Keys to Teaching Christ in Leviticus
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
We struggle with the book of Leviticus perhaps more than any other book of the Bible. Or perhaps we simply ignore it more than any other book. This is partly because the ritual and sacrificial system that Leviticus establishes feels so irrelevant to us today. Indeed, the letter to the Hebrews says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). So why study, much less teach or preach about a system that is obsolete, growing old and has vanished away?
This book more than any other in the Old Testament shaped the religious life of the people of Israel. Sin was a huge barrier from coming into God’s presence, but the sacrificial system made a way for them to be forgiven and cleansed. This provides the backdrop for our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice. We were unable to enter into God’s presence because of our sin, yet Christ, through sacrificing himself, has cleansed us and brought us into God’s presence.
One way of showing Christ in Leviticus is to read it though the lens of Hebrews, which never quotes Leviticus though it depends heavily on it. Hebrews tells us that “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he has opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Heb 10:19-20). This language can only be understood in light of the rituals of Leviticus. Hebrews 9-10 in particular are basically commentary on how the book of Leviticus is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is both our high priest and our sacrificial lamb.
Here are some other observations and suggestions for preaching or teaching Christ from the book of Leviticus.
The priest makes atonement. Leviticus 1-7 explains the various sacrifices that are to be offered, and the outcome of these sacrifices is nearly formulaic: “The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven” (this comments occurs ten times: 4:20; 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7). The connection is obvious to the work of Christ as our high priest, bringing propitiation and forgiveness for the sins of his people (Rom 3:25; Eph 1:7).
The call to holiness (11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 26; cf. 1 Pet 1:16, Matt 5:48). “Be holy, for I am holy.” God expects his people to be set apart for himself, with pure lives and devoted hearts. The secondary meaning of holy is intended here, holiness as moral purity (as is evident in Peter’s exhortation to holy, obedient living in 1 Pet 1:16). This call to holiness throughout Leviticus is then fulfilled in the holiness of Christ, who alone demonstrates perfect holiness, or righteousness. And at the same time, Christ imputes his righteousness to his people. In this sense also, Christ proves himself superior to the Levitical sacrificial system. That system was meant to deal with sin, but it was ineffective to bring about the holiness that it demanded (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:1). Christ both negatively deals with sin and positively makes his people righteous.
Love your neighbor (19:17-18). Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” This verse shows us that God intended the religious life of Israel to be a religion of the heart, not merely an external religion. At the same time, Jesus explains a fuller meaning to this passage when he says, “But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). The teaching of Jesus helps us understand how to interpret and apply the law in general and this is an excellent example of that. The principle that undergirds Jesus’ teaching is found in Matt 5:17, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” Thus, Lev 19:17-18 finds fulfillment in the teaching of Jesus, and then finds fulfillment also in his death, the ultimate example of loving one’s enemies.
God dwells among his people. (Lev 26:11-12; cf. 2 Cor 6:16). “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you.  And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” God insists on his desires to dwell among his people. This commitment comes to full expression in Jesus, who is called Emmanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23; cf. John 1:14-18). This also points ahead to the day when God will dwell among his people in fullness. All who are in Christ will enjoy the immediate presence of God in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21-22).
Jesus is the final sacrifice for sins. There would be no Leviticus if there were no sin. The priestly and sacrificial system established in Leviticus has one purpose: to bring people to God by dealing with sin (cf. Heb. 5:1). “Sin” occurs 82 times in Leviticus and it is the primary reason the sacrifices are required. For sin to be dealt with (cleansed, forgiven, atoned), there had to be a sacrifice. Yet the sacrifices of Leviticus were inadequate to fully address the guilt of sin. Hebrews 10:3-4, “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (referring specifically to the Day of Atonement). But Jesus offered himself as a full and final sacrifice to deal with sins. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12).
Jesus is the priest who brings more than atonement. By offering the sacrifices, the priests brought atonement to the people. The word atonement (kaphar) occurs 46 times in Leviticus, and it means to cover, in the sense of removing or doing away with the sin. The effect of the various offerings is that they “make atonement” for sin. But the word atonement—as central as it was to the purpose of sacrifices—never occurs (not even once) in the New Testament. In fact, even the Greek translation of kaphar, which is exhilaskomai, is not used (not even once) in the New Testament. Why does “atonement” vanish when we come to the New Testament? This must be because the NT authors believed there were better, more specific words to describe the better sacrifice that Jesus offered. Jesus brings more than atonement (covering over sin). He brings redemption (Eph. 1:7), propitiation (Rom 3:25), reconciliation (Rom 5:10; Eph 2:16), purification (Heb. 1:3), removal of sins (Heb 10:4, 11), justification (Rom 5:9), and salvation (Matt 1:21).
The blood of Jesus brings the purity God demands. Lev 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Hebrews 9:22, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (note also the repeated connection between atonement and forgiveness in Lev 1-7). These verses from Leviticus and Hebrews point out the necessity of blood for bringing cleansing and forgiveness. But the sacrifices which pointed to this forgiveness were never enough. The laws of Leviticus show us those sacrifices had to be offered over and over again. “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11-12, 14).
Jesus makes us a holy dwelling place for God. There are holy things in Leviticus such as holy offerings, holy clothing, and the Holy Place. But above all, it is the people who are to be holy as a reflection of God’s character. “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy for I am holy…For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (11:44-45; cf. Rom. 12:1; Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 4:7). Holiness is one of God’s primary concerns in the laws he gives is people (“holy,” 78 times in Leviticus). The purpose of this holiness was to create a people who belong to God through the covenant, as God makes clear: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev 20:26). The greatest blessing promised for obedience is that God will dwell with them as his God, and they will belong to him: “I will make my dwelling among you and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (26:11-12). In Ephesians 2:20-22, we are told that Jesus makes us into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God.
Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus, Allen P. Ross
The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, Vern Poythress
“Suggestions for a Sermon/Teaching Series on Leviticus,” Jay Sklar
Atonement and Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris
Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms, David Hill
A preaching or teaching series through Leviticus should enrich our understanding of and appreciation for all the New Testament concepts that describe the work of Jesus (e.g. ransom, redemption, reconciliation, purification, justification, salvation, etc.). It’s not just that these terms are best understood in light of Leviticus, but rather that they can only be understood in light of Leviticus. At the same time, we are led to see how superior the work of Jesus in the new covenant is when compared with the work of the priests under the old covenant. May God be glorified as Christ is magnified in the teaching and preaching of this inspired text.