Saturday, February 01, 2014

Leviticus 1-4 Old Testament atonement and forgiveness

From Leviticus 1-4

Leviticus begins with the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. The glory of the Lord had just filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–38) and God now tells Moses to instruct the Levitical priests and the people of Israel concerning sacrifices, worship, the priesthood, ceremonial cleanness, the Day of Atonement, feasts and holy days, and the Year of Jubilee. The central message is that God is holy and he requires his people to be holy. The book also shows that God graciously provides atonement for sin through the shedding of blood. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing sometime after the giving of the Law.

(The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Lev). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

Lev 1.1-17 Law; Instructions for burnt offerings (atonement)
Lev 2.1-16 Law; Instructions for grain offerings (memorial)
Lev 3.1-17 Law; Instructions for peace offerings
Lev 4.1-35 Law; Instructions for sin offerings (forgiveness)

Passage and Comments
The Levitical priests were trained butchers. They cut up animals. Blood poured and went everywhere. Today people are squeamish about blood. We like the taste of beef, but we normally don’t want to see cattle put to death and cut up. Cutting up and burning animals was part of Jewish life and these chapter spell out the LORD’s instructions for how this was done. Cutting up and burning animals was part of Jewish worship of God for more than a thousand years before Jesus was born.
[2] “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. (Lev 1:2)
So here we are, the LORD commands they bring one of their own livestock. An animal they have raised from birth. It will cost them to make this offering.
[3] “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. [4] He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. [5] Then he shall kill the bull before the LORD, and Aaron's sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. [6] Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, [7] and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. [8] And Aaron's sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; [9] but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Lev 1:3-9)
The burnt offering made atonement for sins. If we read later in Leviticus 4.
[20] Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. [21] And he shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly. (Lev 4:20-21)
We see atonement and forgiveness (cf. also Lev 4.26,31,35) were part and parcel of Jewish worship of God for more than a thousand years before Jesus was born. 

Story of Israel
Through Israel's history they continued to offer sacrifices to God as a form of worship. Though as we will see, at times God rejected their sacrifices. At other times the faithful recognized sacrifices were not needed, only a repentant heart (Ps 51.16-17).

Story of Jesus
Jesus obviously replaced this practice by offering himself as the sacrifice for sins. In his sacrifice there is no longer a need to sacrifice for sins. The author of Hebrews writes;
[11] And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. [12] But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, [13] waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. [14] For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb 10:11-14)
What is suggestive in this passage is that Christ’s death on the cross is the means by which sin is removed. And I don't limit this to the penalty for sin. But also the power and the presence of sin. After Jesus offered for all time a sacrifice for sins he sat down. Which means he is waiting for the effect of his sacrifice to manifest itself. In his death he delivered a death blow to sin, a chain reaction that would spell the end of sin. Through which his people benefiting from his blood spilt and death on the cross would sin no longer. They are ‘perfected for all time’ (Heb 10.14).

We must assume that God would only forgive the Old Testament offerer if he or she genuinely repented of their sin and trusted in God for forgiveness. They trusted God, that through the offering of an animal sacrifice they would be forgiven. In the light of Christ we know the animal sacrifice itself wasn’t the true means of atonement and forgiveness. Christ’s blood shedding on the cross is. But they didn’t know this and it was not necessarily a problem that they didn't know this. God still would have forgiven the Old Testament offerer who repented of sin and trusted in Him even though he was not aware that the underlying sacrifice was Christ himself.

Another observation from Leviticus to note is to reflect on what the Jewish system of atonement and forgiveness infers about the content of the gospel message. At Jesus’ time they knew God offered forgiveness of sins. This had been part of Jewish belief for more than a thousand years. Thus people in Jesus' time were not wondering how their sins could be forgiven. Consequently the gospel message is not primarily about forgiveness. It was more about the promises of God being fulfilled and Jesus being the promised Christ. Everyone who believes in Jesus' name (i.e. Him being King Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins.
26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus (Acts 13:26–33)

38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38–39; cf. Acts 10.43)