If ever there is a book in the Bible comparable to reading something like how to annotate references and footnotes in a paper, it would be like reading the book of Leviticus. There are a lot of rules and instruction. But by adjusting our thought process a bit to the original audience then how it applies to now, there is a discovery that morally instructs. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are basically like a constitution given by God to the first audience: the Hebrews of the exodus out of Egypt. It consists of and instructs civil, ceremonial and moral laws. This book is a manual of priestly obligations, procedures and for the rest of us, guidelines for moral living and cleanliness, not Levitical minutiae of a bygone era. After 400 years of pagan Egyptian captivity, the Israelite’s concept of God had gotten totally distorted. Granted a lot of the priestly instructions are not done today because we are not under the first covenant but the spirit of the law can be edifying for today. We are under the newer covenant of the New Testament. The references made here help the rest of the Bible make sense not to mention the explanation of symbolism today (2Tim. 3:16). The key word in this book is “Holiness” and the ways to reach a higher calling, a separateness from the world. A key verse is Lev. 11:45.
This book may be the last one in the Bible read by a Christian, but it was the first one a Jewish child read. Understanding the context of Leviticus helps me want to read it. What God does is set before the Hebrews ways to pursue holiness and lays a foundation for life. It is about obedience toward holiness and to have a better way of life. That helps make reading it more inviting and holds some universal principles for society. It’s meant to show how to live vertically (in a relationship with God) and horizontally (in relationships with each other) all the while working internally on ourselves. It is the outside of a window that would reflect on the inside of the pane. Living a life with God is not just going through the motions. It’s transformational.
To not read Leviticus invites the question of how to grasp the theological understanding of the atoning death and sacrifice of Jesus? Could I connect what the meaning was behind Jesus when he first presented Himself to John the Baptist with the latter proclaiming “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”? My working definition of the word sin is the outer symptoms of a deep virus within man that separates him from God. Jesus is the culminating consummation of the Old Testament sacrificial system, which is one of the main themes in Leviticus. Jesus is what you find when you come to the end of the Law. He fulfills every sacrificial need of First Testament law. The current society may associate these laws with are hygienic and understand about clean food and healthy ways to live. Now the uncleanliness comes not from the outside, but from the inside of Man.
Leviticus has been called the bloody book based on the explanation of all the animal sacrifices made to atone or cover a variety of different sins, different animals or other offerings and their ritual procedures depending on the sin. It is almost inconceivable to think the Israeli’s thought these sacrifices actually atoned for sins only to have to do them again, again, almost on a daily basis. It’s like the sacrifices had a short-term life expectancy on atonement. But if put into another context, the thought of the benefits to them are just as real as compared to clothing purchased on a credit card today where the account is never paid. Yet the clothing is covering us temporarily. Often times the clothing wears out before we have paid the credit purchase off.
Or as Charles Spurgeon puts it, “repentance of an evil act (a sin) and not the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing, not removing the eruption. This could be like an eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh.” Some doing the sacrifices didn’t equate it to a personal regeneration.
A gem found in Leviticus is at the address of 27:30 of this book: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord.” He asks you to offer the first fruit or the best you have. Attributed to St. Mother Teresa the following reminder is the potential outcome of our fruitfulness:
“The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.”
First fruit means to give God your very best initially. Don’t save your time talent and treasure for only when you go to church or when there is spare or discovered time during the week. The life God has given you is a gift and what you do with it is a gift back to God. We all have time, talent and treasure to give back to God and his purposes.
Giving our treasure back to God is usually understood as our tithes or financial offerings. Our time and talent (our treasured commodities) can be offered in service to humankind in the community. I like to add a fourth element to our giving and that is our testimony or witness. These gifts are not to earn His love or pay it forward as a gratuity. Nor is it an investment towards earning salvation. It’s because the world needs everyone to give back and not just be takers in life. Our spiritual endowments cannot be viable by clinging to them but instead, they are meant to be given away in the arts, hospitality, education or towards the science of wellness for others. Pastor and apologist Tim Keller differentiates it further: “Religion says ‘I obey therefore God accepts me.’ The Gospel says, ‘I am accepted by God through Christ therefore I obey.” Salvation does not result in good works instead good works come from salvation.
Once a member of my birth family asked if my volunteering in community service to ministry activities was I was trying to soothe my guilt for some wrongdoing (Mk. 6:4). I was taken aback and wondered how did the world get the meaning of altruistic service so skewed? There is a term for giving back without needing anything in return: generativity.
If not carefully presented, a message sent from the pulpit can be misunderstood and misinterpreted that God will love us if we change whereas the Gospel says God’s love changes us. This debate has been going on since the time fourth century between St. Augustine and Pelagius’ time. When is trying to help perceived as a selfish, ulterior motive other than showing Christ-like love and kindness? Some argue the modern-day quest in the world for autonomy and independence has been attributed to this outlook lacking in compassion for others.
Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep gaining what he cannot lose.” In the end, that is the final reward of life, not the public applause.
I want to mention one of the side effects of those trying to be good enough, a misguided human quest to please God by self-effort (cf. Jn. 6:29). One day, I was approached three different times by individuals asking for prayer. It was Sunday morning and I was wearing my hat as the Sunday School Superintendent. I was making supply trips back and forth to the classrooms, located across the street from the church. Two separate people walking on the sidewalk, at different times, whose destinations weren’t church. I said, “good morning” stopping just enough to make eye contact and acknowledge them. Astoundingly they each asked me to pray for them. What are the odds of that? And each said something similar along the line of “they weren’t right with the Lord” and felt He wouldn’t hear them, but they thought maybe He’d hear me (I guess because I went to church?).
Later that day, my late sister telephoned from out of state and after a bit of catching up, asked for prayer saying that she was sure God would hear me and not her! Ok so God got my attention on prayer and not doing it as much as I should for others.
I tried, in vain, to tell all of them that God isn’t waiting for them to get everything right or to be perfect. Instead, He wanted to hear from them as well, right where they are, right now. God already knows their backstory, he cares for the individual but does not care about this (remember Job or any of the less than perfect heroes he used in the Bible?). The looks I received (or silence on the other end of the telephone line) revealed their skepticism. I should have prayed for them on the spot, but I didn’t. I remember my kids were with me during the morning encounters, watching nervously. I could kick myself now because it was three strikes against me for not praying on the spot for the inquiries and not any better me not setting an example for my young ones. I did pray for them later, privately, and still do when they come to my mind and heart. But I missed a great opportunity at the moment.
I said something rather flippant about the way prayer works and that is for me to pray for someone is good but as equally important was for them to personally pray simultaneously. God wants to hear from them. Somewhere along the way confusion has set in for many about trying to be or do good enough, for God to hear us and then hopefully honor our requests. His agape love is not based on performance. Not going to Him until we get our life cleaned up imitates waiting to go to the emergency room when you stop bleeding. He loves us as we are now not some future version.
It is interesting how people view prayer, both believers and nonbelievers. There is something recognized about the specialness of prayer by people. To me, it shows the general state of a man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11). Seldom will someone turn down an offer for prayer.
If not careful, religion can seem to put too much emphasis on outward appearance, instead of what is going on in a person’s soul. Religion or church can come across as keeping rules and following rituals, instead of a relationship with God. That’s where the internal work is done. Jesus doesn’t care what condition we are in, He just wants us to come into a relationship with him. Internally things will begin to sort out as we desire to honor him.
Some consider depending on God’s response to our prayers that He can’t hear the petitions because there is so much unconfessed sin our life. (cf. Ps. 66: 16-20, Isa. 5:7). “Coram Deo,” Latin for “in the presence of God” is the idea of believers living alongside, under the authority of, honor and glory of God. This is living the indivisible whole according to Thomas Merton. Living in His presence should transcend into all parts of our life, not segued into only parts of it. It should be a vital part of our outlook, as in the constant flow of a möbius strip, never-ending. I disagree on the point of not entering prayer because of whatever our state of brokenness. His Word says “Ask, it will be given; seek, and we will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (cf. Matt. 7:7, Rev. 3:20).
The burden of our transgressions is so crushing and heavy at times that shame and guilt prevent us from feeling worthy enough to pray. Or how an over-identification with a sin and brokenness is so great; believing we are our sin (for example being an alcoholic). It has become too comfortable or familiar to let go of the brokenness.
We no longer fight but instead give in to the brokenness. We become that brokenness. It’s as if our sin has become are frenemy (friend and enemy simultaneously). If we give up that identity, turn away from it to follow the identity God’s intends for our life, where will it lead us? That uncertainty can hold people back because they think they will lose themselves in the process which couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually an identity in God makes you a better version of you.
There is a Jewish parable: each person has their troubles in a brown paper bag, they set it on the floor amongst other people’s brown bags, each filled with troubles unique to them. The option is given to take any of the bags when it’s time to leave; it doesn’t have to be the one you brought. In the end, everyone took their original brown sack they came with because as the saying goes: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. It seems better to deal with someone or a habit of familiarity, if not ideal, rather than take a risk with an unknown person or future. It is more than difficult to get out of a comfort zone even if there is little comfort in it.
Few realize how trapped we become an identity we create. I almost pigeonholed myself when I thought the two dominant roles of my life as wife and mother were gone or diminished consequently I forgot there was more to me than that. Leo Tolstoy paraphrasing Mark 10:27 wrote: “Once we’ve thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.”
“The Beggars’ Rags”, a eulogy I read at a close family member’s memorial tells a similar narrative:
A beggar lived near the king’s palace. One day he saw a proclamation posted outside the palace gate. The king was giving a great dinner. Anyone dressed in royal garments was invited to the party
The beggar went on his way. He looked at the rags he was wearing and sighed. Surely only kings and their families wore royal robes, he thought. Slowly an idea crept into his mind. The audacity of it made him tremble. Would he dare?
He made his way back to the palace. He approached the guard at the gate. “Please, sire, I would like to speak to the king.”
“Wait here,” the guard replied. In a few minutes, he was back. “His Majesty will see you,” he said and led the beggar in.
“You wish to see me?” asked the king. “Yes, your majesty. I want so much to attend the banquet, but I have no royal robes to wear. Please, sir, if I may be so bold, may I have one of your old garments so that I, too, may come to the banquet?”
The beggar shook so hard that he could not see the faint smile that was on the king’s face. “You have been wise in coming to me,” the King said. He called to his son, the young prince. “Take this man to your room and array him in some of your clothes.”
The prince did as he was told and soon the beggar was standing before a mirror, clothed in garments that he had never dared hope for. “You are now eligible to attend the king’s banquet tomorrow night,” said the prince. “But even more important, you will never need any other clothes. These garments will last forever.”
The beggar dropped to his knees. “Oh, thank you,” he cried.
But as he started to leave, he looked back at his pile of dirty rags on the floor. He hesitated. What if the prince was wrong? What if he would need his old clothes again? Quickly he gathered them up.
The banquet was far greater than he had ever imagined, but he could not enjoy himself as he should. He had made a small bundle of his old rags, and it kept falling off his lap. The food was passed quickly, and the beggar missed some of the greatest delicacies.
Time proved that the prince was right. The clothes lasted forever. Still, the poor beggar grew fonder and fonder of his old rags. As time passed, to him it seemed people forgot who he was now overlooking the royal robes he was wearing. He thought they saw only the little bundle of filthy rags that he clung to wherever he went. They spoke of him as the old man with the rags.
One day as he lay dying, the king visited him. The beggar saw the sad look on the king’s face when he looked at the bundle of rags by the bed. Suddenly the beggar remembered the prince’s words and he realized that his bundle of rags had cost him a lifetime of true royalty. He wept bitterly at his folly.
The king wept with him.
*graphic is from the Bible Project