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Leviticus 22:1-33

Remember we started our series of sermons in Leviticus by saying that for the ordinary believer in the ancient church the three books of the Bible that he or she would know best would be Deuteronomy, the Psalms and the Book of Leviticus. It may be the book of the Bible that American believers know least well.

Because much of this chapter contains refinements of regulations found in earlier chapters of the book, it can strike us as repetitive, even boring. Shall we say it? That should put us on our mettle to figure out why we have a chapter like this in the book and what is here for us to learn. On the other hand, because we find here either repetition or elaboration of rules already given earlier in the book, we are afforded an opportunity to step back and look at all of this regulation in a more comprehensive way.

If you are getting a bit weary of all of these rules regarding right worship in Israel, remember that all of this is given but once in the Bible. Parts of it are referred to elsewhere but only here do we get all of it, as it were, in a single manual. These instructions were given at the time sanctuary worship was being established in Israel. I was reading the other day some of the minutes of the Westminster Assembly which men, as you know, in the mid-17th century. These minutes describe the discussions the Divines had as they prepared a Directory of Worship for the British nation. One question after another had to be asked and answered. What work belonged to the minister and what to the people; how were certain things to be done; for example, how was baptism to be administered; how was the Lord’s Supper to be observed, and so on. A thorough manual of Christian worship would be as long as Leviticus and would include a similar amount of detail. You wouldn’t find it so difficult to read and appreciate simply because you would be already familiar with the procedures that were being described and you would understand their place in the worship of the church. But for those same reasons the Israelites did not find Leviticus difficult to understand. Imagine yourself in Thomas Cranmer’s shoes, having to write the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer, devising not only the rules by which worship would be practiced in Great Britain but even the prayers that would be said throughout the Sunday service; how baptisms would be performed, how the Lord’s Supper would be observed, how funerals would be conducted, ordinations; and so on.

One thing is clear: a lot of care went into all of this regulation of worship. It was not as it is so often today, with everyone doing what is right in his own eyes and all sorts of things being done in some Christian services that would never be done in others and in some cases never should be done!

Mr. Hannula and I, while attending a General Assembly years ago, visited a PCA church in Southern California that featured a little play in the middle of its Sunday morning service (which service, wisely, they did not describe as a worship service at all; they called it Prime Time. It was an appropriate name. It was entertaining to be sure, but no one would have thought it was the worship of Almighty God.). The play was very well done, but plays or drama sketches in a Christian worship service are definitely an innovation. No provision was made for them in the Bible and they have not been part of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day through all the ages of church history up to our own time. Does that matter? Are we free to worship as we please; to add or subtract elements as we judge the times to require? This is a pressing question in our American context. But any discussion of that question should certainly begin here in Leviticus, where God’s people and their ministers were told what they should do in the worship of God and how they should do it. There was certainly room left for initiative and even some innovation – there is much that is not stated in these regulations – for example, where sermons fit into the service, how hymns or a circumcision related to the sanctuary service, who was to pray and when, and so on – but the basic structure of sanctuary worship was carefully outlined and regulated. Apparently the Almighty knows how he ought to be worshipped and how his people should worship him for their own good.

Text Comment

 v.3      The chapter divisions, of course, are artificial having been added to the Bible a thousand years after Christ, and we always have to be careful that we aren’t misled by them. Sometimes they divide material that is quite closely connected. In this case at the end of the previous chapter, the priests had just been told that they could eat some of the sacred offerings brought by the people (something we had been told earlier in the regulations for the various sacrifices.) Which parts of which offerings they could eat was explained earlier. One commentator refers to this chapter as rules concerning “sacred donations.” [Levine, 147] Now they are told not to “mishandle” the donations that were theirs to use. [Sklar, 270] With privileges come responsibilities. All that the priests handle was, as it were, the Lord’s property even if they were going to consume it. They were to treat all of it with corresponding respect.

v.5       Remember, certain forms of contamination were contagious. In those cases, such as contact with the dead, if the unclean person touched something, that thing itself became unclean and conveyed the impurity to anyone who touched it.

v.9       In other words, no priest could eat the sacred offerings when in a state of ritual impurity for whatever reason. While other Israelites could eat the meat of animals who died of natural causes, though they would become unclean by doing so, priests could not. [17:15]

v.11     The point is that members of the priest’s family could eat the sacred donations, but not someone who was merely his employee.

v.14     The repayment in kind plus a fifth then belonged to the priest.

v.16     Just as the priests themselves were forbidden to defile the sanctuary by eating sacred offerings while in a state of impurity, they had also to take care that no one else mishandled the holy things.

Remember, only some of the food that the priests could eat (the most holy offerings) had to be eaten in the precincts of the sanctuary itself. Much of the rest, the holy things, the things that are referred to here, could be taken home. The most holy offerings were to be eaten by the priests alone; but the holy offerings by the priest and his family. That distinction was also spelled out earlier in the book.

v.20     Much of this is repeated from earlier instructions.

v.23     The more relaxed standards for the free-will offering may be due to the fact that this offering was not required; it was entirely voluntary. It was neither a sacrifice offered because of sin nor thanksgiving for some kindness the Lord had shown to the worshipper; nor was it to fulfill a vow that had been made. In all those cases, the animal had to be without blemish. [Levine, 152]

v.24     All of this clarified what constituted a blemish in a sacrificial animal that was required to be unblemished. The list parallels that of the deformities that disqualified a priest from service in 21:16-20. We considered that last time.

v.27     The text, as so often in Leviticus, does not explain the rule. Scholars both ancient and modern have understood it as a matter of compassion for the animals, especially the mother, who would be given time to suckle her young. Indeed, the law has been understood to apply only to mothers and their male offspring. Male animals accounted for the majority of sacrifices. [Levine, 152]

v.28     Again, it was an act of compassion not to kill mother and offspring together. There are other laws in the Law of Moses that express concern for animals and their well-being. For example, in Exodus 23:5 we read that if one came across an animal too heavily loaded and lying down under his load, he was to rescue the animal, even if it belonged to an enemy. Remember, part of the rationale for the 4th commandment was that work animals might have a day of rest as well as God’s people. We read in Prov. 12:10 that “the righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”

You can gather what the temptation was: if an animal were to be used for sacrifice, the sooner the better. One would not have to feed or care for it. What is more the sooner it was killed the less likely any defects would appear that would make the animal useless for that purpose. [Ross, 393] Some of these rules may have been put in place to guard against depleting animal stocks. As one commentator puts it: “Though God encourages generous giving, he does not encourage foolish giving.” [Hartley, 362]

v.30     This repeats instruction given earlier in the book (e.g. 7:12-18).

Now, as I said at the outset, I don’t think we need to consider the gist or burden of these particular regulations, repeating or elaborating instruction already given earlier in Leviticus as they do. Rather, the chapter affords us an opportunity to think about the regulation of worship, the subject of this entire book, in a more comprehensive way; to step back and think again about all of this that we have read in the book of Leviticus, so much of which strikes us as strange and alien to our experience.

Why is so much attention paid to how worship was to be offered to God, to what priests were to do and what the people were to do, to what different things were to be done, where they were to be done, when they were to be done, and so on? Why is there so much attention paid to the form of worship? We tend today to think that a worshipper’s attitude is more important than the structure of the service – indeed, many seem to think that is all that matters — but, while the Bible pays a great deal of attention to the worshipper’s attitude, the spirit with which a man or woman worships, it pays as much attention to actions, procedures, elements, and order, what is called the form of worship.

Huge tracts of the Old Testament and more of the New Testament than you might think are devoted to the form and practice of the church’s worship. If Holy Scripture makes it a major theme, then we are duty bound to study its teaching carefully and to appropriate it for our own lives today. We are never free to pick and choose among the subjects of the Bible. We are to let the Bible teach us what it will. And the Bible is full of instruction in the proper form and practice of worship.

What is more, again and again in the Bible, the church’s worship is made an index of the church’s spiritual health. A malformed or corrupt worship, or a worship badly offered was for the biblical prophets the index of the church’s unbelief and disobedience. Whether it is the chicken or the egg — and I think the evidence suggests that the corruption of worship is often the cause as much as the result of a creeping unbelief among the people of God — the nature of the church’s worship is unmistakably a marker of her spiritual health or her spiritual sickness. The church’s public worship is one of faith’s vital signs.

So often in the Bible unbelief in the church is addressed as a problem of wrong worship, even when such worship was being offered to Yahweh himself. That is, unbelief and disobedience took wing in the church when the true God began to be worshipped in the wrong way. That, after all, is the burden of the second of the Ten Commandments. Not only must you worship the true God only, you must worship him in the right way, the way that corresponds to his nature and to yours. Israel often thought they were worshipping the Lord God, but they were doing it in a more relevant way, a more interesting way, a more popular way. But God saw in that worship instead rebellion and unbelief. When God’s people worship him aright, worship according to the Word of God and worship with the right sort of heart, spirit and mind, they are always safe and in the way of God’s blessing. When they begin to find other ways of worshipping God, for whatever reason and with whatever motives, historically all hell has eventually broken loose.

This was a point the Lord Jesus himself made with some emphasis. You may remember the occasion as it is reported for us in Mark 7. Some of the scribes and Pharisees had criticized the Lord because he and his disciples did not wash their hands before eating a meal. In Luke it is said they did not baptize themselves before eating a meal. Now such hand-washing was not done for hygienic reasons, but as an act of worship. They thought of it as a way of warding off any spiritual defilement that might have been contracted unwittingly and of preventing the spread of that impurity from person to person as food and utensils were handled first by one and then another. What is more the rabbis had spun out a host of new sources of spiritual contamination never mentioned in the Law of Moses: touching Gentiles, for example, or, according to the Mishnah, touching the portions of the books of Ezra and Daniel that are written in Aramaic instead of Hebrew! In Mark we read that they would never eat after coming from the market unless they had washed, for in the market they would be jostling with lots of people and touching lots of things. Who knows whom they might have touched or who might have touched them?

Now these Pharisees would have readily admitted that all of those rules were not found in Holy Scripture. As we read in Mark 7:3, they held to the “tradition of the elders.” That is, deliverances of the rabbis, their applications of the law by which all these other duties were spun out, were considered to be equally binding (very much as Roman Catholics regard the teaching of the Church to be as authoritative as Holy Scripture.) The fact was that Jesus and his disciples kept the Law of Moses, but they did not abide by the rabbinical additions to that divinely given law. The Pharisees saw these new man-made rules as the way to keep the Law of God. Jesus saw things very differently. He said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition.” He quoted Isaiah 29:13:

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

That is, the rules that they had invented in fact replaced the laws that God had given. These additional rules, the number of them and the nature of them, so altered the nature of the worship they were offering to God that the result was dishonor to God rather than honor. The Pharisees would have said that they were being scrupulously careful to abide by the Law of God, that all of these additions simply helped them to keep the commandments, but Jesus said their willingness to add their own rules to God’s and then their inevitable preference for their own rules, produced false worship. We never read anywhere in the O.T. that touching a Gentile would make you impure. There is something deeply wrong about that law and about the spirit that produced that law. And so he would not have any part of it, however scrupulous he was to follow the actual Law of God. In short, Jesus himself warns us against inventiveness in the worship of God. That is a warning more Christians should pay heed to today!

Another reason for this, beside the fact that wrong worship invariably corrupts the heart, is that as long as we live in this world, as long as we are growing in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord the Bible teaches us we are being prepared for the Lord’s house, our eternal home, as a house of worship. You perhaps have noticed that all of the worship that we are given to see in heaven in the Book of Revelation is corporate worship, the worship of the church together. Highly individualized Americans may well think that the private worship of the believing heart must be the worship that most pleases the Lord, but it is not so. There is no individual worship described in Revelation. Private worship is an important part of the Christian life, to be sure, and we find a lot of it in the Bible and we ought all to be practicing it, don’t get me wrong. But the Bible does not order that worship, the worship of the private Christian, nearly as carefully or elaborately as it does the worship of the sanctuary, of the church, as the people of God together. As we read in Psalm 87:2 (a verse that every American Christian should take time to memorize):

“The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are said of you, O city of God.”

Now, it is obviously true that the worship of the temple, the sanctuary worship that Leviticus goes to such great length to describe, no longer exists. There is no central sanctuary. There is no Aaronic priesthood. There is no animal sacrifice being offered to God. Things have changed to be sure.

But it would be a mistake to draw from that fact of history the conclusion that we are therefore free to construct our Sunday services however we like. We have noticed throughout these sermons on Leviticus that the principles of the worship that is being described are timeless and as important today as ever they were in the days of Israel in the wilderness or in the Promised Land.

Think of such emphases as these in the book of Leviticus. 1) In the church’s worship we are in the very presence of God and so must act in ways careful to revere that divine presence and not to offend against it. So much of Leviticus is about that including the reference to the “food of God” in v. 25, a metaphorical way of speaking about God’s presence in the worship of his people and of his receiving the gifts of his people. Presumably God is not less holy today than he was in the 15th century B.C.! 2) In all matters of worship both form and freedom are necessary; the right things should be done with the right attitude of heart. 3) The order in which things are done conveys the meaning of the acts themselves. Confession of sin and the laying on of hands comes before the animal is killed; the fellowship meal comes after atonement has been made, and so on. Still today, you will have observed, no Christian worship begins with the Lord’s Supper. Do Christians know why that is so? (On a Sunday morning just like today, years ago, a family arrived for worship here and they were nonplussed to find that we were beginning our worship Service with the Lord’s Supper. They had forgotten the time change!)  4) Sin and redemption, faith, repentance, and gratitude are fundamental to the content of the true worship of God. Worship is a form of covenant renewal. In worship we go over the gospel ground once again and reconstitute our relationship with God. 5) God’s presence is mediated to his people through priests or ministers. The clergy-laity distinction is fundamental to the practice of worship because God is not visibly present before his people; his presence is mediated through men appointed as his representatives. 6) Worship is sacramental. Certain ritual actions are fundamental to its observance. 7) All worship is a form of conversation with God, a form of prayer. (That is why Archbishop Cranmer in the sixteenth century called the manual of worship for the English church The Book of Common or Corporate Prayer. That’s Prayer with a capital P. What we come to this sanctuary to do of a Lord’s Day is to pray, to speak to God and to be spoken to by God in return.) And there is more of this, of course.

I won’t take the time to demonstrate this tonight, but it should not be hard for you to see that those principles, so obvious here in Leviticus, have ever since been the defining principles of Christian worship, no matter that there is no longer a central sanctuary, no matter that the great sacrifice has already been made at the cross. We still renew our covenant with God every Lord’s Day and, accordingly, we do things in a gospel order. We still eat a sacrificial meal; we still engage in conversation with God; and so on. Worship continues in the New Testament to be the defining act of believing life and the great engine of Christian faith. Why is that?

It is because human beings are creatures of worship, being made in the image of God they were made to love and to be loved, and being made in the image of God they were made to love God in particular. Man is homo adorans. In some ways man is more homo adorans than even homo sapiens; he is more a worshipper than he is a thinker. He is a creature that desires, that longs for things, that is moved and stirred by things, a creature who loves and whose loving more profoundly shapes his life than even his thinking. It is this that makes Christian worship so critical to Christian experience and the Christian life: it is a concentration of life, of our very selves. Every Lord’s Day we come into this house and we become again our truest selves as the creatures and children of God. Every Lord’s Day we express in powerful ways the longings of our hearts, rekindle our aspirations, purify our motives and set clearly before ourselves the goal or the end or the purpose of our lives. Worship, by animating our affections – by which I mean our emotions, our attitudes, and our loves and hatreds – and setting them on holy things, purifies them; and sends them on their way to creating a godly, faithful, and fruitful life of service to God. If we do not worship God we will worship something else instead. It is our nature to worship. If we worship other things, the wrong things, we will become like those things. This is the terrible warning of Psalm 115:4-8:

 “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”

Worship shapes life. The teenage girl who worships the rock star becomes one kind of human being; the teenage girl who worships Jesus Christ becomes another. Human beings always worship, they cannot help themselves, this world rings with worship; you are worshipping all the time. That dress, that ticket to the concert or the game, that hero, and our lives will be as their worship; we cannot help that either.

So the most fundamental question of any human life is: what does this man, this woman worship. And the great importance of right worship is that it creates the right sort of person; the person who loves what he ought to love. That is what Leviticus is all about: what true worship will make of Israel. Wrong worship often deceives even a Christian today, as it so often deceived Israel in its day, into thinking he or she is worshipping one thing when he or she is actually worshipping another.

I told you several years ago of a fascinating analysis of modern American culture as a culture of worship with the mall as the sanctuary. We don’t naturally think of the mall as a temple, but the more I consider this analysis the more I think that is precisely what it is for Americans today;  those who go there are in many ways worshippers in a temple. The liturgy of the mall sets before its worshippers who make pilgrimage there the good life, not a life of moral goodness, the mall has nothing to say about that, but of success, pleasure, acceptance, and fulfillment. The mall is not simply a market where necessary products are purchased; that used to be the case with the American store. But the mall asks of us worship of a highly evangelistic and now catholic or worldwide faith, the faith of materialistic consumerism. It is, alas, now a much more unified vision of life than that of the fractured faiths of the older religions such as Islam or Christianity. Listen to this:

“Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped by and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall – the liturgies of mall and market – that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, [what saves us, what makes us good, what makes us happy] which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our own desires and actions.”


“…liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.” [J.K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 25-26]

It is not hard to see how this is so. We know how familiar everyone is with the world of the mall, its priests and its rituals: from the sales clerk to the cashier, the changing rooms, the shopping bags, the exchanges, the many different stores selling the same kinds of things from which we are free to choose. This is a sanctuary in which one is taught not to leave until one is happy. Nor is it difficult to see the religious vision of the mall: the redeemed are those who have acquired the things the mall has to sell them that will give them pleasure, make them feel at peace with the world, and perhaps most profoundly, make them feel young. The mall is not really a place for older people. It is a spiritual culture of the young, for those who can still believe that what they buy will fulfill their lives.

When Florence and I visited African Bible University, we heard Dr. Palmer Robertson in a chapel service recall his days at the African Bible College in Malawi where he had taught before assuming the leadership of the campus in Kampala, Uganda. He recited to us some of the Malawian proverbs that he had learned while living in Malawi. One went like this: “No one ever walks through the hind legs of an elephant twice.” Important words to live by! Another Malawian proverb is: “If you are ugly, learn to sing.” (Those proverbs have nothing to do with our subject tonight; I threw them in for free.) But here is another one: “Where the elders are the grass is green.” That is certainly a biblical idea. The goal of life is maturity, experience, and wisdom. But real wisdom, real maturity can only be gained from years of walking with the Lord, with your Bible in your hand as your faith is shaped by the experiences of life and perhaps still much more profoundly by the constant worship of God’s house. In the Bible and in many human societies – though none any longer in the Western world – youth is not and never was the goal of a well-lived life. What you should desire to attain is a seasoned life that transcends the more superficial and transitory interests of the young. But that is not the redemption; that is not the good life that is promised at the mall; that is not what the worshippers in that sanctuary are seeking; that is not the end toward which the rituals of the mall direct the soul. The ritual of the mall does not form in its worshippers a love of maturity in mind and life, the soundness of judgment that comes with age and is able to distinguish between the fleeting and the permanent, between the trivial and the genuinely important. The mall as we know it would perish if too many Americans grew up!

Nor in the worship of the mall will you find any inkling of God in his glory as the Creator of heaven and earth, nothing of his nature as a consuming fire, nothing of the last judgment, nothing of the moral nature of human life, nothing of eternity at all. No wonder people who make pilgrimage to the mall and practice its rituals hardly ever think of such things! Their hearts and minds are not formed by those rituals to think of God or care for him. The rituals have a completely different purpose. How different they must be who make their pilgrimage instead to the house of the Lord, who are there much more often than they are at a mall and practice with a full heart the rituals of his house!

Here in Leviticus we have described a life of worship, whose constantly repeated actions, whose strict regulations form a very different mind and heart. Here the presence of God is everything. Here everything is motivated by the divine holiness and by God’s mercy to sinners. Here reverence for God is practiced in everything. Both the Lord’s nearness to his people and his distance far above them are instilled in them as they practice the rituals of confession, faith, gratitude, love, and joy. Here their entire lives are brought under the overarching demands of a holy life. Here redemption is found and a redeeming God is encountered. Here heaven is prefigured as people are freed from their sins and as they sit down to enjoy a feast in the company of other grateful and happy folk whom the living God has favored with the knowledge of himself.

You parents know how the rituals of your home shape the character of your children and eventually ineradicably instill in them the loves and hatreds of a truly Christian heart, from which true Christian experience and true Christian obedience will come. Your family circle has its rituals and by their constant repetition a child comes to love what you love, to hate what you hate, to aspire to what you aspire to, and so on. The heart takes its shape by the repetition of ritual, whether the confession and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, or by grace reverently said at the family table, by the reading of the Word of God together, by the giving and receiving of love between parents and children, or by the way bad behavior is corrected when it occurs. These things do not exercise their influence all at once, every parent knows that, but by constant repetition they form the deep structure of our lives.

This is precisely what we learn of Christian worship everywhere we turn in Holy Scripture. The rituals of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, constantly repeated, not only shape our understanding of ourselves and of God, they create and sustain our desires and loves in specific ways, and form the sort of people we become. Worship ought to do that for Christians. But to do so it must be right worship rightly offered. That is what makes the subject of what rituals our worship ought to contain and how they ought to be performed so vitally, personally and practically important. True enough, many of the specific forms of worship taught in Leviticus can no longer and ought no longer to be observed. But it is easy to see that the principles of worship enshrined in these Levitical forms are timeless were naturally transferred to the new situation that prevailed after Pentecost and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. How much better people we will be, we must become, if we are constantly and powerfully reminded of the holiness of God, if our lives are over and over again related to the great work of redemption God performed for us in Christ, if we are repeatedly brought face to face with our own sin and God’s forgiveness of it, if we are invited to share a meal with one another and with Christ our savior, a meal in which we partake, as it were, of the food that Christ offered to God on our behalf.

I want to be the kind of person that sort of worship creates: reverent, penitent, humble, grateful, loving, obedient, and happy. The worship of Leviticus when offered from the heart, would create such people. Worship today that corresponds to it will do the same.

Worship is not, as some of you and you young people especially might be tempted to think, simply that obedience you are required to perform every Sunday. It is the vital center of your life. More than you realize it is what more than anything else will make you the person you ought to be. How you worship will make you the person you will become, like it or not, for good or for ill. But right worship, rightly offered will make you all you ought to be and all that deep in your heart you desire to be. It is the discipline from which a life of love is made.

That is why David, who enjoyed wonderful intimacy with the Lord God in his private worship would nevertheless say in Psalm, 27:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”