Redefining Sacred Space

Aubry Smith

After worship one Sunday, I overheard a teenager recounting the latest scandal at her school. Another student reprimanded her, “Don’t gossip, you’re in church!” He certainly ended the conversation, but his words revealed an underlying view by which many Christians compartmentalize life—church is “holy,” everywhere else is “unholy.”

You do not have to read as far in the Old Testament to find Levitican rules about holiness and sacred space. The book is replete with them. God demands holiness from Israel, repeatedly commanding them to “be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7, 26). But how do cleansing rituals for birthing practices and skin sores relate to holiness?

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In ancient Israel, people, objects and spaces could be judged holy or common. The tabernacle, for example, was sacred because it was God’s dwelling place; therefore, the people of Israel would undergo extensive cleansing rituals before bringing their sacrifices to the priests. God’s command to be holy extended as far as appropriate foods (Lev 11, 17), treatment for infections (13:1–46) and sexual practices (Lev 18). Something as minor as mold or mildew found on fabric had to be brought to the priest (13:47–59). While these were not matters of moral concern, they were of great spiritual importance. The rituals for approaching God were a means of reminding Israel that God was not common.

The author of Leviticus did not assume that a person could simply follow these rules and be close to God. God established His relationship with His people before placing demands on them. Before Israel heard and obeyed (and disobeyed) the laws given in Leviticus, God repeatedly asserted that He was “the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God” (Lev 11:45; see also 19:36; 22:33). Israel was established again as God’s people at the exodus, and then they were given guidelines for how they were to live in relationship with Him. God even proclaims that He is the one who makes them holy, not adherence to the law (Lev 20:8, 23). So even in Leviticus, God bestows grace to a sinful and undeserving people. The law defines how they must live as God’s people—people set apart, like Him.

Jesus changed the rules, though. He entered creation, became the ultimate sacrifice and opened up a way—the only way—for humanity to encounter God. Those with skin diseases came to Jesus for healing and restoration into society. Paul preached that Jesus made all foods and people clean, that circumcision of the heart was the true circumcision. The New Testament bears witness that God makes His people holy through Jesus Christ.

So how do we live as people who have been made holy through Christ? As God’s people, we are given guidelines throughout Scripture for how to treat others, how to use our words, and how to control our thoughts. Yet we do not do this on our own. God’s Spirit now dwells in us—we are His temple (2 Cor 6:16). And He performs this work in us so that we may live as disciples at all times and in all places.

Over time, the relationship changes us, and we behave differently. But more important, Jesus transforms us into new creatures who reflect His holiness—no matter where we are.

Biblical references are from the New English Translation (NET).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 6

Shelf Life Book Review: Open Hearts in Bethlehem

Elliot Ritzema

Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama

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Kenneth Bailey is a scholar of the New Testament’s Middle Eastern cultural background; he has authored books including Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. In this four-scene play, he dramatizes Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, correcting some popular misconceptions along the way. For example, this Christmas play does not include an innkeeper; Bailey believes that the word in Luke 2:7 traditionally translated “inn” is more properly rendered “guest room” (as it is in Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). Also, animals at that time were often kept in a corner of the family room at night, so a manger was available within the house. Rather than being exiled to a stable, then, in this play Mary gives birth to Jesus in the family room of the place where she and Joseph had been staying with relatives.

Open Hearts in Bethlehem features five original songs, which are written by David M. Bailey and available in a separate musical score and CD. The play can be performed in 45–50 minutes with music, or 25–30 minutes without. It is intended to be performed in a church hall or sanctuary, and it requires 12 actors: 10 adults and two children. It would be well-suited for churches that are open to a different, yet culturally informed take on the traditional Christmas story.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1

Playing with Holy Fire

Wendy Widder

The Greek god Zeus is notorious for wielding a lightning bolt to destroy his enemies. The image of the Jewish and Christian God doing the same is not found in the Bible. Yet Leviticus 10 records an event that is strikingly similar. The priests Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the high priest, approach the altar of Yahweh to make an offering. Before they finish, a fire from Yahweh consumes them—not their sacrifice.

This disturbing story comes at the end of a rare narrative section in Leviticus. Tucked between seven chapters on sacrificial law and nearly 16 chapters of laws about uncleanness, the narrative of Leviticus 8–10 describes the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the Israelite priesthood. Leviticus 8 and 9 are a step-by-step enactment of Yahweh’s directions to Moses in Exodus 28–29, including instructions for operation of the tabernacle and priestly ordination.

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The Leviticus narrative emphasizes that Moses and the newly ordained priests follow these instructions point by point—a fact reinforced by the refrain, “as the Lord commanded Moses” (Lev 8:4–36; 9:5–21). Likewise, the ordination process matches the detailed directions from Exodus 28–29. The reward for all this careful obedience arrives in Leviticus 9:24. After Aaron made the required offerings, “Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (ESV).

However, the people’s joy is short-lived. In the very next verse, Nadab and Abihu approach the altar with fire and incense in their censers and are promptly struck dead by fire from Yahweh. The text doesn’t specify exactly what these brothers did to merit an instant fiery death. The narrator simply says, “They offered strange fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them” (Lev 10:1). After two chapters of meticulous obedience, this last statement—“which he had not commanded them”—is jarring.

The contrasting accounts in this passage are connected by a key parallel: In both events, “fire went out from Yahweh and consumed” (Lev 9:24; 10:2). The vastly differing endings demonstrate that there are right and wrong ways to approach Yahweh. In the first account, the fire resulted from obedience to Yahweh’s commands; the Israelites looked on in joyful awe as fire from Yahweh completely consumed their sacrifice. In the second account, the fire resulted from disobedience; its outcome was death, as fire from Yahweh “consumed” the two sons of Aaron. The charred corpses of Nadab and Abihu, still adorned in priestly tunics, remained to be carried away (Lev 10:4–5).

God’s consuming fire appears in other passages of the Bible. In Exodus 24:17, Yahweh’s presence atop Mount Sinai was “like a consuming fire.” In Deuteronomy, when Moses reminded the people about the events at Sinai, they were afraid God’s fire would destroy them. They implored Moses to go talk with God alone so they wouldn’t be consumed by His voice (Deut 5:25). God’s fire engulfed the members of Korah’s rebellion during the wilderness years when they inappropriately offered incense to God (Num 16:35). Centuries later, the author of Hebrews entreats us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28–29).

Being in God’s presence is a fearful thing—especially if we approach Him with irreverence. Nadab and Abihu ignored the way God had created for sinful people to be in His holy presence. The message of Leviticus—and of the entire Bible—is that there is only one way. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God made the way for sinners to be in His holy presence now and forever. It is only when we come to Him through Christ that we can find forgiveness and acceptance, without fear.

Unless otherwise noted biblical references were translated by the author.

For more on this passage, pick up Gordon Wenham’s The Book of Leviticus at Logos.com/NICOT

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 6

Shadows of Holiness

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)?

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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).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 6

Shelf Life Book Review: Psalms Volume 2

Rebecca Brant

Psalms Volume 2: Finding the Way to Prayer and Praise
In her follow up to Psalms Volume 1: Songs along the Way, Kathleen Nielson offers detailed direction for studying the Psalms and “taking them in deeply.” Volume 2 offers 12 lessons in which Nielson pairs a primary and secondary psalm with similar themes; each lesson covers five aspects of study over as many days.

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Day one of each lesson leads us through a contextual study of the primary psalm, with relevant citations from both the Old and New Testaments. Day two focuses on the theme of the psalm, including personal and historical events addressed by the psalmist. Day three invites us to explore a broader picture—the themes and tone of surrounding psalms, how psalms were used in prayer and worship, the importance of structural elements—and to begin to apply their lessons. On day four, Nielson introduces the secondary psalm to examine areas of harmony and disagreement, parallelism and resolution of events or emotions. Day five is the day to “Take It In,” with reflections on the previous days’ study and encouragement to choose verses for memorization.

With ample room to jot notes and reflections, this study sets forth a challenging but achievable method not only for studying the Psalms but also for appreciating their beauty and their message.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1