Who Cares about Leviticus?
by Katherine Britton
“You are to be holy to me, because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” – Leviticus 20:26
Like most evangelicals, I haven’t devoted much time to parsing Leviticus. After all, we live under the new covenant ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection, and we’re Gentiles to boot. Leviticus was written for a particular people at a particular time, and vast sections of the book have been demoted to historical curiosities at this point. The fledgling kingdom of Israel – really, a collection of tribes that had more in common with their pagan neighbors than today’s Christian enclave – were on the other side of history’s turning point. For this emerging nation the Lord dictated incredibly detailed ceremonial law that has since passed away, as we have a new and perfect high priest.
Still, the apostle Paul insists that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:15). Remember, this is Paul speaking, the same apostle who vilified the Judaizers for insisting the law must be upheld in its minutae to achieve salvation, and who wrote that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” The resolution of the paradox might be a bit more apparent through the example of Park Street Church in Boston.
Pastor Daniel Harrell convinced 19 members of his congregation to join him in an experiment in “living Levitically,” despite the drastic changes they had to make in their daily living. The group grew out their beards, kept kosher, cleaned their homes meticulously, observed the Sabbath, and even stopped wearing clothes made from blended materials. One of the few exceptions to the experiment was animal sacrifice, as the group intended not to break any U.S. laws while observing the ceremonial ones.
The group found it absolutely impossible to obey every tenet. But the Park Street Church says that wasn’t the point. Seeing firsthand that they couldn’t perfectly fulfill the law, they realized the need for grace in a whole new way. As Romans 5:20 explains it, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
Could it be that, in ignoring Leviticus as a whole, we forget how awesome grace is? True, not every ceremonial law (washing your feet? Wearing blended materials?) is also a moral law. But God still told the Israelites to keep it as his law. Reading about the church’s example reminded me of a couple things:
First, God’s people are supposed to be set apart. The Israelites were supposed to look different, act different, worship different, and spend their time in different ways than the nations around them. It was an integral part of their calling as God’s people. The manifestations aren’t quite the same, but Christians have the same calling today.
Second, we aren’t set apart enough. As Park Street Church rediscovered, the law points out our insufficiencies. Even if the law were just a set of external rules, we still couldn’t keep them perfectly. We just can’t measure up to following the law or Christ’s example.
Third, only in Christ can we find rest from the law and a new identity that really sets us apart. The writer of Hebrews notes that the law is “only a shadow of the good things that are coming.” And yes, the law is a good thing – it makes us realize how much Christ had to atone for on our behalf. Not only that, God has adopted us as sons and daughters through Christ to really set us apart. And then he gives us the grace to live it. Sure, we’ll still fall, and that will remind us to run to grace. But the power of the law is gone through Christ.
Intersecting Faith & Life: This week, take time to read Hebrews 10 Notice how beautifully Christ not only supersedes the law, but fulfills all of its demands. That ought to inspire the worship that God desires more than the Israelites’ burnt offerings.