people brought the best of their crops and herds before God in offering, refrained from ordinary work, and, at times, fasted.
These days of worship were reminders of the ways God provided in the past and put them in the place to trust in him again for the future. As they refrained from work, even while the crops stood ready for harvest, they trusted that God would provide for them, as he had all the years before in the Exodus and the wilderness.
As God’s people celebrated, mourned their sins, feasted, sacrificed, and remembered, their eyes became trained forward on a better day when their Savior would give himself as the final and greatest sacrifice that would atone for his people’s sins once and for all. As they rested from their work and as they raised up the firstfruits of their harvests, they looked to the day when their Savior would rise as the firstfruits of their salvation and draw them to resurrected life and make way for them to enter God’s eternal rest.
Only a Glimpse
Leviticus is not a book of laws and rites irrelevant to us today; rather, it images a tangible way to understand the gospel.
When we pause to slow down and examine this book of the Bible, we gain a fuller picture of redemptive history and see evidence of this long-planned gift of salvation. Not every detail in Leviticus is a foreshadowing of what is to come, of course — it is still a story of ancient Israel and a window into another culture and time. Even so, we see the gospel. We see what it truly means for Jesus to die in our place, to intercede on our behalf, and what it means to look forward to our future, Sabbath rest. And we see our good works are useless in earning our salvation, and because we cannot and never could earn God’s love, we are entirely dependent upon him. Instead, our good works are a small offering of thanksgiving to God for all he’s done, and a way by which we can love our God and our neighbor.