There is a remarkable account in Matthew 8 of Jesus’ interaction with a Roman centurion, who wanted the Lord to heal his beloved servant. Jesus offered to come to his house and heal him. The centurion, however, responded that Jesus’ physical presence was unnecessary. He knew that Jesus was invested with the power of God and said, “For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (v. 9).
The reason that the centurion could command with confidence was because he realised that he too was under command. Thus, his commands were enforceable because they carried the weight of Rome. The centurion understood the principle of authority and for this reason he recognised the source of Jesus’ authority: Jesus had the weight of heaven behind Him. Jesus spoke and lived with authority. The centurion recognised His divine authority. This is why Jesus replied, “Assuredly I have not found so great faith, not even in Israel” (v. 10).
There is an important lesson for us here: Those who speak and live with moral authority are those who speak and live under God’s authority. This principle is revealed for us in Leviticus 6:8—7:38. This passage addresses certain men who were under God’s authority in a unique way.
In this section God, through Moses, instructed the priests with reference to the five prescribed sacrifices. God was commanding the priests who would be responsible for commanding the people.
There is a slight difference in the order of the sacrifices, with the peace offering coming fifth, whereas earlier it was explained third. The reason for this was probably due to the long section giving instructions as to the consuming of the offering both by the people but especially by the priests. It should also be noted that this section is not merely a redundant repetition of what had already been said but that new material is added here.
This long section (61 verses) can be divided into five major categories, two of which include an excurses, and then a conclusion:
- The Burnt Offering (6:8-13)
- The Grain Offering (6:14-23)
- The Sin Offering (6:24-30)
- The Trespass Offering (7:1-6)
- The Provision of the Priests (7:7-10)
- The Prohibition from eating Fat & Blood (7:22-27)
In many ways, the conclusion is an inclusio, which serves (along with 1:1-2) to frame this “worship manual,” which describes how to worship God with sacrifices. The manual opens with the thunder burst of, “Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel’” (1:1-2). The voice of divine authority came forth and Moses was to command the people that the true God was to be worshipped in the true way. And what way is that? Not the way of popular opinion and public surveys; not the way that is most culturally sensitive; not the way that is most seeker sensitive; not the way of the latest fad; not the way that is the result of human cleverness and psychological insight. No—a thousand times no! The true way was God’s self-revealed way. He regulated how He would be approached. He regulated the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. And this way was the reason for Leviticus. The book of Leviticus points us, perhaps more clearly than any other Old Testament book, to the Way, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
As we have seen thus far each of the five sacrifices points us to Christ. Briefly,
- The burnt offering speaks of reconciliation/atonement;
- The grain offering speaks of response/consecration;
- The peace offering speaks of relationship/fellowship with God;
- The sin offering speaks of the need for on-going repentance/purification; and
- The guilt (trespass) offering speaks of restitution/compensation.
But having detailed to the people how they were to bring and to offer such sacrifices, in these final verses the Lord commanded Moses to instruct the priests with reference to these sacrifices. The priests were under command from God and were therefore entrusted by God to command the people. In a very real sense this long passage outlines priestly authority (before investiture, chapters 8—10). One commentator makes a particularly brilliant insight with reference to this passage:
The instructions that Moses provides for the priests are open to all. There are no secrets. This marks a decided difference between Israel and some of their neighbours who practiced hidden rituals, which were for the priests’ eyes only. . . . Leviticus cautiously limits the authority of the priesthood by spelling out the priest’s duties to prevent too much control over the laity.1
In other words, this passage highlights that those with authority over God’s people are themselves under a higher authority.
It is a maxim that everything rises and falls on leadership. This is especially true in the realm of the church. God expects His appointed human leadership to exercise His authority for the welfare of His people. But leadership can only do so when it is under authority of God’s command. This is precisely the reason for this passage which we will study here.
Derek Tidball hits the mark when he observes,
The responsibilities of those who lead worship under the new covenant are no less than those of the priests of old. No reduction in the standard of obedience to God’s word, care with which worship is prepared, or the quality of excellence with which it is performed is acceptable just because we live in the age of grace rather than of law. It is Christian believers, not old-covenant Israelites, who are exhorted to “be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” We require standards of professionalism and precision from our doctors, our engineers, our builders, our plumbers and our car mechanics. Shoddy workmanship on the part of any of them could well not only cause inconvenience, or even require money to remedy what they have done defectively, but even cost lives. How much more should those of us who have the responsibility of leading worship—which involves people’s eternal destiny—do so with diligent care!2
This is why James wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement” (James 3:1).
Though it is true that the church is a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:5-9; see Exodus 19:5-6), and that each believer is therefore a priest, it is also true that God has appointed leadership in His church that bears the weighty responsibility of commanding God’s other priests for the glory of Christ and for the good of the church (see Hebrews 13:17; etc.). We need to realise that God’s leaders in the church—the elders or pastors3—are men under authority. As long as they live this way then they are also men who lead with authority and must therefore be obeyed. When this is true then the church is blessed.
Leviticus 6:8—7:38 highlights seven responsibilities of those who lead God’s flock. In this particular study we will touch on the first three of those seven responsibilities. We will return in a future study to consider the rest. These responsibilities are also things that can be expected of church leaders today, and these principles also highlight some of what church leaders can expect from their congregation.
They Must Keep the Fire Burning
The first responsibility of the Levitical priests was that they were to keep the fire of the burnt offering burning.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering: The burnt offering shall be on the hearth upon the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen trousers he shall put on his body, and take up the ashes of the burnt offering which the fire has consumed on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments, put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. And the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not be put out. And the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order on it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.’”
The basic principle here for new covenant church leaders is that they must always expound the cross. Let me explain.
In these verses, we learn that the burnt offering was to be a continual sacrifice on the altar. In fact, the phrase “the fire of the altar shall be kept burning” (or something similar) is emphasised five times in these six verses. The fire was to be burning and the sacrifice smouldering 24/7.
In the morning the priests would stoke the fire to prepare it for the sacrificial animal. The sacrifice would be slain and its blood thrown on the sides of the altar. Its skin would be removed, and it would then be cut up (according to the kind of animal that it was; see chapter 1), its legs and ‘entrails’ washed (to remove anything unclean), and then it would be placed upon the altar—all of it, less the skin.
At night time the priests would once again stoke the fire and repeat the process. Asking why the fire should be tended all night, Currid notes,
It is not explicitly stated in the text, but various opinions have been offered by scholars. Hartley argues that it is in order that the soothing aroma should ascend continually to Yahweh. Porter says it is “to preserve the bond between God and his people.” Gispen suggests that it symbolizes the continual consecration of the Hebrews to Yahweh. Calvin believes it is because the first offering in the tabernacle was lit by fire from heaven and it must be continued.4
Along this line Harrison comments, “An ‘eternal flame’ can be amenable to a great deal of symbolism, or none at all. For the ancient Hebrews it typified, among other things, God’s presence among His people.”5 After all, the pillar of fire was indeed a manifestation of the presence and promised care of God (Exodus 13:21-22).
Though I agree with this, I would also point out that the presence of God can be a terrifying experience. What alleviated the terror, however, is the sacrifice upon the altar. The burnt offering was an offer of atonement, of reconciliation with God, who otherwise is our enemy. It symbolised the means by which sinners were reconciled to God; it symbolised the door to acceptable worship (1:4).
As the child of God would perhaps have a restless night, he or she could look toward the tabernacle, see the smoke ascending and know that all was well. God, by His sovereign grace was for His people (Psalm 56:9). It was therefore vital that God’s people be assured of His favour to them and so the priests had to keep the fire burning.
This continual burnt offering was a wonderful reminder that “He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4) and thus His covenantal people were safe and secure from His wrath. As Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” and, “no one is able to snatch [My people] out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:30-31).
Of course, for the fire to remain burning, there had to be a continual supply of firewood. That would not necessarily be an easy task to fulfil in the middle of an arid wilderness. Nevertheless it would seem that the priests were required to keep the wood box filled (see Nehemiah 10:34; 13:31). Difficult manual labour was required (especially since they did not have access to chainsaws!).
The point is that the priests would have to labour hard to keep the fire going so that the fires of comfort and devotion from the people would be kept burning. The priesthood was not for wimps. It was not for “ministers in skirts.” Those who were called to teach and to lead God’s people are called to intense labour. And the same is true today!
Further, the priests were responsible to daily clean around the altar and to dispose of the ashes from the previous day’s activities. This was a messy job and, surprisingly, the priests were required to wear their specially designed linen clothes. These were not Men in Black, but Men in White!
The reason for this ordinance was to once again emphasise the holiness of God and the sacredness of serving Him as mediators. God wanted to make sure that those who worshipped Him were not tainted with the surrounding culture’s religious approach to God.
It is well known that the Canaanite religious rites were often carried out by priests who were naked, and that sexual immorality was associated with such pagan religions (much like Hinduism of our day). God therefore demanded that His priests display modesty in their public worship. He still cares about this. Pastor-author Philip Everson comments, “Church leaders have a duty to see that communal acts of worship do not stimulate people’s sexual drives.”6
It is interesting that, when the priests went outside the camp with the ashes to dispose of them, they were to wear regular clothes. God was teaching the community of faith that the nearer one came to the tabernacle, the closer they were to holiness. “The changing of their clothes was a coded message about the need to prevent holy things from being devalued and made to be of no special importance. The things of God were extraordinary and ought to be treated as such.”7
Let us never forget that corporate worship is in fact a “performance,” where God is our Audience. Let us take care to wear our best!
I suppose you may be wondering at this point, what does this have to do with the new covenant church? In fact, it has a great deal to do with the new covenant church!
First, when we are in the presence of God’s temple (the local church) we should be motivated to holiness and thus to modesty. And those under authority should not only set the tone for this but should expect it of all.
Second, and most importantly, the leadership of God’s people must keep the atoning work of Christ central. That is, they must keep the cross central. The only way to keep the fires of devotion burning is by a proper appreciation of the cross work of Jesus Christ. And this, like the task of the priests of old, requires hard work.
Collecting and cutting the “wood” from the Word in order to regularly keep the congregation focused on Christ and His atoning work is easier said than done. As we wrestle with our own sins, as we do battle with our own temptation to lose sight of Him, and as we sometimes ourselves are victims of unbiblical condemnation, we must work hard to rest in the gospel.
It should be noted that the priests were required to offer this burnt offering daily because they, like the people, were themselves in need of atonement. Though their position was “holier,” their persons were not. They too were sinners. We too are sinners. Therefore, we must work hard at preaching the gospel to ourselves if we will effectively and persuasively preach it to others.
As we will soon see, those appointed by God to lead His people are to give gospel hope to His people. And this is precisely where biblical preaching leads. It is true that, at first, one may feel heavy laden by sin, but then—and only then—is one prepared to have the burden lifted at Calvary. The congregation should demand that its leaders preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)!
As Allen Ross writes, “No one should ever come to the sanctuary and find the fire out or the priests unavailable. . . . Those who minister for Christ must therefore keep the atonement at the center of their work and make its application their primary concern.”8 Believer, praise God that our High Priest ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). Praise God that Jesus does not need to offer sacrifices for His own sin, for He is sinless.
They Must Set the Example
The second principle evident from our text is that the Levitical priests were to set the example for the congregation to follow. They were to do so as they exemplified biblical consecration.
“This is the law of the grain offering: The sons of Aaron shall offer it on the altar before the LORD. He shall take from it his handful of the fine flour of the grain offering, with its oil, and all the frankincense which is on the grain offering, and shall burn it on the altar for a sweet aroma, as a memorial to the LORD. And the remainder of it Aaron and his sons shall eat; with unleavened bread it shall be eaten in a holy place; in the court of the tabernacle of meeting they shall eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it as their portion of My offerings made by fire; it is most holy, like the sin offering and the trespass offering. All the males among the children of Aaron may eat it. It shall be a statute forever in your generations concerning the offerings made by fire to the LORD. Everyone who touches them must be holy.”
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “This is the offering of Aaron and his sons, which they shall offer to the LORD, beginning on the day when he is anointed: one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour as a daily grain offering, half of it in the morning and half of it at night. It shall be made in a pan with oil. When it is mixed, you shall bring it in. The baked pieces of the grain offering you shall offer for a sweet aroma to the LORD. The priest from among his sons, who is anointed in his place, shall offer it. It is a statute forever to the LORD. It shall be wholly burned. For every grain offering for the priest shall be wholly burned. It shall not be eaten.”
The grain offering, as we learned, symbolised the believer living all of life under the Lordship of Christ. The grain offering was given as an expression of gratitude to God for all His gifts—for everything that pertains to life and godliness. It was an act of consecration, a declaration of dedication to God because of the relationship He had initiated by reconciling sinners.
Here the priests were told that, upon their investiture to the priesthood, they were to daily (as with the burnt offering) offer up a grain offering. “Here the high priest is to restate his consecration to that service twice a day as part of the sacrificial system of Israel. The offering also has to do with one’s sin and need of forgiveness. Here is the high priest of Israel acknowledging his unholiness before a holy God, and his contrition and need for forgiveness from God.”9
In other words, the priests were not only to expect dedication of the congregation, but the congregation was to expect this of the priesthood as well. Harrison powerfully captures the essence of this law, “These regulations draw attention to the spiritual integrity of the priestly office. Its holders must not presume upon it, nor must they imagine that, as priests, they are above the law. . . . Activities must not be allowed to breed contempt.”10 This is a poignant reminder for those who lead others.
No one gets a pass from the demands of the gospel. Since all of us who are saved are the recipients of God’s matchless mercy, so all of us receive the same exhortation to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service (Romans 12:1-2).
If those appointed by God to lead His people do not strive to daily live comprehensively under the Lordship of Christ then it will be a small wonder if the congregation does not take them seriously when the leaders calls upon them to do so.
It should be noted that this passage makes it clear that the priests were not to benefit from their own grain offering (vv. 22-23). In other words, their serving God was to cost them just as it cost others. Beware the leader who only does what he is paid to do! Beware the leader who assumes that his offerings can be spent for his own benefit.
The truth should be driven home that visibility invites scrutiny. Paul understood this and so he exhorted young Timothy, “Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul could testify to the Thessalonians “You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:10).
The church has the right (indeed, the responsibility) to expect that its ministers consistently strive to live all of life under the Lordship of Christ. And that includes, but is not confined to, the workplace, the home, the community, the shops, the road, entertainment, the use of our time, the raising of our children, etc.
They Must Treat Sin Seriously
The third principle for leadership, on which we will only touch briefly in this study, and return to in a future study, is that they must treat sin seriously and therefore expect holiness.
Also the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: In the place where the burnt offering is killed, the sin offering shall be killed before the LORD. It is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the tabernacle of meeting. Everyone who touches its flesh must be holy. And when its blood is sprinkled on any garment, you shall wash that on which it was sprinkled, in a holy place. But the earthen vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken. And if it is boiled in a bronze pot, it shall be both scoured and rinsed in water. All the males among the priests may eat it. It is most holy. But no sin offering from which any of the blood is brought into the tabernacle of meeting, to make atonement in the holy place, shall be eaten. It shall be burned in the fire.’”
“The place of the altar in worship cannot be overly emphasized,” writes Vasholz. “Without an altar, a covenant relationship with God’s people cannot be established and maintained.”11 Praise the Lord that our Altar is in heaven (Hebrews 13:10). Obey your leaders and partake of it (Hebrews 13:17—and note the context)!
As noted above, this section is not simply repetitious of earlier instructions, but also includes some new material. Verses 24-30 introduce us to some factors that were not revealed earlier in chapter 4.
We are told that the sin offering was “most holy,” which does not mean that it was holier than the other offerings, but that (as the phrase is used in the Pentateuch) it was an offering that could only be eaten by the priests and only within the tabernacle precincts. The fact that this offering could only be eaten in this prescribed area meant that those offering the sacrifice could observe it being consumed. Among other things, this would give them hope that their sin offering had been accepted by God.
The warning is given that “everyone who touches its flesh must be holy” (v. 27).12 The point is that it was dangerous to handle this sacrifice unless you were God’s mediator. Like Uzzah (2 Samuel 6), to touch that which was holy was dangerous—and deathly so. Sin is serious. And so is the remedy. It truly is a matter of life and death.
The priests were instructed that, if blood from the sin offering touched a garment, that garment must be washed. The Lord further instructed that, if the flesh (apportioned to the priests) was boiled in a clay pot, it must be destroyed. This pictured God’s wrath upon anything contaminated by sin. (Remember that the sacrificial animal had been on the receiving end of the transference of guilt for sin.) If the meat was boiled in a non-porous metal container then it needed to be thoroughly washed by scrubbing. The only exception to the eating of the sin offering was if some of its blood had been sprinkled inside the tabernacle proper—in other words, if the sin offering was for the high priest of for the elders, as prescribed in chapter 4. Again, the priests were not to benefit from their sin.
All of these instructions were intended by God to drive home the exceeding sinfulness of sin and thus to teach the people—through the priesthood—to take sin seriously. Today’s appointed ministers are called to no less a task.
God’s ministers must help God’s people to appreciate increasingly the seriousness of sin. We must proclaim God’s truth in such a way that His people come to see how “awe-full” God is and thus how awful sin is. Ministers must not play fast and loose with sin. They must flee and forsake it. They must identify as sin what God identifies as sin. They must exhort a life of holiness apart from which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
When sin is minimised, the glory of the gospel is marginalised and the glory of our Saviour is trivialised. Rather than rationalising sin, the minister must do all he can to radically uproot it.
I am well aware that people would like to come to church and feel good from start to finish. But that approach is ultimately unhelpful. Here, rather, is how a church service should progress: You enter perhaps feeling pretty good, about midway you feel pretty (maybe really?) bad, but you leave feeling glad and relieved. If you leave feeling bad (perhaps even mad!) then perhaps you have not listened as you should have. The sin offering would have followed such a course. And when you and I properly label the heinousness of our sin for what it really is, and as we look to the Sin Offering and lay hold of Christ, then we can be relieved of that which initially made us feel so heavy, sad, bad and perhaps even mad.
May God forgive us for ever minimising the heinousness sin. When sin is minimised, the gospel is marginalised and the Saviour becomes trivialised. Rather than minimising sin, let us see it for what it is and then lay hold afresh (or perhaps for the first time) of the Sin Offering, the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom grace is available for forgiveness and cleansing.
- Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 79. ↩
- Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 96-97. ↩
- In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “pastor” and “overseer” (“bishop”) are used to describe the same office. ↩
- John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 79. ↩
- R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 75. ↩
- Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 86. ↩
- Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 99. ↩
- Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 158, 60. ↩
- Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 83. ↩
- Harrison, Leviticus, 77. ↩
- Vasholz, Leviticus, 86. ↩
- “Must be holy” is a far better translation than the ESV’s “shall be holy.” ↩