Main Idea: God’s holiness requires atonement for sin before we can be in His presence, and He graciously provides the means for atonement.
Every Friday afternoon for years, an older man made his way down to a pier on a beach in Florida. Every Friday afternoon he went through the same ritual. At about sunset, he carried a bucket of shrimp to the beach. The shrimp were not for him or for the fish; they were for the seagulls. When the gulls saw him on the pier with his bucket, they would come to him one by one until they surrounded him while screeching, begging, and flapping their wings. He would take the shrimp out of the bucket and throw a few at a time to the hungry birds. Then he would make his way home. Why did he go through that ritual every Friday afternoon? That man was Eddie Rickenbacker, an Air Force captain in World War II. He and seven other men were flying a B-17 across the Pacific to deliver a message to Gen. Douglas MacArthur when the crew became lost, the fuel ran out, and the plane went down. Miraculously, they all made it out of the plane alive and on to a life raft. On that raft, day after day, they fought the sun and the sharks, and when their rations ran out they fought hunger. On the eighth day they had no food and no water. That afternoon they had a devotional time, prayed together for a miracle, and then tried to rest. Rickenbacker was dozing with his hat over his eyes, and something landed on his head. It was a sea gull. He knew that if he could catch it, that sea gull meant their survival. Amazingly he did catch it, the eight men shared the meat, and they used the intestines for fish bait. Rickenbacker knew God had rescued them with that sea gull, and he never forgot that miracle. Every Friday afternoon until he died, he would observe the same ritual; he would go down to that pier with a bucket full of shrimp and feed the gulls as a way of saying, “Thank You, God, for saving my life” (Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm, 221–26).
People often describe rituals as empty, meaningless. Not all of them are. Eddie Rickenbacker’s ritual wasn’t meaningless. The real meaning of a ritual is what is in a person’s heart when he observes it. When God gave the sacrificial system to His people, He was not giving them empty rituals to observe. The rituals had meaning. What did they mean?
God delivered His people Israel from slavery in Egypt with miraculous plagues. Once His people were out of Egypt, God parted the Red Sea to deliver them again from Pharaoh’s army. Then God met with His people at Mount Sinai. He spoke to Moses and said that He was making a covenant with His people whom He had delivered from Egypt. He said,
Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation. (Exod 19:5-6)
God saved His people, He made a covenant with them, He gave them His Ten Commandments, and then He gave additional laws recorded in Exodus that are together called the book of the covenant. The laws God gave to His people were the stipulations of His covenant. When He gave those stipulations to His people, three times they said, “We will do all that the Lord has spoken” (Exod 19:8; 24:3,7). The people promised to be obedient to all the laws God gave them.
God knew they would not be obedient. Moses came down from the mountain and gave them the Ten Commandments God had spoken. God gave him more commands, Moses brought them to the people, and they promised to obey them. Then Moses went up the mountain to meet with God again, and while Moses was away the people built an idol and worshiped it as a god. Immediately after they had promised to obey all that God had told them to do, they violated the first two commandments He had given them—don’t have any other gods and don’t make any idols. At least they could have waited a few months or violated a lesser command—maybe one Israelite could have failed to return a neighbor’s cloak before the sun went down (Exod 22:26-27). No, while Moses was still on the mountain they broke the first two of the top Ten Commandments.
The opening words of Leviticus are, “Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him.” One of the hallmarks of the book of Leviticus is the frequent repetition of the clause “the Lord spoke to Moses.” That statement and its variations occur 38 times in Leviticus, and the statement that the Lord “commanded Moses” occurs 18 times. That’s 56 times the book of Leviticus states that God spoke directly to Moses, Aaron, and His people. Is the book of Leviticus important? If we believe that reading the words of God is important, then it’s momentous!
God had been speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai. The first verse of Leviticus says that God spoke to Moses in the tabernacle, called “the tent of meeting.” The last verse of Leviticus says, “These are the commands the Lord gave Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai” (27:34). Over and over again, like the beat of a drum, the book of Leviticus says, “God spoke,” “God commanded,” and the book opens and closes with that beat.
It would be good for us to spend time meditating on the fact that the worship by Israel described in Leviticus was at God’s initiative and according to God’s words that He spoke to His people. These days, when the topic of conversation is worship, people often speak of their preferences. When God speaks about worship in His Word, He doesn’t address our personal preferences about styles of preaching or styles of music. Since that is not what God says about worship, why do we talk about it so much? Why are our preferences in worship so important to us, when they’re not important in God’s Word? Who determined the worship forms of Israel? God did. Who was at the center of the worship of Israel? God was. So when we talk about worship, why do we talk so little about God and so much about what we like? God spoke to Moses about Israel’s worship; Moses listened and obeyed. Let us listen to what God says about worship, and let us obey.
After God’s people sinned, what did God do? The great truth of the gospel is that in spite of our sin God invites us to meet with Him. While God’s people were at the foot of the mountain worshiping an idol, at the top of the mountain God was speaking to Moses giving him the plans for a tabernacle in which God would meet with His people. While they were committing sin, He was planning to meet with them. That’s the foundation of the gospel—the good news. God loves and seeks sinful people like us. God began doing that after humanity committed the first sin. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, God pursued them and spoke to them (Gen 3:1-9).
In the second verse of Leviticus God invites His sinful people into His presence to worship Him by offering sacrifices. God describes five types of sacrifices in the first seven chapters of Leviticus—the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace or fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt or restitution offering. The word translated “bring” in verse 2 is the causative form of the verb that means “draw near.” God was telling His people to draw near to Him and to bring offerings to Him. Even when we turn our backs on God and break His laws, He loves us and pursues us to reconcile us to Himself. That’s the way the book of Leviticus opens. God provides guidelines for sinful people to come into His holy presence. The sacrificial system is God’s invitation for people to meet with Him. The one true and holy God is an inviting God. In Isaiah 55:1-3 God says,
Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost! Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy? . . . come to Me . . . that you will live.
God invites us into His presence. One commentator calls the descriptions of the various sacrifices in Leviticus “God’s altar calls” (Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 25). God calls us to the altar to worship Him. Praise God, He invites us into His presence!
Leviticus 1:4 says the purpose of the burnt offering was “to make atonement.” Atonement is a central theme in Leviticus. The root word translated “atone” or “atonement” occurs 53 times in Leviticus, and only 43 times elsewhere in the whole Old Testament. Thus, Leviticus says more about atonement than any other book in the Old Testament. It is also necessary to understand atonement in order to understand Leviticus. The English word “atonement” is formed by a combination of three words—at-one-ment. “Atonement” refers to reconciliation, two parties coming together, becoming “at one” with each other. The Hebrew word translated “atonement” refers to the beginning of that process. It denotes doing what is necessary for two parties to be reconciled. In the case of our relationship with God, it refers to the taking away of sin. God is perfectly holy, and sin is not allowed in His presence. Therefore, for sinners to be in the presence of God their sin must be removed, and that is the purpose of atonement.
Some older Hebrew dictionaries give “to cover” as the root meaning of the word translated “atone.” That is because of a cognate Arabic term with that meaning, but such a meaning for the Hebrew word is rarely offered by scholars today. After considering cognates and biblical usage, Rooker and Wenham recommend the meaning “wipe” or “purge” when referring to inanimate objects (Lev 8:15). An atonement ritual cleansed a holy object of impurities resulting from human sin. When referring to a person, “atone” has the meaning “make a ransom payment for sin” (Lev 17:11). The life of the sacrificial animal was given in place of the life of the worshiper and was the ransom payment for the death the worshiper’s sin had earned (Rooker, Leviticus, 51–52; Wenham, Leviticus, 28).
God formalized or symbolized atonement for sin in the sacrificial system. In order for sin to be removed, God’s righteous wrath has to be satisfied; death must be the result of sin. The sacrificial system was the means of that death—the animal died because of the worshiper’s sin, God’s wrath was satisfied, and the worshiper could be reconciled to God. That was the reason the worshiper brought the burnt offering to the Lord. Verse 4 says that he brought the animal “to make atonement for him.” There was nothing magical about the animal or the process of killing and burning the animal. What mattered was God’s command to atone for sin in that way and the worshiper’s intent to obey God and to be reconciled to Him by the removal of sin. It was a spiritual act; the sacrifice was physical, but its intent was spiritual. If the worshiper did not present the offering by faith, looking to the invisible God to forgive, then the visible act would mean nothing.
The first means of atonement mentioned in Leviticus is the burnt offering, described throughout the first chapter. The burnt offering is sometimes referred to as the whole burnt offering, since it was wholly burned on the altar. The Hebrew term for the offering is ‘olah, which comes from the verb meaning “to arise.” Probably this offering was called ‘olah because the smoke of the offering arose as it burned on the altar. The English word used in some older translations to refer to this offering is the “holocaust” offering. The English word “holocaust” is derived from the Greek holocaustos, which is used in the Greek translation of this chapter. Many have referred to the murder of millions of Jews in World War II as the Holocaust, because the holocaust offering involved complete incineration. Many contemporary Jews prefer the word shoah, “devastation” (Isa 10:3), to describe that horrific chapter in human history (Elliott, Engaging Leviticus, 5–6).
God allowed His people to offer three types of animals for the burnt offering—animals from the herd (bulls, Lev 1:3-9), animals from the flock (sheep, vv. 10-13), and birds (vv. 14-17). The procedure for offering bulls and sheep was virtually identical. A worshiper brought a sacrificial animal to the tabernacle “so that he may be accepted by the Lord” (v. 3). He placed his hand on the head of the animal as he presented him. That act established a connection between the sacrificial animal and the worshiper—the one who laid a hand on the animal was the one whose sin was being atoned for; he or she would receive the benefit of the sacrifice. Also, laying a hand on the animal may have carried the idea of transference (Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 90–91). The sin and guilt of the worshiper was transferred to the animal, so when the animal died he was taking the penalty for the sin that had been transferred to him. The animal took the worshiper’s sin, so he died the worshiper’s death.
After the worshiper presented the animal at the tabernacle, he killed the animal and the priests sprinkled the blood on the altar. The priests also skinned the animal and cut it into pieces. The priests washed some of the pieces (those that may have been most likely to be contaminated by dung), and then he burned the animal on the altar until it was completed consumed. The sprinkling of blood was not included if the animal was a bird, presumably because the amount of blood would not have been sufficient. It is likely that birds were allowed as burnt offerings when the worshiper was too poor to offer an animal from the herd or flock (Lev 5:7).
Why did the sacrificial system involve death? First, from the beginning of creation God laid down a universal and unalterable truth—sin leads to death. God said that to Adam and Eve before the first sin was committed. He told them, concerning eating the forbidden fruit, “On the day you eat from it, you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17). Sin leads to death—not sometimes, but every time. For the Israelites, their sin could lead to their death, or—if they offered a sacrifice—the animal died in their place. God was providing a graphic, gory demonstration of the fact that sin leads to death. Every time an Israelite worshiper killed a sacrificial animal, watched the priest sprinkle the blood on the altar and cut the animal into pieces, and watched the body of the animal burn on the altar, God was giving a vivid demonstration of the fact that sin leads to death.
Just like the Israelites, all of us have sinned (Rom 3:23). Our sin also leads to death. Somebody will die because of our sin. Either we will die for our sin and we will be separated from God forever, or a sacrifice will die for our sin. God provided a sacrifice for our sin when He Himself was incarnated in flesh, lived a sinless life, died as our sacrifice for sin on the cross, and rose from the grave. When we receive Jesus as Savior and accept His sacrifice on the cross for our sin, then His death suffices as payment for our sin. The New Testament affirms that fact repeatedly. For example, Romans 5:10 says, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” And Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why did the sacrificial system involve death? First, sin leads to death. Second, God is perfectly holy. He is so holy that no sin is allowed in His presence. We have sinned, so our sin has to be taken away in order for us to be in God’s presence to worship Him and fellowship with Him. God’s means of taking sin away during the old covenant period was the sacrificial system.
When God gave His law to His people, He knew they would transgress that law. They would sin, and sin cannot be in His presence. The estrangement from God that results from sin would not be a problem for God if He was passive about people being in His presence. But God is not passive; He wants us to be reconciled to Him, and He is a forgiving God. God said to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7 that He is a
compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin.
God loves people, so He provided the means of atonement, which was the sacrificial system. Leviticus 1:4 says that the whole burnt offering existed, “to make atonement.”
After worship services in many churches, as people exit the room some of them walk through the area of the altar at the front of the church on their way out of the building. But what if some people go to the altar at the front of the church before the end of the time of worship? What if they go to that area to pray—asking God for forgiveness, offering themselves to God in service, or petitioning God for something specific? The people who walk through the area of the altar after worship and the people who go there during worship perform the same physical act. They walk to the front of the room and occupy the same space. But the intent is different. God never said that merely performing a physical act satisfied His wrath and reconciled people to Him. Merely performing a religious ritual has never been acceptable to God. The psalmist wrote to God,
You do not delight in sacrifice and offering. . . . You do not ask for a whole burnt offering. . . . I delight to do Your will, my God; Your instruction lives within me. (Ps 40:6-8)
For worship to be acceptable to God, ritual acts must be accompanied by faith and obedience. What matters to God is the intent of the heart. It wasn’t the smoke of the sacrifice that pleased God; it was the desire of the worshiper to be reconciled to God and his obedience in conforming to God’s requirement. Thank God that because of His mercy, He has provided the means of atonement!
The sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus is a foreshadowing of Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross. The sacrifices were physical acts, but they pointed to spiritual realities. They pointed to the holiness of God—sin must be removed in order for people to be in God’s presence. They pointed to the mercy of God—He provided the means for sin to be taken away, and He invited people into His presence. They pointed to the desire of the worshipers to be right with God—they were obeying God’s requirements for reconciliation. Ultimately the sacrifices also pointed forward to Christ. God had already announced the coming of the Messiah. After the first sin in the garden of Eden, God said that one day the seed of Eve would strike the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). The New Testament says that Jesus is that seed. The sacrificial system also foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and His sacrifice. In the old covenant sacrificial system, God taught His requirement of a sacrifice for sin. In Jesus, God provided His sacrifice for sin. As Hebrews 9:26 says about Jesus, “He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Hebrews 10:10 says, “By this will of God, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.” That was God’s plan all along. The sacrificial system of the old covenant was God’s classroom where He taught the principle of atonement by means of a sacrifice. As Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, the law is our “tutor to lead us to Christ” (NASB). God used the sacrificial system to teach and to prepare us for the sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus takes our sin away because He died as the sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Romans 4:7 says, “How joyful are those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered!” It’s a great joy to know that our sins are forgiven. God invites us to experience that joy. The Israelites should have been profoundly grateful that the almighty, holy God of the universe was inviting them into His presence. So should we.