The third book of the Pentateuch is one often ignored and overlooked by Christians, but it is an important part of God’s revelation to us. Jesus for example directly quotes from it (Mark 12:31 – Lev. 19:18), and various New Testament books, such as Hebrews and James, refer to it often.
Thus it is vital that Christians become familiar with it. However, today’s watered-down version of Christianity is not very enamoured with or happy with the heady material found in this book. As Roy Gane puts it:
Leviticus is not welcome in an environment of feel-good, self-help, “cafeteria-style” religion. Nor are other parts of the Bible. George Barna explains why not: “In the last quarter-century it seems that we have learned how to sell Bibles but not how to sell what’s in the Bible. Increasingly, people pick and choose the Bible content they like or feel comfortable with, but ignore the rest of God’s counsel. This tendency seems especially prolific among young adults and teenagers. What can we do to elevate the prominence, credibility, and perceived value of God’s Word in the eyes of a fickle and distracted public?”
But back to the book. The name itself comes from the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, referring to the priestly nature of the book. The priests of Israel came from members of the tribe of Levi. While the book indeed does offer us a priestly manual of instruction, there is much written to the people of Israel here as well.
It of course contains plenty of laws, but it is also narrative. It continues from what was left off in Exodus 40: the setting up of the tabernacle. Lev. 1 discusses the burnt offerings to be presented in the tent of meeting. So we have one lengthy narrative from Genesis through to the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy.
Various major themes are found here. One would be the presence of God with his people. But holiness is certainly a central theme – if not the central theme – of this book, especially found in Lev. 17-26, in what is referred to as the Holiness Code. Allen Ross for example titles his commentary, Holiness to the Lord.
As John Hartley says, “In Leviticus Yahweh makes himself known to Israel as their holy God. Holiness is not one attribute of Yahweh’s among others; rather it is the quintessential nature of Yahweh as God. This is supported by the declaration that his name is holy (20:3; 22:32).”
Or as Michael McKelvey put it:
The holiness of God constitutes the central theme in the book of Leviticus, which, in turn, demands the holiness of Israel. Leviticus 19:1–2 contains the thesis statement for the work: “And I the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” In fact, the holiness motif permeates the book.
Christians today of course need to hear and understand this message just as much as did the ancient Israelites. See this article of mine for more on this vital theme: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/02/leviticus-holiness-and-the-christian/
God is holy, and God’s people must be holy as well. Paul Redditt outlines the book with the following four implications of a holy God who resides amongst his people:
Lev. 1-7 The people are to worship God
Lev. 8-10 The Aaronic priests are to direct the worship
Lev. 11-16 The people are to avoid ritual impurity and make atonement when they fail
Lev. 17-26 The people are to be holy
Hubbard and Dearman offer a similar outline to the book:
Lev. 1-7 Instructions about sacrifices and offerings for God
Lev. 8-10 Report: the ordination of Aaron and his family as priests
Lev. 11-15 Instructions on “clean” and “unclean” things
Lev. 16 Instruction for Aaron on the Day of Atonement
Lev. 17-26 The detailed, comprehensive Holiness Code
While so very important for the ancient Israelites, the book speaks to us today as well. Indeed, the issues of sin, the gospel, and the work of Christ make little sense without understanding their Old Testament backdrop, including what we find in Leviticus. Let me draw upon three commentaries to more fully elaborate on this. Says Allen Ross:
For the Christian, the theology of an Old Testament passage or book is incomplete without the New Testament correlation. And the New Testament draws heavily on Leviticus. Many parts of the Gospels simply assume the reader has a knowledge of Leviticus: passages that mention purification after childbirth, washing after the healing of a leper, journeys to the feasts in Jerusalem, separation from Gentiles in eating – all show how completely Leviticus was ingrained in the thinking of the people. But beyond that, the interpretation of the person and works of Jesus the Messiah in books like Romans, Hebrews, and the Petrine Epistles shows that the foundation of the gospel is here in the book of Leviticus.
Or as Derek Tidball puts it:
The gospel, which presumes a knowledge of sacrifice and atonement, of law and grace, of sin and obedience, of defilement and cleansing, of priesthood and temple curtains, makes little sense without it. Leviticus serves as a preliminary sketch of the masterpiece that was to be unveiled in Christ. The fullest exposition of the relationship between Leviticus and the gospel, of course, is to be found in the letter to the Hebrews. Leviticus forms a foundation not only for the gospel but for Christian living. While the New Testament draws up new maps to guide the moral and spiritual life of the Christian, it does so by making use of the earlier charts of Leviticus. Particular applications may have changed, but the guiding ethical principles remain as firm as ever. Without Leviticus our Christian experience would be a house without a foundation.
Finally, as Mark Rooker comments:
The Law, holiness, the sacrifices, the tabernacle—all the essential elements of Leviticus—find their meaning in Christ, who uniquely fulfilled the law, lived a perfect, sinless life, died as a sacrifice for sins, and was the presence of God incarnate. These themes are like streams that flow through biblical history as well as through the rest of the pages of Scripture until they converge in the person of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Thus Leviticus, like the Bible as a whole, is about the person and work of Jesus Christ and finds its ultimate meaning in him. To ignore this section of the Word of God is to diminish our understanding of the long-anticipated one who has now brought us our great salvation!
Leviticus expository and devotional commentaries
Mathews, Kenneth, Leviticus (PTW, 2009)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Holy (David C. Cook, 2003)
Leviticus critical commentaries
Bellinger, W. H., Leviticus, Numbers (UBC, 2001, 2012)
Gane, Roy, Leviticus, Numbers (NIVAC, 2004)
Harrison, R. K., Leviticus (TOTC, 1980)
Hartley, John, Leviticus (WBC, 1992)
Hess, Richard, Leviticus (EBC rev., 2008)
Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi, Leviticus (AOTC, 2007)
Radner, Ephraim, Leviticus (BTCB, 2008)
Rooker, Mark, Leviticus (NAC, 2000)
Ross, Allen, Holiness to the Lord (Baker, 2002)
Sklar, Jay, Leviticus (TOTC, 2013)
Tidball, Derek, The Message of Leviticus (BST, 2005)
Wenham, Gordan, Leviticus (NICOT, 1979)
My preferred recommendations might be Hartley, Rooker, Ross, Sklar and Wenham.
Happy studying and reading.