Eli T. Evans
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is like a man going on a long journey. It is like a man who casts seed along the way. It is also like a goat that bears the iniquity of the people or a Passover lamb that is killed and eaten in a particular way. It is even like shaving your eyebrows when a rash breaks out on your bald head.
The book of Leviticus challenges modern sensibilities because it is all about holiness. It is foreign to our everyday experience by definition. The dictionary tells us that holiness means being “set apart,” but that only tells us about the result, not the process. What does it mean to be holy as God is holy (Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26; 21:6–8)?
Leviticus answers this question mainly by insisting that holiness is not unholiness—to be clean is to be not unclean. The quality of holiness remains elusive. It is better demonstrated than explained: Wash this way and wear these clothes at this time, kill these animals according to this procedure, wash these furnishings with this blood, burn these parts of this animal, but eat those—in this way, and no other. The rites and rituals are intentionally peculiar, because the point is to communicate the essential otherness of God.
As such, the necessity of atonement looms large in Leviticus (for example, Lev 1:4; 4:20). God’s people lack the purity to withstand His holy presence. God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab 1:13), but human beings are too evil to see God’s purity. Holiness and unholiness don’t mix, so one or the other must be changed. Since God cannot become dirty, humankind must be cleansed.
The people of Israel were cleansed from unrighteousness through the blood of an innocent sacrifice. Forgiveness had to be purchased for an individual after each transgression of the law (Lev 4), and for the whole people once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26–32).
Yet this system was incomplete. The rites of Leviticus provided temporary relief from the symptoms of unrighteousness, but they were not a permanent cure. The book of Hebrews says that all the Old Testament means of holiness—the tabernacle, the ark, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood itself —are “but a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb 8–10, especially 8:5 and 10:1). Thus Leviticus is best understood as an extended example of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing anticipates events that will occur later in the story in order to heighten suspense: If there is a shadow, then something must be casting it.
All things Levitical point to the coming, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Why a male without blemish? Because Jesus would live a sinless life and be sacrificed for the sins of His people (compare Lev 1:3, 10; 4:23; 22:19 with 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 1:19; 2:22–24; 1 John 3:5; Heb 4:15; 9:14). Why does sprinkling with blood make things clean? Because Jesus’ shed blood makes all things clean. He is both priest and sacrifice, and pure through and through (compare Lev 4:6, 17; 5:9; 14:4–7 with Heb 9:11–22; 1 Pet 1:2). Indeed, while on earth, Jesus reverses Levitical uncleanliness in whomever He touches: the blind, the lame, lepers, the woman with the flow of blood—even dead bodies. Jesus can touch the unclean, and rather than becoming unclean Himself, those He touches become clean (compare Lev 13 with Mark 1:40–42; Lev 21:16–23 with Mark 3:1–5; Lev 15:25–26 with Mark 5:25–34).
Bathing, shaving, sprinkling blood and ashes, wearing certain clothes and eating only certain foods sufficed as a shadow of holiness until the one who casts the shadow came. Then the price of cleanliness for the unclean was paid once and for all by the blood of a certain Lamb, killed in a certain way, on a certain day, for the purpose of removing guilt and averting the wrath of God for sin forever.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).