Monday, January 9, 2017

Leviticus 19 and Daily Christian Living

If you have been a Christian for a while, you will recognize the following truth: Christianity does more than prepare us for “the sweet by and by.” It is also meant for “the nasty now and now” - meaning, life lived here on earth. 

What we will see is an extensive listing of exhortations to holy living in Leviticus 19 that touch almost every aspect of life and life’s decisions. The chapter corrects the mistaken notion that religious relationships and social relationships are two separate worlds. Holy living before God and honest living before our neighbors are the two pillars upon which the whole of God’s demands rest. 

Jesus captured the two pillars best when he answered the question regarding which is the greatest commandment in the Law in the following way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.… And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). But perhaps you will be surprised to learn that Jesus describes the core of God’s revelation by quoting from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” says Leviticus 19:18. For Jesus and the apostles, this commandment was part and parcel of the authentic gospel. The vertical axis of love of God and the horizontal axis of love of neighbor are not at cross-purposes or even strangers; they are mother and father that give birth to genuine godly living. Leviticus 19 addresses both dimensions—holy living and honest living.


Sixteen times in this chapter the expressions “I am the Lord” or “I am the Lord your God” appear. The reason that is important is because the grounds for the demands of holy living and honest living detailed in Leviticus 19 are the historic redemption and formation of the people of God. In other words, the Lord and Israel had a history, a relationship based on God’s gracious salvation of the nation. Together the Lord and people entered into agreements of mutual commitment. The Lord was Savior, and the people accepted obligations of loyalty in thanksgiving to the Sovereign Lord.

What this opening passage declares is that the exhortations in this chapter are rooted in the very character of God. Now, God is holy in two senses. First, he is inherently holy and the very definition of what holy means. In other words, if a person wants to define holy, he must look to God as the standard. Second, the Lord is morally pure. In every way he is inherently pure without sin or corruption. He is complete in all his perfections. For us as Christians the incarnation of Jesus provides us with a living portrait of a “holy servant” (Acts 4:27, 30). We can look to Jesus as the standard of holy living.

One final thing about these opening verses: although Moses is the one who addressed the congregation, it is not he but the Lord who originated the Law. Moreover, the very fact that it was God who gave the Law means that the Law, although ancient and delivered in a different culture, contains a message that transcends a particular time and people. Therein are important underlying principles that are relevant to any generation of believers, including ours.

Since the Lord was holy, the people of God are charged to imitate his holiness. Day-to-day choices should reflect the essence of who the Lord is and his claim on us as his unique special possession. By exhibiting the holiness of God through Israel’s conduct, the nation functioned as a witness to the nations. Christian conduct serves the same purpose to the unbelieving world. By the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual Christian and in the church collectively, we are enabled to devote ourselves to the Lord and to serve others.

HOLY LIVING (19:3–8, 19–32)

What then are the characteristics of a person devoted to the Lord? Well, two collections of instructions in Leviticus 19 profile a person who is loyal to God. The commands concern a wide range of religious activities. The people were to honor the Lord’s special days, they were to offer proper worship at the sanctuary, and they were to obey the Ten Commandments, which required worship of the one true God only.

Worship the Lord (vv. 3–8). The first collection in verses 3–8 begins with a command to obey parents. At first glance we might scratch our heads, wondering why this command would be at the head of the chapter, coming even before the demand to worship only the Lord. The nature of parental authority is an ordinance that reflects a person’s loyalty to God. Parents have received delegated authority from the Lord, and when we rebel against their moral instruction, we rebel against the authority that the Lord has over the family. When we are loyal to God, we will be respectful of our parents’ teaching. The flip side of this is that parents must be ever-conscientious in their instruction and modeling of godly living, since they shoulder the responsibility that God has committed to them.
Now, with that line of authority established, the text now turns to specific traits. A loyal member of the household of faith carries out the demands of God for proper worship (vv. 5–8). The example in our text is a special provision in the eating of the peace sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 3). The peace offering was an offering by an individual who rejoiced at God’s goodness and who invited the community to participate in the fellowship meal: it brought together a private and public worship act. Now, for us as Christians, there is a proper conduct in our worship too, both privately and publicly. The epistles in the New Testament are replete with general instructions on how to carry out proper worship with the proper attitude. Worship and obedience come more easily to us when we have a true picture of the One whom we worship, God the Father.

I am reminded of the astonishment that some parents experience when they discover that their children are disruptive “monsters” when away from home in day-care centers or in school. It is as though aliens from distant worlds have taken over the bodies of their children! But when the children are picked up by parents, they become well-behaved children in an instant. What is the difference? Children know when they are in the presence of parental authority. The children show more respect for Mom and Dad because there is more accountability for their behavior. Our heavenly Father has called us to “a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9), and we are accountable for the decisions we make.

Obey the Lord (vv. 19–32). There is an assumption in this longish section of the chapter and it is this: that the Israelite’s conduct must be consistent with the worship of God. The way this works is this: the believer’s life must differentiate itself from the conduct of unbelievers, those who practice pagan worship. The passage uses the language of difference: “different kind[s],” “two kinds,” “distinction” (vv. 19, 20). Distinction from those who worshiped false gods is explicit and implicit. The explicit commands regulated the worship practices of Israel. (1) False religions regularly relied on magic for understanding the will of the gods. The Israelite must rely solely upon God’s word as it had been revealed through Moses. (2) The neighboring peoples practiced forms of self-mutilation through cutting their hair and bodies to show their devotion to their gods. The Israelites were prohibited from such practices. (3) Since fertility cults dominated Canaanite religion, prostitution was a common feature of its worship. An Israelite father was prohibited from forcing his daughter into prostitution. Such immoral practices polluted the land morally, making the people subject to God’s expulsion of the nation.

Also, the people showed the principle of distinction through implicit means. Cattle, clothing, crops, and treatment of sexual offenders must be treated with distinctions. In other words, there was a constant reminder that the people of God showed their worship of the one true God, the Covenant Lord, by their conduct in worship and in life’s daily settings.

The import of this for us as Christians is coming now into focus. We do not imitate all these ancient customs today, but the principle that they teach is still applicable for us. We are to live a life that shows our devotion to Christ and his moral expectations. As kingdom citizens we are commissioned to live holy lives, conducting ourselves in conformity with God’s moral standard (Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9, 10; 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24; 1 John 3:3). The quality of the fruit of our choices in life will reveal the nature of the tree that produced it. “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). For God’s people not to live holy lives is as incongruous as a husband who bears a wedding ring but only occasionally acts like a married man. His public profession has not stamped his identity.

HONEST LIVING (19:9–18, 33–36)

Holiness is not limited to the setting of worship. Holiness involves how we live with others. Godliness must also be manifested outside the walls of the church or house.

Treat others with integrity (vv. 9–16). Verses 9, 10 describe how the landowner can provide some of his produce for the poor. Poverty was not acceptable for the family of God. Steps are found in the Law to help the poor rise above their difficult circumstances. By leaving the edges of the grain harvest and the fallen fruit of the vineyards for the poor to obtain, the community sustained the impoverished (cf. Leviticus 23:22; 25:25–48). The Lord promised to grant prosperity to the nation if the people were faithful to the covenant. This would mean that there would be ample resources to share with others. Inevitably, however, the ideal was not met, and poverty was a regular feature in society (Deuteronomy 15:4, 5, 11). Jesus had this in mind when he observed, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7). The agrarian economy of ancient Israel made the ownership of land critical to financial livelihood. Indebtedness often meant the loss of family lands. If poverty came upon a person due to natural disasters or by marauding bandits, the community was expected to help families in poverty. Assisting the poor was always an option and is for the godly person today in the household of faith. Generosity is characteristic of Christ and is our Master’s economic axiom: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Verses 11, 12 restate the section of the Ten Commandments that pertains to how a person must treat his neighbor. Integrity in all dealings with fellow members of the community was demanded by the Lord. Since God had a relationship with each person under the covenant, the members of the community should treat one another as fellow members. To injure another person was an offense against God. Theft, lying, and giving false testimony in court were obviously not expressions of loving one’s neighbor. The bonds of covenant unity were more important than personal gain, especially at the expense of others. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain. The answer was yes! Each of us has a responsibility toward others before God. 

Verses 13–16 describe offenses against a vulnerable person by taking advantage of him. A person who is a hired worker, a handicapped person, or a poor person does not have the social status to withstand the power of landowners, merchants, and government officials. Verse 16 sets the matter in a court setting where the weak is slandered, placing them at a disadvantage in court. A corrupt court system can give priority to the claims of the strong, putting the life of the weak at risk.

Treat others with love (vv. 17, 18). The guiding principle for the ethical treatment of others follows in verses 17, 18: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). The beginning and end of the two verses use the contrasting words “hate” and “love” to express the same idea. The two verses show parallel parts that will help us understand the fuller significance of what the Lord was commanding. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” parallels “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.” The passage immediately emphasizes the solidarity of the community by using terms like “brother” and “sons of your own people.” This does not mean outsiders could be hated and mistreated. The Law provides many safeguards for caring for foreigners. And Jesus answered the question, “Who is my neighbor?” by showing in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that a neighbor is anyone in need and is not limited to ethnic or economic lines (Luke 10:29–37). What it means to “hate” a brother is to hold “a grudge” and act it out by “vengeance.” Notice also that the passage refers to the internal attitude, “in your heart” and “bear a grudge.” The word translated “grudge” means “to keep, to reserve” (natar); the sense here is that a person sustains his anger. The impression from the passage is that the anger festers and results in vengeance, perhaps murder.

One of the most interesting aspects of the command to love one’s neighbor is the phrase “as yourself.” This verse is the underlying idea of the “Golden Rule” that Jesus taught: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Jesus said we cannot substitute acts of religious piety for social justice (Mark 12:33b). James brings this out most clearly in the New Testament when he condemns prejudice against the poor within churches (James 2:1–13). Loving another person is, James says, the fulfillment of “the royal law” (2:8). This is the context for the most-quoted verse in the book of James: “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26b). We prove that our faith is real if we live by the great commandment to care for the interests of others.

Treat others with justice (vv. 33–37). Special concern over the treatment of aliens dominates the closing verses of the ethical instructions collected in this chapter. The reasons for the presence of foreigners in ancient Israel were many, including the immigration of slaves fleeing neighboring countries and the practice of intermarriage, often in the aftermath of war. Since aliens were not a natural constituency, it was easy for the native Israelites to take advantage of them. Many laws in the Mosaic legislation give aliens special protections (e.g., Exodus 20:10; 22:21). What these verses were calling for was the equitable treatment of the foreign population who had taken up residence in the land. They were to be treated with the same dignity as the native-born (Numbers 15:15–29). Aliens could especially be defrauded in court through prejudiced rulings and bribes (Deuteronomy 10:17–19). Another means of stealing from the alien as well as from the poor was through dishonest scales. Merchants could rig the scales or alter the packaging so that the customer paid more than what the weight of the commodity deserved. So notorious was later Israel for these practices that the prophets announced the destruction of the country because of such injustices (e.g., Amos 8:5; Micah 6:11). Proverbs says, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (11:1). Jesus, too, scolded the religious elite for their neglect of justice (Matthew 23:23, 24; Mark 12:40). James declares that authentic religion must include care for the oppressed and troubled (1:27).

These concluding verses return to the ethical dimension of what holy living is. The chapter ends in this way to repeat the important message of the chapter. The call to holy living in the Bible always involves our obligations toward others. 

It’s true to say that Leviticus is one of the most neglected books of the Bible. This is true for two main reasons. First, the book seems quite strange to modern readers. The sacrificial worship it describes is so far removed from today’s believers that its very unfamiliarity prevents some from reading Leviticus. Second, Leviticus appears at first glance to interrupt the flow of events in the story of God’s people. We must wait until the fourth book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Numbers, to read of Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of the promised land.

Yet Leviticus plays an essential role in God’s Word and makes a vital contribution to our understanding of God’s relationship with humankind. We need to make the extra effort required to understand its message. Despite its strangeness and apparent awkwardness, Leviticus plays an important role in the thought flow of the Pentateuch. It was of great significance for ancient Israelites and is still pertinent for modern Christians.