Guarding the Gospel (Leviticus 17:1-9)

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The local church has been entrusted with the God-given responsibility to guard the gospel. Paul reminded Timothy of this when he wrote, “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15). He then went on to describe (in v. 16) what this “truth” was, and identified it as “the mystery of godliness”:

God was manifest in the flesh
Justified in the Spirit
Seen by Angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

In other words, the truth which the church is to promote and to protect is the gospel of God. The local church must take this mandate seriously for the gospel has been and will continue to be under attack—both from without and from within the institutional church.

Protestants celebrate 31 October as Reformation Day, in remembrance of the fact that, on that day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany, the event which is widely considered to have sparked the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was about reclaiming and preserving the gospel—not primarily from without the church, but from within the institutional (Roman Catholic) church.

The new covenant church is entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel. We are responsible to pass this treasure of God to the next generation. In the words of Jude, we are to guard “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). But our assignment is not unique, for this was precisely the responsibility of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. And this purpose underlies the book of Leviticus. Fundamentally, this book teaches God’s people how to worship God in such a way that His gospel is perpetuated and protected in the process.

These 27 chapters were revealed so that Israel would worship the one true God in the manner in which He prescribed. If they did so, then perpetual generations would worship the true God. As they obeyed, not only would they be perpetuating true worship but they would also at the same time be protecting true worship. But we must go further and say that, in doing so, they were also protecting the gospel that God had revealed to Abraham. For it was through this nation that the promised Seed—Messiah—would come. We are therefore justified in concluding that Leviticus was a means to guard the gospel. And perhaps this is seen most clearly in chapter 17.

With this chapter we commence what some interpreters call “the Holiness Code” (19:2), which, according to the same interpreters, is the last section in the prescribed worship manual of Leviticus. Whether that is the correct division of these chapters is not a point that I wish to debate. Rather, I want to highlight that this section is different from the previous ones in that here the Lord addresses not only Moses and Aaron but the nation as a whole (see 21:24; 22:18). And the reason that He does so is because of the essential subject of this chapter: the place of worship and the price of worship. If we get this right then we will go a long way towards going with, while guarding, the gospel.

Until this point the Lord has prescribed many essential aspects of worship, such as the particular sacrifices that He would accept as well as how they were to be offered. God also prescribed the rules that the priesthood must obey as they offered up the sacrifices, with special reference to the high priest on the Day of Atonement. We also learned that God prescribed certain dietary restrictions for His people as a means to protect them from becoming corrupted, not by the food itself, but rather by those whom they might be tempted to eat with—the Gentiles. God also prescribed other rules with reference to how they were to respond to the presence of leprosy in skin, clothes and even their houses. Finally, the Lord gave specific directions with reference to bodily discharges as a means to protect them from falling into the pagan worldview and practices of those whom they were scheduled to soon encounter in Canaan.

Again, as we have seen over and over in our studies, these laws seemed to all share the same theme of God’s desire to protect them from the evil influences that would surround them. They were to be a kingdom of priests to God, which, among other things, meant that they were to be a means of being a blessing to the nations (Exodus 19:5-6; Genesis 12:1-3). They were God’s evangelists. But to be so required that they be holy. As Currid explains, “As He is wholly other, Israel is to be wholly other. This section of Leviticus is a manual of holiness, a guide to how Israel is to be distinct, especially as it relates to the nations surrounding them.”1 This theme surfaces time and again in the chapters that follow.

From chapter 17 onwards the emphasis is more on ethics outside the tabernacle than inside the tabernacle. It serves as “a hinge chapter between the public and private regulations.”2 Tidball says it well: “Chapter 17 is a bridge. It connects the first part of Leviticus, which is mainly concerned with ritual matters, to the second part, mainly concerned with ethical matters. The former has to do with holiness within the sanctuary, and the latter with holiness outside the sanctuary.”3

We can conclude that this section emphasises a biblical worldview for all of life. God expected for them to be holy as He is holy (19:2).

But holiness in all of life begins with the worship of the holy God in His appointed holy way. It is for this reason that so many of these laws in Leviticus have as their focus God’s desire to protect the nation from the corruption of His worship. And this is especially the case with Leviticus 17.

In this chapter we find one of the most important verses in the Bible: “The life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (v. 11). This verse lays the theological and soteriological theme that, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). In this study, we will look at why this is the case. There will probably be nothing new in what we consider here, but I trust that it will be used of the Lord in such a way that we will sing a new song because of a renewed joy arising from the truth that nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sins.

This chapter has five major paragraphs (vv. 1-7; 8-9; 10-12; 13-14; 15-16) but two major sections. In vv. 1-9 we learn that we must prioritise the place of worship; and in vv. 10-16 we learn that we must proclaim the price of worship. We will consider the first of these sections in this study.

We Must Prioritise the Place of Worship

The opening nine verses focus very much on the place of worship, and as we will see, they bear intense relevance for us in the new covenant era.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, to his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘This is the thing which the LORD has commanded, saying: “Whatever man of the house of Israel who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, the guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people, to the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to the priest, and offer them as peace offerings to the LORD. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD. They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.”’ Also you shall say to them: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from among his people.’”

(Leviticus 17:1-9)

The Regulation

The regulation is fairly straightforward though there is some debate about the extent of these regulations.

A Seeming Perplexity

The Lord commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and all the people regarding the blood of an animal. If anyone killed an ox, lamb or goat (either in the camp or outside the camp), it was to be offered at the tabernacle. Specifically, the blood was to be offered there, and a peace offering was to be given. It would seem that this ordinance covered the killing of an animal for any reason, including when it was being slaughtered for food. There is, however, some disagreement about this.

The word translated “kills” in v. 3 is usually used to describe slaughter for the purpose of sacrifice, and therefore what the text commands may have validation only for those animals that are killed for sacrifice. In other words, the intention of this law was to identify that there was only one allowable place for the offering up of these sacrificial animals.

Further, in Deuteronomy 12:15, God clearly allowed the slaughter of animals outside of the tabernacle precinct without the need to bring an offering there. Some argue that the difference is that Leviticus has is in view Israel’s seminomadic wilderness wandering, while Deuteronomy envisions Israel life in the Promised Land: widely scattered with some far from the central place of worship. The problem with this theory is that Leviticus 17:7 states that this law is to be “a statute forever.” Therefore, it seems to me that these verses are indeed describing the slaughter of these domesticated animals for the purpose of sacrificial worship.

None of this is conclusive and the content of vv. 8-9 may throw a spanner in the works, since it seems to make a distinction by specifically mentioning the sacrifice of animals as offerings. If this is the case then perhaps the regulation in these opening verses (vv. 1-7) applied to the butchering of animals for domestic use. But why would this be necessary? What purpose would this serve? Perhaps it was intended to teach the children of Israel that, when it comes to the believer in this world, there really is no distinction between the sacred and the secular.

Verses 8-9 may be offering repetition with a new emphasis—specifically for “strangers.”

Even if one was to slaughter a lamb for food, God was still to be acknowledged. In fact, if He was not, then there was the likelihood one might fail to give God His due. But further, the shedding of blood was so significant that God wanted His people to think about the fall and their redemption whatever they were doing. This, of course, has much significance for you and me. Whether we eat, drink or whatever we do, we are to do it to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). And this requires the gospel.

A Severe Penalty

Please note the severity of the sin if blood was shed anywhere but at the tabernacle: “The guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man” (v. 4). This is the same terminology used in Genesis 9:6 of one who was guilty of murder. Obviously, this was a serious issue!

Of course, this does not equate the sanctity of animal life with of the sanctity of human life. Humans are made in the image of God; animals are not. Nevertheless it would seem that the Lord was teaching His people that blood is very significant indeed.

Let’s return to the severity of the penalty. The guilty party was to be “cut off from among his people” (vv. 4, 9). We have encountered this phrase several times in our studies in Exodus and Leviticus. Some interpret this as referring to capital punishment. When you consider that God deemed this to be a crime of murder, it would fit quite logically and appropriately. But it is also possible that the individual, though not having his life forfeited, would be considered as good as dead by the rest of the community. In other words “cut off” may refer to excommunication. The guilty individual would no longer be considered a member of the covenant community. By rejecting God’s revelation with reference to the place of sacrifice and worship, he was defying God’s covenant.

This latter interpretation is perhaps the right one. But regardless of which one is accepted the point is clear: To violate this prescribed place of sacrifice and worship was a very serious offence. It revealed whether or not one was an acceptable member of the community.

The Reason

But we must ask, why? Why was it so important that the killing of sacrificial animals be associated so closely with the tabernacle?

The reason for this prescription was “simple: it is to help centralize the worship of the Hebrews.”4 As Calvin notes, “If they had been allowed to build altars everywhere, His pure and genuine worship would be been corrupted by this variety; and secondly, that He might direct the people to the Mediator, because this principle was ever to be held fast by believers, that no offerings could be legitimate except by His grace.”5

In other words, God was guarding His people from their tendency towards innovation born of idolatry. This law was a means of promoting their adherence to the first and second commandments. This is clearly seen in v. 7.

The word translated “demons” can literally be rendered “goat god.” This was a predominant religion in ancient Egypt. Having been recently in Egypt, they were susceptible to such idolatry. Exodus 32 is a case in point.

The Lord was concerned that His newly redeemed people be guarded from the error of their former ways. The children of Israel were not delivered from a spiritual vacuum; no, they had been worshippers in Egypt. The problem, of course, was that they were worshipping false gods. This verse tells us so in no uncertain terms. The children of Israel were redeemed by God while they were idolatrous. They were redeemed for the purpose of delivering them from idolatry. God was prescribing the place of sacrifice and worship to promote fidelity to Him. They had a track record of spiritual harlotry (see also Leviticus 20:1-6).

It is therefore quite clear that the reason for this law was to keep worship centralised and therefore protected. If every man could worship according to what was right in his own eyes, then the worship of the true God would be lost. Sadly, the history of Israel bears this out—as does subsequent church history.

Take, as but one example, 2 Chronicles 11:13-15:

And from all their territories the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel took their stand with him. For the Levites left their common-lands and their possessions and came to Judah and Jerusalem, for Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them from serving as priests to the LORD. Then he appointed for himself priests for the high places, for the demons, and the calf idols which he had made.

(2 Chronicles 11:13-15)

By the time of the New Testament, Israel’s worship had been so perverted that God referred to Jewish synagogues as “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).

God was guarding His people from individualism that leads to idolatry. In fact, most individualism is idolatrous. By having a centralised place of worship, led by qualified men (the priests), worship was protected and the truth of God was therefore protected. Rushdoony insightfully writes, “When separated from God’s appointed place, demonic and alien practices intrude, as men practice will-worship and assert the sufficiency of their wisdom.”6 The same principle applies today. We become what we worship, and how we worship has much to do with whom and what we worship. It therefore must be guarded.

The temptation of so-called Christian “liberty” to worship in our own way and to interpret the Bible in our own way leads to spiritual catastrophe. As Luther once noted, if we simply let each individual interpret the Bible in their own way then all we are doing is encouraging people to go to hell in different ways.7

The tendency to idolatry (born of individualism) is a huge and ever present problem with mankind. And the gospel is designed to demolish this. When the Lystrans bowed to Paul and Barnabas in worship, the missionaries focused their attention on the gospel as a means to destroy their idolatry (Acts 14:15-17). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The gospel destroys idolatry.

But once we have turned from idols to serve the living and true God we must continue to turn and serve. And this requires accountability to a “place of worship”—in our context, the local church. This cannot be stressed too much. The local church is God’s means to cast down idolatry in our quest to worship the true God by believing the true gospel.

The Result

The result of this regulation was that God’s people worshipped in community. They could therefore hold one another accountable and were strengthened as a community of faith to be a more effective witness. “It provided them with a point where that unity could be expressed and encouraged, and at the same time helped to keep them from straying into false ways.”8 This communal faith and subsequent worship was to have continuity from generation to generation.

It must be stressed that God redeemed the nation of Israel from Egypt as a community. This is important for us to grasp. God’s “salvation” of Israel serves as an illustration of God’s salvation of the new covenant church, but not in every respect. Let me explain.

When God redeemed Israel, He delivered them politically from oppression in Egypt. But their deliverance from their geographic oppression did not mean that each of these Israelites was born again. In fact, Paul wrote in Romans 9:6 that “they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” In other words, not every Jew was a spiritual descendant of Abraham.

The writer to the Hebrews seems to imply that the majority of those who came out of Egypt were not born again (Hebrews 3:7-19). Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 that the majority of those who followed Moses through the Red Sea died in the wilderness, rejected by God. Later in the same chapter (vv. 14-22) he speaks specifically of the sin of idolatry which plagued those who were externally a part of God’s old covenant community. It is interesting that Paul calls them “Israel after the flesh” (v.18). Paul is making the distinction, once again, that not all Israel is of Israel.

Many, if not most, of the children of Israel were only externally connected to the covenant. It was for this very reason that God gave these laws. How they responded to His prescription for worship would go a long way toward identifying them as the true Israel. In short, those who respected God’s revelation with respect to the place of sacrifice, and thus the place of worship, indicated that they were of Israel indeed. And those who rejected God’s appointed place of worship gave clear evidence that they were not of the true, faithful Israel. It has always been this way. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19).

Let me pause here to apply this.

Under the new covenant there is only one acceptable place of sacrifice and that is the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. If one denies the blood of Christ—His person and work—they are not of Him (1 John 5:6-13; 2 John 9-11). There is only mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). To deny the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only means of one’s redemption is to reject God and His gospel (1 John 1:7-9). You cannot bypass the God assigned “place” or person of reconciliation and be saved. But sadly, this is all too frequently ignored if not rejected by many in the so-called evangelical church.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Rob Bell was asked whether he considers himself an evangelical. He replied, “I embrace the term ‘evangelical’ if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.”9 Notice that Bell completely ignores the gospel and makes no reference to Christ or His cross in his definition of an evangelical. Sadly, he is not alone.

But another application is suggested by this passage. There is a prescribed place of worship in our day, which must not be neglected. In fact, the prescribed place of worship could perhaps be better identified as a prescribed people of worship: the local church.

Jesus made it very clear to the woman to whom he ministered at the well (John 4) that the day was soon coming when the place of worship would be not geographically confined to Jerusalem. He, of course, was speaking of the result of His death, burial and resurrection from which the new covenant church would be birthed. Those who were to be born again would be worshippers of God in spirit and in truth regardless of where they were in the world and regardless of their ethnic identification. But having said this, Jesus never taught—and neither did any of His apostles—that a Christian could worship however they wanted or in isolation from other believers. Of course, all of life is to be live on bended knee in submission to Christ, but He does intend for believers to corporately worship in covenantal community with other believers. We call this corporate, or congregational, worship. God’s people are appointed by God to worship and serve Him together. We are under obligation to worship and to live sacrificially at God’s place of worship: the local church.

Sadly, in our day, the local church is often neglected if not outright ignored by many professing believers. But it is clear from Scripture that believers are expected by Christ to worship and serve alongside other believers (Hebrews 10:24-25; Colossians 3:14-7; Ephesians 5:18-21; etc.). In other words, there are rules for God’s people when it comes to worship. And when those rules are consistently rejected and defied, then such a self-confessed covenantal church member is to be “cut off.”

We need to be done with the postmodern individualistic worldview that rejects commitment to community. Those whom God saves He places in responsible relationship with other believers. “‘Do-it-yourself spirituality’ was to have no place in Israel.”10 A seasoned pastor helpfully observes, “It provided them with a point where that unity could be expressed and encouraged, and at the same time helped to keep them from straying into false ways. . . . There is no encouragement in either the Old or New Testaments for the kind of individualism that is so prevalent in some Christian circles.”11

We should note that to worship God in community—to worship Him with and at the prescribed place of worship—is a means to protect us from idolatry. It is therefore a means to guard the gospel.

The place of sacrifice (and thus the place of worship) was essential for the worldview and for world impact by God’s people. And the same applies to us under the new covenant. Though I understand that believers are to worship God 24/7, nevertheless God has prescribed that His people gather corporately in a locale on a particular day for corporate worship. And if we refuse to do so then much spiritual mischief can follow. In fact, if we ignore both God’s assigned place of worship and God’s prescriptions for that worship then we will, eventually, lose the gospel as we become idolatrous.

Let me add that to worship God in community—to worship Him with and at the prescribed place of worship—is a safeguard against placing our trust in that which cannot save us.

The local church should be the safest place for one’s soul but all too often it is the most dangerous. Be careful. May God use our local churches for His glory.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 227.
  2. R. Laird Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:593.
  3. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 205.
  4. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 230.
  5. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 2.2:260.
  6. Rousas John Rushdoony, Leviticus: Commentaries on the Pentateuch (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2005), 178.
  7. Michael Horton, “Reformation Essentials: Five Pillars of the Reformation,” http://goo.gl/3s3fD, retrieved 4 November 2012.
  8. Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 224.
  9. Michael Paulson, “Rob Bell on faith, suffering, and Christians,” http://goo.gl/MrRDX, retrieved 4 November 2012.
  10. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 208.
  11. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness, 224.