God’s Call to Worship (Leviticus 1:1)

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In the introduction to his book, The Kingdom and the Power, Peter Leithart writes,

In the fall of 1991 I began a series of sermons on the first several chapters of Leviticus. My decision to preach on an obscure and difficult book (in the morning service, no less!) runs against the grain of contemporary pastoral theory. . . . Early on in my series, in fact, I spent most of one sermon explaining why a study of Leviticus is valuable for Christians. I am convinced that Leviticus is not only valuable but essential to a proper understanding of the New Testament. But anyone who preaches on Leviticus to an American congregation at the end of the twentieth century owes somebody an explanation.1

I suppose that the same could be said with respect to a South African congregation at the beginning of the 21st century. This study is my attempt to give an explanation for what will dominate our Sunday morning services at BBC for several months to come.

When I recently told a visiting missionary that I was set to begin an exposition of Leviticus he looked at me with both appreciation (he loves the book) and incredulity. He said that, before he was saved, whenever he tried to read the Bible he always found himself giving up when he got to Leviticus. He is no doubt not alone. Many of us can testify to our sense of disappointment when our daily Bible reading brings us to this book.

Leviticus continues to be a book in the Bible which the church avoids, if not completely ignores. Hear what various commentators have said in their approach to the book.

Ross, citing J. L. Mays, writes, “For most Bible readers, the Book of Leviticus is ‘as barren and unknown as the dry, trackless wilderness’ of its setting.”2 Wenham notes, “Leviticus used to be the first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue. In the modern Church it tends to be the last part of the Bible anyone looks at seriously.”3 Eveson concurs: “Leviticus is among the least read and understood books of the Bible. The contents seem boring and uninviting. Why should we study a book that begins and ends with animal sacrifices and presents detailed laws concerning ritual purity and priestly practices?”4

Why then should we embark on a study of this book? Would it not be more prudent for me to preach an easier, more narrative Old Testament book such as 1 Samuel, or perhaps a more doctrinal book such as Ephesians? Or let me put the question this way: Why should new covenant believers study this ancient book about ancient laws and rituals, which—in many instances, anyway—are no longer obligatory for us to obey or perform? After all, Leviticus just does not seem to compute with life as we know it, especially in such a sophisticated day. But then, that may be in fact our problem. One of the favoured commentators on Leviticus was Andrew Bonar (1810-1892), who wrote, well over a hundred years ago, “The Holy Spirit surely wishes us to inquire into what He has written; and the unhealthy tone of many true Christians may be accounted for by the too plain fact that they do not meditate much on the whole counsel of God.”5 And since Leviticus is part and parcel of the whole counsel of God, we will be blessed as we learn and meditate on it.

And as we learn and meditate upon Leviticus we come to appreciate that it is a narrative about the character of God and how we are to respond to Him. Wenham writes, “Leviticus is . . . more than a description of past historical events and more than a collection of dated laws. It tells us about God’s character and will, which found expression in his dealings with Israel and in the laws he gave them. Those who believe that God the Lord ‘is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ may look to the book’s theology for insights that are still valid and relevant.”6 Kellogg adds in a more succinct manner, “Of what use can the book of Leviticus be to believers now? We answer, first, that it is to us, just as much to ancient Israel, a revelation of the character of God.”7

Since Leviticus reveals to us the character of God, we can also conclude that it is pre-eminently a book about worship. It comprehensively informs us how to respond to God in every area of life. In fact it covers even the most mundane areas—from bulls and bugs to boils and bed sheets.

Tom Wells defined worship as “a response to greatness.”8 And in Leviticus we see how the glorious greatness of God informs and influences every aspect of our lives. It for this reason that we can say that the storyline of Leviticus is worship. “Exodus . . . ends with where God is to be worshiped—in the tabernacle. Leviticus focuses on how God is to be worshiped …Leviticus contains the laws that outline what it meant for Israel to serve the Lord.”9 We would do well to see Leviticus as a series of worship manuals.

Every time you open to read this book, think about the fact that this is God’s call to worship. This really does sum up the contents of this book, and this theme will help you as you find yourself at times bogged down in the matters of cloven-hooved animals, regulations for removing mildew and various agricultural laws. This book is about how to worship God in all of life. It is also a book that gives us hope as we find ourselves failing to worship God. It points us to the atonement for our sins, the Lord Jesus Christ. I could not agree more with Rooker, who writes, “It behoves the New Testament believer to give more attention to this book, for we base our eternal destinies on the one of whom Leviticus loudly speaks.”10

As we begin our study of Leviticus I simply want to use our time to introduce you to the elements of God’s call to worship as originally directed to His old covenant church, and to then make the relevant applications to you and me, who are part of his new covenant church.

God’s Call to Worship Comes in a Context

The title of this book in our English Bibles comes from the Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament. Currid notes, “The Greek term [means] . . . ‘that which concerns the Levite.’ . . . Later rabbinic writing are perhaps more accurate when they call the book . . . ‘the book of the priests.’”11 The reason for this title is because of the idea that “Leviticus narrates the way in which the priests are to care for the sanctuary and throne room of the Great King.”12 But this is not strictly the case.

As you read through the book you discover that the focus is far wider than the priesthood. This is not therefore merely a manual for the old covenant priests but rather a book that serves as a worship manual for all of God’s people. In the tradition of the Hebrews, a biblical book was often assigned its title with respect to the first words of the opening lines. This is the case with this book in the Hebrew Bible, where it is titled, “and he called,” which indeed is how the opening words of the text read. This is a very apropos title. God was calling Moses, and those whom Moses represented, to worship.

The Call Came in the Context of Grace

When we finished our study of the book of Genesis some three years ago I joked that we had to go on to Exodus because it would not be right to leave the children of Israel in Egypt. In a similar vein, now that we have finished the book of Exodus, it would not be right to leave Moses and the children outside the tabernacle!

Note how the book of Exodus ends. There we read that, once the tabernacle was complete, the glory cloud of God’s presence so filled the place that Moses could not enter (Exodus 40:34-35). This is a perplexing situation for, after all, the very purpose of the tabernacle was for the people to enjoy the presence of God (Exodus 29:43-46). But now that the Lord had descended from Sinai to the tabernacle, even the mediator was denied access. This is troubling—at least until we open the pages of Leviticus. Here we see something of the truth of Psalm 65:4: “Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts.”

We read in the first four verses of Leviticus that atonement was necessary for anyone to gain access to the presence of God in the tabernacle. Yes, atonement13 was necessary for all—including Moses.

If sinners will have access to the enjoyment of the presence of God then their sins will need to be atoned for. That is, they will need to be covered and purged. It is absolutely the case that God desired to fellowship and dwell with His chosen people. He absolutely desired that they would worship Him. But connected to these absolutes was the absolute necessity for sin to be properly dealt with. The tabernacle served as a visible daily call to worship and such a call was therefore a call to holiness for, in the words of the New Testament writer, without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

It is for this reason that we are justified in spending considerable time studying the words of Leviticus. This book records the very direct narrative that took place once the Tabernacle was erected in the wilderness at the foot of Sinai. According to Exodus 40:17 and Numbers 1:1, over a period of one month the Lord spoke these words directly to Moses. At least 38 times in Leviticus we read words to this effect: “And the LORD spoke to Moses.” In fact there is no Old Testament book that has more of the divine stamp of “thus says the LORD” than this one.

It was over these thirty days that the Lord informed Moses of what was required of Moses himself, the priesthood and the people in order for them to worship God acceptably.

What is particularly noteworthy to me is that, as we have seen, the book opens with instructions with reference to atonement and the place that sacrifices played in this. This is interesting because the book then goes on, from chapters 11 and following, to give all kinds of rules to regulate the conduct of those who would worship God. In other words, the Lord gave a wide range of commandments, but He also knew that those who worshipped Him would fail. And so, before giving law, He once again emphasised grace.14

The point that I wish to make is that many are turned off by this book because, among other reasons, it just seems too legal. But I want to encourage you to read beneath the surface. If you do, you will see the offer of God’s grace deeply imbedded in the text.

God’s grace, of course, is an amazing grace. The holy God, who is so glorious in His holiness that Moses could not enter into His presence, now summonsed Moses to commune with Him! Yahweh took the initiative to dwell in their midst and initiated their dwelling with Him! “The main concerns of the book—as well as of the Bible as a whole—are how God’s people were supposed to order their lives now that the holy God dwelled with them and how they could maintain a relationship with him so that they could enter his presence to worship him,”15 and this was all by God’s sovereign grace.

The Call Came in the Context of Glory

The Tabernacle had been constructed and erected, and now it was to be inhabited by the Lord of glory. He would manifest His glorious presence among His people. What a wonderful experience! And the children of Israel were to be faithful stewards of this privilege.

As we have come to appreciate, the Lord chose these people for His glory but this glory was to be made known among the nations. It was through the nation of Israel that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). If the knowledge of the glory of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea then Israel would need to walk worthy of the name by which they had been called: “My people.”16 It was therefore essential that the children of Israel submit to the Lord in every area of life. In the terminology of Paul, they were to glorify God whether they ate, drank or whatever they did (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is why Leviticus deals with so many so-called “mundane” areas of life. They would be living before a watching world and those who watched were to see the glory of God on display.

Certainly, these issues of God’s grace and His glory have implications and applications for the new covenant church. We too are called to worship in a context of grace and glory. We have been delivered from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13), and this has happened completely by God’s gracious call to us (Romans 8:28-30, etc.).

We have been called to worship our glorious God and to make His glory known among the nations. We are to display His glory—especially the glory of His grace in the face of Jesus Christ—before a watching (and often sceptical, cynical and even hostile) world. We need to hear and heed this call to worship. We need to reflect upon the amazing grace that has enabled us to sing, “Here I am to worship.” We then need to recommit to worship our gloriously gracious God in all of life.

Think about what has transpired up to this point. No one can read the books of Genesis and Exodus and maintain the fallacious idea that God owed anything to the children of Israel—except judgement, of course. God had every right to cast them aside, particularly after their apostasy with the gold calf. And yet God graciously forgave them. And now He called them to worship. He was calling them, among other things, to communion with Him.

Does this astonish you—that the gloriously holy God desired to fellowship with Israel, and desires fellowship with us? It should! And it should humble you.

If God did not seek us, if God did not take the initiative to call us to Himself, we would forever have remained separated from Him. Don’t ever minimise the sinful condition of mankind; don’t ever minimise your sinful condition. The Lord sovereignly calls those whom He loves to Himself. As He said of Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

God loves to love, and He saves those whom He loves, and this all begins with His call to them. What a privilege we have to be delivered from the domain of darkness, where otherwise we would still be worshipping the varied false gods of our age. But God in His grace has chosen to call us to Himself. He has saved us to commune with Him!

The Call Came in the Context of a Group

The children of Israel were to live for God’s glory in community. This therefore demanded that, as a community, they embrace God’s distinctive worldview. They were to live with a comprehensive God-centred approach to all of life (i.e. they were to see all of life as worship) and they were to do so with the community in mind. This is evidenced by the various laws of leprosy and other laws that sought to keep the land from being defiled. The communal offerings, which were for the purpose of protecting the community from God’s judgement, also reveal this principle.

As I have been reading through this book I have been struck time and again with the fact that how these people behaved in their homes had an effect on whether or not God would dwell with them. Don’t miss that. These laws, as we noted earlier, were not specifically for the Levitical priests but for the nation as a whole. These laws were not just about the sacrifices and the various offerings given at the tabernacle. No, these laws even covered the cleanliness of bed sheets. It is quite clear that what happened in the kitchens, in the living rooms and in the bedrooms had a profound effect on what happened at “church.” If one was deemed unclean in the field then he was deemed unclean for the church.

We need to take a cricket bat to the false dichotomy that how one behaves away from the “sanctuary” has no effect on the sanctuary. It is a lie that says how we live in response to God’s will in other areas can be divorced from the acceptability of our worship. The sin of Achan serves as a powerful example of how sin in one’s home is seen as sin in the community and how the whole is sometimes affected by the part.

Suffice it to say that how we live as individuals before the Lord has a direct bearing on how much the community of faith enjoys the communion of the Lord. It is therefore vital that we “get it” when it comes to having a biblical worldview; one that is informed by Scripture rather than by the culture.

Let me put forth this question: Are you hindering the experience of God’s glory today by how you lived this past week?

God’s Call to Worship is a Command

I don’t want to spend too much time here but it is essential for us to see that worshipping God in all of life was not merely a suggestion. It was an expectation, a command. This is how Moses heard it and this is how he relayed it to the people: “Thus says the LORD.”

There have been many over the past couple of centuries that have sought to undermine the divine authority of Leviticus. Yet it has survived all the attacks. Jesus affirmed the Mosaic authorship of the law—including Leviticus. It is the Word of God and therefore what it commands we are to obey.

Of course, the question arises almost immediately, which of these ancient commands are we to obey? After all, we live under the new covenant. This is true but there is also continuity between the covenants. We will flesh this out in future expositions but suffice it to say at this point that whatever laws in Leviticus that have not been abrogated by the new covenant are commands that we must obey if we will acceptably worship God. The principle that we must live by is simple: Whatever law has not been superseded by the new covenant is a law that we are responsible to obey.

Everyone on earth today is under God’s command to worship Him (cf. Acts 17:22-31). Have you obeyed the command? Have you heard the command? Ask the Lord to make you hear!

God’s Call to Worship is Comprehensive

As we journey through this book we will see clearly that God left no area of life untouched by His call to worship. He prescribed many laws for the purpose of making sure that the land where He would dwell with His people was clean. Clean living was not primarily so that God’s people could avoid disease and disaster but rather for the purpose of them being enabled to walk with God. This raises another important observation: The call to worship was not only a call to communion but also a call to new categories of thinking. So is the call to follow Christ.

One reason perhaps that we find the book of Leviticus so frustrating is that it addresses areas that seem so mundane and, in many cases, unfamiliar. After all, when we think of worship we are tempted to think of things “religious.” And so we think of hymns, prayers, Bible reading, offerings, etc. But when you read the book of Leviticus, though it begins with seven chapters dealing with offerings and then with several chapters describing the rules and functions of the priesthood, it soon begins to speak about clean and unclean animals, a woman’s menstrual cycle, childbirth, the presence and removal of mildew, matters of sexuality, planting and harvesting crops, slavery, economics, criminal justice, etc. Of course, we are tempted to think, what on earth is “spiritual” or “religious” about these things? Precisely!

You see, when God calls us to worship He is calling us to a completely new worldview, in which everything in life is to be undertaken with a view to His Lordship. God’s call to worship is a call for us to establish new categories of thinking and thus it is a call to a new way of living. We call this a “worldview.” And to the degree that our worldview is informed by the categories of Scripture, to such a degree all of our life will be lived as worship (a bowing to the will of God).

What then is a “worldview”? Francis Schaeffer described a man’s worldview as “the grid through which he sees the world.” Much like wearing a pair of glasses, depending on the lens, the world around you may seem larger, smaller, tinted or even obscured. A worldview is like that.

Our “ground-floor assumptions” compose our worldview (James Sire). Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey define a worldview as “the sum total of our beliefs about the world, the ‘Big Picture’ that directs our daily decisions and actions.”

Everyone has a worldview. Everyone has basic assumptions by which they interpret the world around them. Everyone makes decisions (whether they know it or not) motivated by how they think of reality. We make decisions based on our view of God (and whether there is one), on our assumptions about truth, knowledge and ethics. We could put it this way, belief determines behaviour; and conversely, one’s behaviour reveals ones beliefs.

Leviticus is a book that emphasises behaviour because it is an expression of what God expects His people to believe. In other words, if they believe God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, then they will behave as God commands them to. But if they fail to respond to God as He is then they will be selective with respect to their obedience to that revelation. And this certainly has implications for you and me.

When the Lord graciously called us to Himself by His Spirit through His Son He was calling us to a life in which His Scriptures would inform and shape every area of our life. We are called to comprehensively obey the Lord. No area of life is to be treated as “secular.” There is no area of “neutrality” for the Christian. Our worldview is to be God-informed and God-centred; it is to be God-shaped. This matter of a Christian worldview is essential, and as Voddie Baucham has said, “A church filled with people who lack a biblical worldview is no church at all.”

How is yours? My prayer is that our study of Leviticus will be used of God to further solidify and shape our worldview in such a way that radical shifts in how we behave in every area will take place. God’s glory deserves it and the good of our own souls and those of our family and church demands it. And so does the good of a lost and dying world.

God’s Call to Worship is Countercultural

God’s call to worship goes against the flow of a pagan, idolatrous, autonomous, Christ-rejecting culture. If we get serious about having a God-centred worldview then we will find ourselves swimming upstream. But as someone has insightfully commented, those things that merely float downstream are usually dead!

The theme verse of Leviticus may very well be 19:2 where we read the exhortation, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Or one might select 11:44-45 which reads, “For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy. . . . For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

As believers, every area of life is to be lived under the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God. And it is precisely for this reason that Leviticus is so comprehensive in its regulating of the believer’s behaviour. None of this has anything to do with legalism but everything to do with grace. That is, God expected His chosen and therefore called people to live distinctively different in every sphere of life. Because of God’s grace they were being asked to prove their gratitude by glorifying God. And, of course, the net effect was the good of the community. Someone has put these regulations of Leviticus in helpful perspective in writing,

Leviticus is good news. It is good news for sinners who seek pardon, for priests who need empowering, for women who are vulnerable, for the unclean who covet cleansing, for the poor who yearn for freedom, for the marginalized who seek dignity, for animals that demand protection, for families that require strengthening, for communities that want fortifying and for creation that stands in need of care. All these issues, and more, are addressed in a positive way in Leviticus.17

Leviticus was filled with good news for the children of Israel as they marched towards life in a sin-cursed world. It was the means by which they would not only be different but also make a difference in the world. And what was true for them is equally true for the new covenant church.

Peter wrote in his first epistle,

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear;

(1 Peter 1:13-17)

Believer, the Lord of the new covenant is equally the God of the old covenant and the expectation is the same. We are to hear and heed His commands to worship, and as we do so then holiness will be our pursuit. And I would remind you that holiness is still beautiful (Psalm 96:7-9).

May our studies in Leviticus have a radical impact on how we conduct ourselves throughout the time of our stay here. May we live lives of real and radical reverence.

God’s Call to Worship is Christ-Centred

As noted, Leviticus is filled with good news. Yes, Leviticus is gospel. But it is not only good news in the physical, material, and social areas mentioned, but most importantly it offers good news for repentant sinners. In fact the famed preacher Joseph Parker (a contemporary of Spurgeon in London) said “Leviticus is the gospel of the Pentateuch.”18

Leviticus, like the rest of Scripture, is all about Christ (see John 5:39, 46). And Christ is the foundation of the gospel. Look with me again at 1 Peter, but notice what precedes and what follows the command to be holy: Christ is central.

Peter tells us that the Old Testament foretold of Christ (vv. 3-12). And now that Christ has come and redeemed His people by His precious blood (vv. 18-21) we are to live “Levitical” lives (vv. 13-17).

As we journey through this book we will see, as we did in Exodus, Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour on every page. And as we do so we will also hear His call to worship.

John Currid has written a very good commentary on Leviticus and in his preface he shares a personal word of reflection on his study of this book. It well illustrates the reason we are commencing this journey today.

As I studied and commented on the book of Leviticus for the past few years, I often felt greatly weighed down. At times, the tedium often overwhelmed me. To be honest, the thought of giving up the commentary work was my partner as I went to my study each day. But as I daily persevered a new thought began to emerge, and now that I have finished the work the thought has become crystal clear. The laws of Leviticus are meant to weigh us down. As we read the laws, we are to realize our sinfulness (Rom. 7:7), and our inability to keep the law. Leviticus highlights our guilt and condemnation before the Holy One of Israel.

But we are not left there in a hopeless situation. For the law also has as its purpose to “become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Therefore, again and again, as I studied Leviticus I was brought to the throne of grace and, more and more, to the realization of the wondrous work of our Saviour in keeping the law and taking the curse of the law on himself undeservedly. And he did those things on behalf of his people.19

Think about these words in Galatians 3:24: “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Leviticus is very much a part of the law structure, and so we know that its purpose is to bring us to the gospel of Christ. It did then and does today.

And so as we close this introductory message, let me ask you a very personal and a very urgent question: Have you been led to Christ? Have you heard His call? Today is the day of salvation. Don’t delay another day. Cry out to God, “Speak for your servant hears! O God, while on others you are calling, do not pass me by. Please call me to worship!”

We study Leviticus because “it behoves the New Testament believer to give more attention to this book, for we base our eternal destinies on the one of whom Leviticus loudly speaks.”10

Oh, hear Him today! Respond to God’s call to worship!

Show 20 footnotes

  1. Gary North, Leviticus: An Economic Commentary (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), xi.
  2. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 15.
  3. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), vii.
  4. Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 13.
  5. Andrew Bonar, Leviticus: The Geneva Series of Commentaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), vi.
  6. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 16.
  7. S. H. Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers, 1978), 24.
  8. Tom Wells, A Vision for Missions (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1985), 23.
  9. Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 39.
  10. Rooker, Leviticus, 22.
  11. John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 17.
  12. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 14.
  13. The Hebrew word for atonement is found some 58 times in the book of Leviticus. It is translated various ways, but its root meaning is “to cover,” “to cleanse” or “to purge.”
  14. We saw a similar pattern in our study of the Ten Commandments. The deliverance from Egypt was emphasised before the law was actually given.
  15. Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 20.
  16. This term is found some 19 times in Exodus and 24 times in Leviticus. Additionally, God said on several occasion—for example, Exodus 19:5-6—that He was their God.
  17. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 17.
  18. Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible: Discourses Upon Holy Scripture, 27 vols. (London: Hazel, Watson, and Viney, n.d.), 3:9.
  19. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 13.
  20. Rooker, Leviticus, 22.