The book of Leviticus is so-called because it describes the roles of the priests and Levites, among other laws that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. Many Christians tend to skim over the book, or neglect to read it altogether because they see it as irrelevant. Practically, it is, since we now come into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ and not through keeping laws and offering sacrifices. But the book can teach us a lot about Jesus, if we will let it. Each of the different types of offerings reveal aspects about Him to us. Each of the feasts is prophetic of Him in some way. It is worth repeating Col. 2:17 – “These are a shadow of the things to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Chapters 1-7: The offerings
The book of Leviticus starts off with God’s instructions to Moses concerning the various types of offerings that were to be made in different situations. They are not all the same and the differences point to different aspects about Jesus Christ. This is not the place to go into detail, but I will give a summary.
Ch. 1 – the burnt offering. Used to symbolise one’s dedication to God. The entire animal was burned on the altar.
Ch. 2 – the grain offering. Often accompanied other offerings. Part of the offering was burned, the rest was given to the priests.
Ch. 3 – the fellowship offering. Used when someone wished to fellowship with God. Part of the offering was burned, part was given to the priests, and the rest was given to the person to eat.
Ch. 4-5:13 – the sin offering, broken down by priests, leaders, and common people. A penalty for unintentionally sinning with regards to the civil laws God had given the Israelites.
Ch. 5:14-6:7 – the guilt offering. A penalty for unintentionally sinning with regards to the ceremonial laws God had given.
In ch. 6:8-7 each of the offerings are repeated, this time dictating how the offering is to be presented by the priests. If nothing else, this section shows us that God is serious about how His people are to worship Him.
Chapters 8-10: Events concerning Aaron and his sons
In ch. 8-10 we have the only narrative section of the book. Three events are recorded: the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, where Moses made sacrifices and anointed Aaron (ch. 8), the beginning of Aaron’s ministry as high priest, where he was making sacrifices for himself and for the people (ch. 9), and the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons for offering ‘unauthorised fire’ before the Lord (ch. 10).
Chapters 11-15: Laws concerning purification
The next section of the book concerns the general topic of purification. This includes the laws concerning which animals were clean and unclean (ch. 11), purification rites after a woman gave birth (ch. 12), instructions concerning skin diseases (including leprosy) and mildew, and the purification rites associated with them (ch. 13-14), instructions concerning bodily discharges and the purification rites (ch. 15). The instructions concerning ceremonial cleansing from leprosy are interesting to consider, since leprosy was incurable at the time. These laws were written but never acted upon, until the day Jesus cleansed a leper and told him, “See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44). Leprosy is a picture of sin, from which we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
Chapter 16: The priest’s role on the Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is one of the seven annual feasts of Israel, but is arguably the most important. There are a number of aspects about the Day of Atonement that speak to us of our own atonement by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. On the Day of Atonement we see the offering of one goat and the bearing of sins on the scapegoat. The Day of Atonement was the day when the high priest atoned for the sin of the people and the nation committed over the past year. It was also the only day when he was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. These things speak to us of how Christ carried our sins upon Himself, though He was innocent, how He made a sacrifice to cleanse us from our sins once and for all, and how He entered into the presence of God (Heb. 9:12).
Chapters 17-19: Laws concerning forbidden things
In Lev. 17-19 we see a number of laws concerning things that were forbidden: eating blood (Lev. 17), forbidden sexual relations (Lev. 18), and various laws that were intended to distinguish the people of Israel from the other nations around them (Lev. 19). Although many of these are written as ‘Thou shalt not...’, we can see God’s intent behind them: to obey these laws out of our respect for God and our respect for our fellow man (the second commandment, see Lev. 19:18 and Matt. 22:35-40).
Chapter 20: Punishments
Lev. 20 gives punishments for certain sins, which for many of them was death. This is a reminder to us of Rom. 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Chapters 21-22: Laws concerning priests
In chapters 21-22 we return to laws specifically for the priests: how they were to live and conduct themselves. The Levites had been set apart for God after the events of Ex. 32. Because they had been set apart as an example to the people, and had a special role to teach the Israelites the things of God, there were additional laws that they were expected to keep, additional responsibilities, and additional blessings for obedience. This is the same for us as Christians: there are certain things that although we have liberty in Christ to engage in them, for the good of those we are setting an example for, we must set them aside. Lev. 22 specifically addresses regulations concerning the animals brought for sacrfiice. They must be without spot and without blemish – that is, without birth defects and without injuries. This is a picture of Jesus: He did not inherit Adam’s sin nature from birth, and He did not commit any sin Himself. Thus He was an acceptable sacrifice to God on our behalf.
Chapter 23: The feasts of Israel
In chapter 23 we are introduced to the seven annual feasts of Israel as directed by God: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks (also called Shavout, or Pentecost in the New Testament), Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the Feast of Tabernacles. Each of these are a remembrance of some event in Israel’s history, and each is prophetic of an event in the future. (This will be the subject of another post.)
Chapter 24: The shewbread, and a blasphemer
In the first part of chapter 24 God gives rules concerning the shewbread that was to be placed on the table in the tabernacle. In the second part we see God’s stipulations concerning a man who blasphemed God with a curse in the hearing of the people. Here we also see the introduction of the ‘eye for an eye’ law – which was not intended to be the requirement, but rather the maximum allowable penalty. In other words, the punishment had to fit the crime.
Chapter 25: The Sabbath year and the Year of Jubilee
In chapter 25 God gives instructions concerning the Sabbath year. Just as the people were to work for six days and then rest on the Sabbath day, the land was to be worked for six years and then allowed to lie fallow for the Sabbath year. God would ensure that the harvest in the sixth year was more than enough for the people to live during the Sabbath year. However, the people failed to keep this law, and God cites it as the reason why they were taken into captivity (see 2 Chr. 36:21).
In addition to the Sabbath year, every 50th year (the year after every seventh Sabbath year) was to be a Year of Jubilee. During this time all debts were to be cancelled, all slaves were to be set free, and all land was to be returned to its original owner. This speaks to us prophetically of the time when Christ will return to establish His kingdom and put everything right – as Peter calls it, “the times of restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21).
Chapter 26: Rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience
As the book of Leviticus draws to a close, God reminds the people why they should keep His laws. He promises them rewards for obedience, and punishments for disobedience. Knowing the sinful tendencies of mankind, the section on punishments is longer and more detailed than the section on rewards. This chapter reminds us that the Mosaic covenant was conditional. In Christ, we are now under the new covenant, but there are still rewards to be gained in heaven for acting in obedience with the right motives.
Chapter 27: Laws concerning redemption
The final chapter of the book concerns laws about redemption. When we read them, it may seem like a list of instructions for an accountant. These redemption laws concern the redemption of those things that were dedicated to God in a vow. God makes the provision for a person to change their mind, for instance, if they were caught up in the hype of the moment. God will not force anyone to keep a vow that was made rashly, although it is better not to make a vow at all than to go back on your word.
I hope this overview is helpful to you as you read the book of Leviticus. It is one of those books that can seem dry at times, especially if you have arrived at it after the flowing narrative of Genesis and Exodus. But if you are willing to dig a little deeper, and to ask, ‘What is this teaching me about Jesus?’ then it can become a great treasure trove of insight.