Finding Grace in Leviticus

February 10, 2017

Many a determined Bible reader has met their match in Leviticus. In January, the goal of reading the Bible in a year may have been fresh and exciting, but after pressing on through all the details of the tabernacle in the second half of Exodus, Leviticus seems to be too much. Animal sacrifices, skin diseases, kosher foods, and mold—these laws just seem kind of weird to us.

Leviticus, though, is about life. God had just delivered Israel from her slavery in Egypt. He had brought her through the Red Sea and now to Mount Sinai. This was all great news. However, there was also a troubling aspect to this deliverance. Israel had known how to live in the presence of the Egyptians, but now she had to live in the presence of God.

Leviticus, then, is about this life with God. How can a sinful and impure people possibly survive in the presence of a holy God? Thankfully, Israel’s God is not capricious and unpredictable like the Canaanite gods. Israel’s God provides a way for them to live in the presence of the Most Holy God without being consumed. This is an amazing grace, and the rituals, priesthood, and purity laws of Leviticus all help parse out God’s graciousness in directing Israel how to live with him.

While it’s pretty easy to miss the exegetical forest for the trees, one underlying theme of the book is that the holiness that God demands will impact every aspect of Israel’s life. Israel’s religion was not just bedtime prayers and being nice on the playground; the presence of God demanded that Israel’s entire life and society would be structured differently than her Canaanite neighbors. God desired a distinct witness in every sphere of Israel’s life. Indeed, before there was Abraham Kuyper, there was Leviticus.

If Israel would obey God in this calling to be a faithful and distinct people, she would enjoy blessings in God’s land. However, if she would disobey and act like all the other nations, she would be expelled from the land and sent into exile in the land of her enemies.

Spoiler alert! Israel fails. She doesn’t give the land the sabbatical rests to which it is entitled every seven years (Lev 25:1-7); instead, she structures her economy in a way that exploits both the land and the poor. She lets her religious offerings devolve into meaningless ritual, and the hearts of the people chase after other gods. She ignores the way God has provided to live in his presence, and so God sends Israel into exile.

We know this is how the story will go, and it seems that God did, too. In Leviticus, at Mount Sinai, before the Israelites have even entered into the land of Canaan, God anticipates Israel’s failure in the land she has not yet even entered, and so God provides a way back for the people after exile.

And the way back is simple. There, in the land of exile, “If they will confess their sins […], I will remember my covenant (vv. 40, 42). After twenty-five chapters of laws, it doesn’t seem that the solution could possibly be as basic as repentance—Israel confessing her sin and turning her heart back towards God.

Nevertheless, repentance is the way back to God. Perhaps it was a second-century Christian who put it best in The Shepherd: “Repentance is great understanding.” Repentance is insight into who we really are, and who God is.

Repentance is acknowledging that, like Israel, we are not actually very good at all-of-life discipleship. Our coffee may be fairly traded, but our blue jeans aren’t. We yell at our kids and our spouses; we grumble about our politicians instead of praying for them; and at church our minds wander rather than worship. Like Israel, we fail in every part of our lives, and repentance means acknowledging those failings.

Perhaps even more, though, repentance is great understanding about who God is. God is the God of Grace who tells us how to live in his presence; then, even knowing that we will fail, God’s love endures, and God provides a way back for us even beyond the exile. But there’s more. In one of the greatest plot twists in the greatest story ever told, God himself endures our curse, the curse of exile on the cross, that we might once again live in the presence of the Lord and live in the restored land, the new heavens and the new earth.

Forging through the Levitical laws is not for the faint of heart. In the end, it’s for the humbled heart—for our humbled hearts that recognize both our failures and our God whose grace abounds beyond the curse.

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