A sermon on Leviticus 1 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 23 May 2021
Today we are looking at the idea of sacrifice in the book of Leviticus, a theme which permeates the New Testament like incense fills a cathedral. For Jesus said,
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
And Jesus also said,
I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life for the sheep.
The apostle Paul wrote,
walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
And in Hebrews it is written,
So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
The New Testament is full of sacrificial language to explain Jesus and his cross and what it means to love and follow him. But none of them make sense without understanding sacrifice as it was originally practiced and laid out in the book of Leviticus.
Animal sacrifice, as it is practiced in many cultures, is ritualised butchering. Most of us eat meat. We buy it from the butcher or the supermarket. Some of us don’t know and don’t want to know how the meat gets there, and our modern life shelters us from the details. But ancient people did not have that luxury. They were very aware that life comes at the cost of another life.
However, most herds and flocks were kept for their by-products, not for their meat. Cattle for their milk, sheep for their wool, donkeys for their labour. Their animals, especially the breeding stock, were precious. Not one of them was wasted. I mean, you can’t afford to eat your best milkers, because soon you would have no herd and then no milk and no livelihood. It’s like burning the wood in the walls of your house to keep yourself warm and pretty soon you have no walls and no house to be warm in. So ancient people ate very little meat unless it was also sacrificed. The ritual helped them express their gratitude to God for the life that was given for their life. And it also worked the other way around too. The routine and requirement of sacrifice gave them a chance to supplement their diet with meat. In a way, their way of life was more authentic than mine. Their milk did not come in bottles and their meat came wrapped in fur, not in plastic.
Leviticus chapter 1 verse 1 begins with the words:
The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
What we find in the book of Leviticus is the law of God, delivered by the Lord to his people Israel through his prophet Moses. In these laws the principles of the ten commandments are applied in precise and practical ways. For example, in the early chapters of Leviticus the Lord institutes and regulates the practice of animal sacrifice in the tabernacle. You remember the tabernacle, the tent constructed in the book of Exodus and used as a portable temple. These rules and regulations of the worship to take place in the tabernacle were a practical application of the first two commandments.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.
But what does it mean to worship no other gods? What does it mean to not make an idol of anything in heaven or earth? Leviticus chapter 1 tells us that it includes coming to the Lord in worship at his appointed place, his tabernacle, his temple, with an offering that he has commanded, offered through his appointed priests. Anything else is presumption and idolatry.
That’s why these laws are written in the Bible. It is not for the Lord’s people to imagine what the Lord wants and to invent ways to please and impress him. What is required of them is the obedience to listen to his Word to obey his command and to bring him the worship as he has prescribed. We do not approach the Lord in any old way. We approach him in the way that he has laid out.
This worship, these offerings that the Lord commands, includes the offering of an animal from the herd or the flock. This is later clarified to mean the animals that the Israelites were allowed to eat. The so-called clean animals: cattle, sheep, goats, doves, pigeons. Not their camels that they were allowed to ride. Not their donkeys that were allowed to carry their loads. But their food. Their life. In many of the sacrifices parts of the animal were set aside for the priests to eat. In other sacrifices parts of the animal were given back to the offeror to eat. But in the burnt offering the whole animal was given to the Lord. They are to present to the Lord the life that he has given to them.
Verse 3 says,
If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect.
The burnt offering was to be a male, a bull, a ram or a billy goat. Of course, half the animals born would have been males. But anyone who knows anything about agriculture will know that to breed animals you don’t need as many males as females. You want every female and from every female it would be great to have a baby or two each year. That’s your breeding stock, your livelihood, your core business as a farmer. But to service all those cows and ewes and nanny goats, and to conceive the next generation, you don’t need all the males that have been born. Maybe only one for every five or ten females.
So most of the males born were surplus, more than necessary, and from this surplus the Israelites were to bring their whole burnt offerings. So that these burnt offerings, which were given wholly to the Lord, in which none of the meat was retained for the priests or for the offeror, was not demanded by the Lord at the expense of the breeding stock. He commanded them to bring their food. He commanded them to give a life. But not at the cost of their livelihood. Instead it came from their surplus, from the animals they could spare.
It reminds us that the Lord is the life-giver, not the life-taker, that the Lord commands from us what is good for us not what is bad for us, that his will does not leave us empty but it fills us, and that he asks no more from us than what he has given.
The animal, however, is to be without defect. Although it may come from the surplus, it is still comes at a cost. It isn’t one of the diseased or lame stock that they were going to get rid of anyway, but it comes from the males that a wise farmer might like to have kept. The sacrifice represents the breeders best efforts. It is an example of excellence, not of life’s unfortunate mistakes. It reminds us that although the Lord requires our surplus, that although he does not wish to consume us in our giving, he doesn’t want our rubbish, or our hand me downs. The Lord isn’t a recycling centre who gives us 5 cents for every empty bottle. He wants our best efforts. He wants our commitment to excellence. As King David said in 2 Samuel chapter 24,
I will not bring to the Lord burnt offerings that cost me nothing.
Verse 4 says
[that the worshiper] is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.
In this simple but formal and profound way the worshiper signifies that the animal stands in his place. He is giving a life, a bull, a ram, in the place of his own life. By his own sins, the worshiper has chosen the way of death, the way of life that harms life, that turns its back on his creator’s purpose for his life. His life is forfeit before the holy God. So how can unholy human beings stand before the holy Lord and live? How can they worship and survive the experience? At the cost of another life, for life comes at the cost of life.
He comes to the Lord with the sacrifice commanded by the Lord and in this way, he makes atonement for himself. For by our sins we not only bring harm upon ourselves, but we offend the holy Lord. If I borrowed your car and had an accident by speeding or driving carelessly, I haven’t just incurred a cost on you to get your car fixed that I should pay instead of you, but I have harmed our friendship. I have offended you. If the accident wasn’t my fault, common decency would still expect me to apologise. But what can I do, what can I give, to mend the friendship that was harmed by my own stupid fault? It will require more than an apology to heal the breach in our relationship.
But what then can we do, what can we give, to mend the relationship with our creator when we have offended him by our own stupid fault? How can we atone for our sins? What will bring us atonement? What will make the divided two into one united whole.
Leviticus chapter 1 reminds us that what is required is the offering that the Lord has commanded. With it the sinful worshiper can stand before his holy creator, and live. He can worship and survive the experience.
Verse 5 says that the worshiper himself slaughters the bull. He does not outsource that work to a slaughterman or butcher but takes responsibility for it himself. The blood is then sprinkled against the altar to testify that the life has been taken. The innards and legs are washed of all impurities reminding us that what we are dealing with here is food. It is not fit for the Lord if it is not fit for ourselves.
And lastly in this chapter there are concessions for those who are poor. Those who cannot give a bull, may give a ram. Those who cannot give a ram may give a bird. For the Lord wants what we can give, not what we can’t give, from what we have, not from what we do not have.
So far, so good. However, if we simply apply all these good and wise principles to our own worship, to the offerings that we bring to the Lord, then we have not properly listened to the Word of God. We have only paddled in the shallow waters of the truth, but to truly learn from God we must wade out deeper. For the New Testaments problem with animal sacrifice is that they had to be offered day after day by priests who grew old and died and were replaced by their sons. Meaning that whatever the animal sacrifices provided was only temporary and partial, like washing a car that was only going to get dirty again. But what was really needed to bring us lasting atonement with our creator was a sacrifice that could be offered once for all time and for all people. For the sacrifice that the Lord requires is ultimately not the one that we offer him, but it is the one that he provides.
For it is Jesus whose life and death, whose actions and choices, perfectly fulfil the meaning of sacrifice and brings us the atonement that we need before our creator. Not a bull or a ram, but a man, a human being like us. Nor offered day after day in an earthly tent, but once for all, opening the way to heaven. Pure and without defect or sin of his own giving himself wholly to his Father’s will. Not a passive victim of forces beyond his control, but an active participant in surrendering himself.
Because it is his offering of his life on the cross that both spares us the death that our sins have brought upon us and takes away the offense that our sins have caused to our creator. That brings us forgiveness and peace with God. As Hebrews 9 says
Just as human beings are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.
For we will die one day and have to give an account of our life. But Jesus took our sin and put it to death in his body. Jesus did not waste his life in a meaningless protest that achieves nothing, but motivated by love he suffered our death in order to bring us life. So that in a wonderful transference, our sins become his and his righteousness becomes ours.
It is not for us to imagine what God wants from us. It is not for us to invent ways of pleasing and impressing him. But what is required of us is to come to him in the way that he commands. And through his Son Jesus Christ, God announces that the time has come and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. So that as the worshipper in Leviticus placed his hands upon the animals head, so in the act of repentance and faith we take responsibility for our sins and trust completely in Jesus for their removal.
What this means, of course, is that it is only because of his sacrifice for us that we can walk in Jesus’ example and live a sacrificial life. A life that is not wasted, but that is given in the service of God and of others. A life that costs us without consuming us. A life that does not empty us but leaves us full. A life that demands of us what we have, not what we do not have. A life that blesses others in proportion to the way that the Lord has blessed us. Like a kingdom of priests, the priesthood of all believers, living a pure and undefiled life that pleases God. For life comes at the cost of life, and our eternal life comes at the cost of Jesus’ life. Let us give our lives to him who gave his life for us.