What’s the meaning of Leviticus and what’s its relevance for Christians today?

 Photo: Detail of East Window, Lincoln Cathedral, Flickr, J. Guffogg, Creative Commons

Photo: Detail of East Window, Lincoln Cathedral, Flickr, J. Guffogg, Creative Commons

Let’s face it. The Book of Leviticus is one of the toughest books of the Bible to read, understand, and apply to modern life. As one of my seminary professors described it, “Leviticus is where ‘Read Through the Bible in a Year’ goes to die.” On one hand, it doesn’t seem that it should be universally applied. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to completely ignore something that is such a significant part of the Bible. So where does that leave us?

The Purpose of the Law for the Israelites

The first step is to understand the function of the Law (primarily Leviticus and portions of Deuteronomy) for the Israelites. The Law was given by God to teach the Israelites what it looked like to live in relationship with Him. In fact, the Hebrew word for Law is better translated as “instruction” or “teaching”.

God gave the Law to the Israelites through Moses at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19-20) when the people had just been freed from Egyptian slavery. So, God needed to transform His chosen people from a race of slaves living in a polytheistic country into a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (19:6) serving the one true God. This identity shift was necessary for God to be able to use the Israelites as a witness to the nations around them and to eventually bless the entire world (promised to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3 and fulfilled in Jesus Christ).

The Purpose of the Law for Modern Christians

Now is when it gets tougher. First off, when Jesus died on the cross, he freed us from having to obey the Law (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:23-25; Eph. 2:15). But does that mean that we can completely ignore it? If not, what parts are still relevant to us and what parts aren’t?

The traditional answer to this question is to say that some parts of the law (such as the moral laws like the 10 Commandments) are still relevant, but the civil and ceremonial laws (such as sacrifices, clean/unclean foods, etc.) are not. The problem with this approach is that these categories of law are not really found in Scripture and they’re not clear-cut as some laws seem to fall into multiple categories.

An alternate approach is to approach the law as a model or paradigm for what it looks like to live in relationship to God, to live out righteousness and holiness. In this view, the goal is to understand how the law functioned for the ancient Israelites. Rather than asking “Is the law applicable to the Christian?”, a better question is “How is the law applicable to the Christian?” Sometimes the principles can be easily transferred, such as “Do not lie” (Lev. 19:11). Other times it’s not as clear, such as “Do not eat meat with blood still in it” (Lev. 19:26).

A Process for Interpreting the Law

After many years of struggling with (and generally ignoring) Leviticus, I finally found an approach to interpreting the Law that was Biblically sound and honored God’s original (and continued) intention for the Law. (Special thanks to Peter Vogt, my Old Testament professor at Bethel Seminary, and his book Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook for this approach.)

When you read a command from the Law, walk through these three steps

  1. Determine the original purpose of the law
  2. Articulate the principle behind the law
  3. Identify ways the principle transfers to a modern setting

(To see these three steps in action, read my post on tattoos.)

This approach is much tougher because of the amount of study and careful thought required, but it results in a much deeper and richer understanding of what the whole Bible teaches about living in relationship with God.

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