5. Leviticus (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 5.  Leviticus (1)

Lev 4:2,3  Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands …. he must bring to the LORD a … sin offering for the sin he has committed.

For many people the book of Leviticus is a no-go area, a book of strange practices, practices that verge on horrible things, at least according to the modern mind, Thus we write the book off or shy away from it and certainly don’t expect to find any ‘highlights’ in it. However our two verses above present us with something that we, as Christians, may take for granted, and the unbelieving world fail to see as of any relevance, but for those with a mind to use, a necessity.

It is all about failure and restoration. Do you see the starting point: “When anyone sins.” Now of course the modern world denies there is such a thing as sin and denies the existence of God, but that is more to allow them freedom to do whatever they like than for any intellectual reason. My definition of ‘Sin’ is “self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous thoughts, words or deeds”, and there is a lot of that in our world!

But this goes to the root of the entire teaching of the Bible. Summing it up as a big picture, if you like, we might say, there is a God who created all things and made them perfect, including the first human beings. However, when He gave them free will they used it to express their self-centred desire that was godless in its outlook (they pretended God was not there and would not mind, that is what is behind their thinking in Gen 3, at least for a few seconds). That was sin and human beings (every single human being) has been doing that ever since.

But here’s the thing: God holds each and every person accountable for what they think, say or do. He respects our personal individuality that enables us to choose the sort of person we will be and what we will do. Yet, He says of everything that is contrary to His original design, that is Sin. You weren’t made to be like that. Now a long study that I have made over several years suggests that, contrary to popular belief, God is not so much concerned about punishing sinful acts (although justice demands that wrongs be punished and dealt with) as delivering us or changing us so we stop living like that and are able to return to the original design which involves being at peace with ourselves, and with one another, and with Him, as we live out love and goodness.

If we take the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) as a starting place, we see a certain set of rules for living that can apply to all of mankind. The Ten Commandments are so general that they can apply to any person on earth. The first commands are about relationship with God but if we go to the second half we find such simple commands as don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery etc., rules or laws which any person in their right mind would say are wisdom for a peaceful and harmonious society which, we would all aspire to on a good day. But following those ten commandments, come a series of other laws (in the following few chapters of Exodus) that put more detail to living out life in an agricultural and somewhat basic society, under God – that of Israel – with many more ‘guide-lines’ to be followed to achieve that peaceful and harmonious society that we just referred to.  (And remember that that is the basic purpose of God’s rules, the Laws of Moses).

But then comes this amazing understanding on the Lord’s part, “‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands.” The Lord knows we are prone to failure but He doesn’t get all upset about it, He simply provides a way for human beings who do get it wrong, to get back into a good place with Him. The assumption was clearly that He expected His people, who had entered into covenant with Him, to not want to break the laws but live by them to create that peaceful and harmonious society, and yet we all of us stumble and trip over our feet, so to speak, and get it wrong from time to time – and the Lord understands that! It is what we think and feel when we come to our senses and realise we have done wrong is what He is concerned about. He assumes repentance, a change of heart and mind, and a desire to put things right, but how could they do that in respect of God.

The incredibly simple answer is the law of sacrifices that we find in the early chapters of Leviticus. Now we all like to ‘make up’ by doing something after we have sinned. Some of us try to make up to God by going to church, or by doing charitable service or a whole variety of other things, all designed to get on God’s good side. But we are still expressing our self-centred outlook when we do that.

The Lord says, simply come the way I have provided, it is so much easier! For the Israelites it was simply to bring an animal to be sacrificed, i.e. put to death and presented to God. That action would certainly have added a serious dimension to this act, it was no mere casual performance. Often you, the offender, had to put the creature to death in front of the priest and as you saw it die you would have realised it was your sin that deprived this creature of its life and that would help you determine never to fail in that way again.

Since Jesus gave his life on the Cross, as a one-off sacrifice for our sins, we do not have to make such sacrifices, but perhaps the sacrifice we have to present is that self-centred desire to make ourselves good. No we cannot make ourselves good, only He can do that. All we can do is believe that Jesus died for us, died for my Sin (to set me free from that inherent tendency to be self-centred and godless) and for my individual sins, all those myriads of times when I have thought, said or done wrong. Justice has been satisfied and I must lay down ‘self’ that wants to still DO something to appease God. No, He has been appeased by Jesus’ death.   He just wants my belief in that – and of course when we do, all other things follow – our thoughts, our words and our deeds; we are transformed, and this is His desire for us, that we may be blessed by these new lives we live.

No, these verses in Leviticus are indeed highlights; they reveal a God of understanding, a God of compassion and care, a God who wants our restoration more than anything else. Isn’t that incredible!

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10. Shutdown

Meditations in Malachi : 10. Shutdown

Mal 1:10  “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.

I was amazed when I first studied the Law – well no perplexed first, actually.   Why were those long dreary chapters at the beginning of Leviticus about different sorts of offerings, and why were there those tedious chapters in the latter part of Exodus about the Tabernacle and the priests? None of it seemed relevant to today, so why was it there, and then eventually I understood. This was the Lord recognising that His people would get it wrong so that they would feel guilty and then feel at a distance from the Lord, this was the Lord making a way back for such people. This was also the Lord making provision for those whose hearts might overflow with love for God who just wanted to bring Him a gift.

That was what all those laws were about, about regulating how those things might happen through the sacrifices. That was what the Tabernacle and then later theTemplewere about. They were places of focus on the Lord, places where the Lord initially made His presence known, places that He filled with His glory, places of fellowship with God and places of reconciliation with God and restoration of a relationship with the Lord. That was what the Temple was all about. It was for the people to come and do two things: offer sacrifices and pray (remember Jesus called it a house of prayer). The Tabernacle and then the Temple were all about relationship with the Lord which is why, when the Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587BC, it was so devastating for Israel. When Jeremiah spoke about restoration after seventy years, that seventy years was the period between the destruction of the Temple and the completion of its rebuilding, exactly seventy years!

But God isn’t fooled by play acting. That had been going on before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah parodied their reliance upon the presence of the Temple (Jer 7). Now the same thing was happening again. The apostle Paul prophesied about the last days: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God– having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:1-5) There is the same thing: there will be a form of religion (godliness) while all the time men and woman are living lives that are very different from God’s design for them.

The people of Malachi’s day were declaring that they were godly because they were performing religious acts and then comes this terrible word of judgment through Malachi: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”   Shut down all this religious nonsense, is what the Lord is saying, for that is actually what it is – religious nonsense!  Did God want His people to perform religious acts in the Temple with no meaning behind them? No! God’s intent had been to provide channels for blessing Israel, for making ways back to Him and for legitimizing their gifts to Him. The Temple was for prayer and worship and reconciliation and those things, to be genuine, have to come out of wholeheartedness.

The Lord is concerned more what goes on inside a person than the things they do outwardly. Outward acts can be pure pretense. In medical terms, sometimes people come out in a skin rash and it is a sign of tension or stress within. It is the reality of the inner life that God is concerned with, not the charades that people put on. Who are they kidding? Do they think they will make God think well of them? Does “going to church on a Sunday morning” make God feel good about us? No, it should be an expression of the love we have for Him on the inside.

Around the world, often the churches with the greatest reality are those in countries where the church is persecuted and driven underground. When those people gather together under threat of arrest, there is a reality and a depth of love not found in the West. How tragic it is that our love is only proved real when it is challenged! When will we come to our senses and call out to the Lord for a reality of relationship? Will the Lord have to shut our churches down before that has to happen? May it not be so!

38. Blood

Meditations in the Law : No.38 : Blood

Lev 17:8,9 Say to them: `Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to the LORD–that man must be cut off from his people.

Again and again in the laws of Leviticus, I suggest, we come across things which to us today seem most strange and yet, once you think about them, make a lot of sense. My underlying belief, having read God’s word for many years, is that the laws make sense! God gave them for a purpose and each one conveys some truth about life. These instructions that we find in chapter 17 convey strong messages about life, about death and about God.

Our starting place, in our verses above, is very simple: if you bring a sacrifice then you must bring it to the tabernacle. The tabernacle or Tent of Meeting was the place ordained by God where the Israelites would come to meet with God – the only place that He had ordained. Thus, to sacrifice anywhere else meant a) you were doing your own thing and disregarding God and b) it was likely you would start offering your sacrifice to some other imaginary god or idol. The truth, as the early Ten Commandments remind us, is that there is only one Supreme Being and so anything else is drifting into superstitious fantasy. These verses summarise what has already been said in verses 1 to 4 and they were given because already the Israelites were sacrificing out in the open (v.5) to goat idols (v.6), obviously from other nations.

Having dealt with this issue, the Law then moves on to a specific prohibition of eating (or drinking) blood: Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood–I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people.” (v.10). In case we might wonder why this should be so, the reason is then given: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (v.11) When a sacrifice was made of an animal, the person offering it could see the blood pouring out of the animal and it was very clear that this was the very life of the animal seeping away. Today we know that blood carries oxygen and without that the body dies. Mostly certainly “the life of a creature is in the blood.” In the previous meditation we said that Atonement refers to the act of a substitute dying to pay the price of sin for the Offeror to reconcile them to God and so if the creature’s life is contained in the blood, as the blood is taken it is the life being taken and hence the Law says, it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Thus the blood was seen as the very life being given up and so there had to be great respect for that life and so it went on, “Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.” (v.12)

This respect for life continues on to include the act of hunting: “Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, “You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.” (v.13,14) Hence once you have killed an animal in hunting for food, to respect the life, pour the blood away and bury it – and then comes yet again a third injunction about not eating the blood (v.10,12,14).

Near the end of the Bible in chapter 19 of the book of Revelation we find an incredible picture of a coming conquering king who is Jesus and one of the descriptions states, “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.” (Rev 19:13) Even in this picture blood is emphasized and of course it is his own blood shed for us. It is his badge, if you like, what gives him authority for he has purchased men through his blood: “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9) The writer to the Hebrews summed it up: “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb 9:22)

Justice demands that wrong is punished. The enormity of the wrongs of every human being, a lifetime of wrongs, demands a life be taken. That is justice. The blood, representing a life being given under the old covenant of the Law, was simply a picture of the life that would be given by the eternal Son of God. He alone was great enough to pay for every single sin that has ever been and will be committed. We either receive his work on our behalf, or we pay the price ourselves in eternity. It is pure folly to opt for the second choice.