We begin our series in Leviticus, not with the book proper, but we're taking time to understand the context and purpose of this book. Leviticus is not an easy book to understand, but if we believe in 2 Tim 3:16, we know that the book of Leviticus is God-breathed and useful!
(A) Priority of Leviticus – why are we studying this book? (2 Kings 5:1-14)
When we read the Old Testament, we are confronted with the story of the Fall in Gen 3, the glimmer of hope in the Abrahamic covenant, and the ups and down of the nation of Israel. One of the stories which illuminates this is the story of Naaman the Syrian general in 2 Kings 5. At this point in the Bible, the nation of Israel has been established with a king. In 2 Kings, we are introduced to Naaman, who was not from the nation of Israel, but was a "mighty man of valor", a commander of the army of the king of Syria.
But this great man had two problems. Firstly, in verse 1b, we are told that he was a leper. According to Leviticus 13, leprosy was a term for several skin diseases. He was given the solution to this problem by his servant girl, who was essentially a prisoner of war from Israel (v.3), someone they picked up in one of their raids of Israel. She spoke of a prophet that could cure his leprosy (v.3). This girl was now working in the service of Naaman's wife, and she shows great compassion to her mistress' husband, who was essentially her captor. Naaman went to Israel, with lots of riches (v.5b) and also brought along an official letter from the Syrain king along to gain access to this powerful prophet of Israel who could cure leprosy. He naturally went to the king, who had the most power in the land, and would sure know of such a wonderful prophet (v.7). thinking that he had the power to heal. But the king of Israel was enraged, and thought that it was a trick. What do we realise from this? Though Israel was small, it had the reputation that her God has the power to make the unclean, clean. They have a reputation for ritual purity, such that when the servant girl mentioned it, Naaman would accept this advice.
Now the king of Israel could not help him, but Elisha the prophet got wind of the encounter and sent for Naaman (v.8). Naaman went to Elisha's house, only to be met by a messenger with instructions to wash in the Jordan seven times to be restored and made clean (v.9-10). This angered Naaman, and we read of his angry response in verses 11-12. So often, we are quite similar to Naaman, aren't we? We want and expect simple and easy answers to our problems. Naaman thought that God's demand for ritual purity was unnecessary. Though he admitted his physical sickness, he did not admit his spiritual need and thought rather highly of himself. But e eventually obeys and is healed (v.13-14)
Naaman’s story actually illustrates two key points for us about the priority of Leviticus:
(a) Leviticus teaches us about the importance of that which is clean/holy and unclean/common and how the LORD God is the one who determines and teaches us about these.
What does it mean to be holy? Many of us think it is about being perfect or righteous. Holiness is very difficult for us, because we tend to reach for moral behaviors to understand and illustrate it. But the word for "holy" in the Bible is translated as "other" or "separate", and speaks of the significance of being completely different. But it doesn't just mean being specially set apart. God's love is entirely different and in contrast from normal love as we understand it. Hence the opposite of holiness isn't just impure or bad, but that which is common. Leviticus helps us to see this aspect of God's character - utterly holy, different, unlike anything else.
(b) Leviticus teaches us that the willingness to obey the LORD God and thus, be holy is a matter of trust, humility and faith. We must accept and embrace God’s word on holiness if we want to know and experience Him.
Like Naaman, we must first realise who it is we come before. We, like the leper, are impure, and we come before this holy God to hear what He says. We really are just lepers in desperate need of His cleansing. We can receive his cleansing only by trusting His Word and accepting and obeying what He has said. Why and how did we become Christians? We came before Him like Naaman, only with our impurities and uncleanness.
Leviticus serves to tell us who we are, and who God is. As we read the detailed law in Leviticus, it will remind us that our sin stands in such stark contrast to the holy God, and that is our greatest "worry" and problem in life. It helps us to see the glorious work of Christ as God sought to make us pure and holy like Him. It also reminds us that the most important thing in life to pray for, is not for that good grade, nor the dream job. Neither is it the family that we desire, or the holiday we seek. The most important thing in life we need to pray for, is that God will make us pure and holy like Him, and restore that relationship that we had with Him in Eden. What do you pray for? When was the last time you prayed for holiness, for God to make you clean?
(B) Prologue to Leviticus – what is the background to this book? (Ex 19:1-25)
Now that we've established the need for Leviticus in our lives, it’s important for us to understand the connection between Genesis and Leviticus (going through Exodus). The book of Genesis shows us the fall (Gen 3) and how God uses the family of Abraham (Israel) to begin His plan of redemption. Exodus 1-18 details for us God's rescue of the people of Israel from the hand of the Egyptians. God completely destroys the Egyptians at the Red Sea, swallowing up their military might in just one fell swoop. This came after the 10 plagues, where God demonstrated His power over 10 different Egyptian gods. Egypt was left a wreck, and these chapters show us God's redemption -- God setting His people free from slavery by His power (Ex 19:1-6).
But what happens after that? Notice that God did ot set them free to wander, but brought them into the wilderness, specifically to Sinai at this point in Exodus 19. In so many ways this is a picture of our own salvation! We have been redeemed from law and sin and death, not to wander, but specifically to meet Him! In fact, in verses 9, we read that God brought them out and to Sinai, because He wanted to speak to them personally. This God wanted to come down and speak with His own voice! To make this possible, God gave them instructions to prepare for this meeting (v.10-15). There would also be a line around the mountain, and anyone who crosses that line would die. This did not mean that God wanted to keep the people at bay. Rather, this distance was there to preserve their lives, because no sinful creature could stand alive in the presence of this holy God.
Exodus 19:16-20 gives us a picture of this divine descent. There were "thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast" (v.16). The mountain was wrapped in smoke and God descended on it in fire (v.18). When God spoke, it sounded like thunder (v.19b). This is doomsday language, and it is not surprising that the Israelitese were terrified. But this passage is important, because we have frankly not experienced anything like this, and we don't usually think of God in this way. No one can stand being casual and flippant before this God. Exodus 19 shows us God's real nature -- mighty, powerful and downright frightening to us sinners like us. How do you treat this One before whom we all tremble? How would this change the way you pray, talk to, ask Him for things? How would you see yourself? Yet when we see the holiness of God and that He also desires a relationship with His people, it does change everything! Doesn't all our fears fade away if we consider standing before this God?
This account is the beginning of the events at Sinai. After this, the Lord gives them the 10 commandments (Ex 20-23). Subsequently, instructions are given to build Him a dwelling place (Ex 24-31) before the incident of the golden calf (Ex 32). God then shows mercy and gives them the commandments again, which they obey (Ex 33-39). Finally, He comes down and takes up residence with His people (Ex 40) which creates another problem. The God in Exodus 19 who was wrapped behind the smoke and clouds in the mountain entered the temple (Ex 40:34) and the people lived with his presence 24/7. How can they live with this holy God in their midst? That's where Leviticus comes in.
What does this mean for us today? The heart of Isaiah 6 is helpful for us. Like the people of Israel, like Isaiah, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We carry pride, lust, guilt, shame that sets us against God, and we cannot touch the mountain or enter the presence of God because we will die. Isaiah was a Jew who lived according to the law, yet when he came before the Lord in Isaiah 6, he saw how his righteousness were like filthy rags. There is no other appropriate response before a God that sees right through us and see us for who we are. We can't help but say, "Woe is me". This is the same God who is present every Wednesday, and the one we meet whenever we come together for a study. He speaks to us not through cloud and smoke, but through His Spirit and Word. How are we able to meet Him in this way? Jesus made it possible, because Jesus is our coal (Isa 6) who took our sins and guilt away. Jesus is our Moses, the one who mediated between sinners at the foot of the mountain, and the great and holy God in the mountain.
The clearest sensation that a human being has when he experiences the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness. That is, when we are in the presence of God, we are humbled and become most aware of ourselves as creatures. This is the opposite of Satan's original temptation, "You shall be as gods”.
(R C Sproul, The Holiness of God)