For many Christians, the five books of the Pentateuch are flyover country—especially Leviticus. Written at least 3,000 years ago, it feels foreign to the modern reader. Page after page of detailed regulations about blood sacrifice, dietary laws, swift and violent judgments, and longwinded rules about how to cleanse a house from leprosy, make relating difficult.
Read-through-the-Bible plans die a thousand deaths here.
There’s no question Leviticus can be daunting, but it contains amazing lessons that should reduce us to our knees in worship. Here are four things it teaches that make it must-reading for followers of Christ.
1. God Is Holy
The word “holy” or “holiness” appear 92 times in Leviticus. “Holy” is the adjective that best describes God or things close to him, and this matters because it is incomprehensible to our fallen minds. In the oft-quoted words of A. W. Tozer:
God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible, and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire his wisdom, but his holiness he cannot even imagine.
Behind the Hebrew word is the idea of separation. Think of cutting a loaf of bread and separating the pieces to opposite ends of the counter. God’s holiness separates him from all that’s common. This means, compared to all we experience in the material world, that God’s holiness is totally “other.” And yet despite this, God’s holiness also attracts because it is central to his moral beauty: “Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2).
Holiness is an aspect of God’s transcendence: sinners may not approachable him without a mediator. God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, in the tabernacle, in the geographical center of Israel. Leviticus 16 instructs the high priest to approach God once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only with blood to atone for himself and the people. Any other approach—by the high priest or anyone else—would mean instant death.
Holiness also means high moral standards. In Leviticus 10, when Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu approached God with “strange fire,” a consuming fire from God destroyed them (cf. Heb. 12:29). God judged them because they violated a priestly procedural rule. In Leviticus 24, a young man blasphemed and cursed the name of God. The sentence? Death by stoning.
To a generation that stresses God’s nearness, not his transcendence, this book warns us against flippant familiarity with God. The God of Leviticus has not changed, which the cross of Christ makes clear.
2. Atonement Is Necessary
But God is also near. He wants a relationship with his people, though not at the expense of justice; atonement must first occur. That’s why the first seven chapters include instructions on how to atone for sin.
The penalty for sin is death—spiritual and physical (Gen. 2:17)—and God’s fidelity won’t allow him to overlook the punishment he’s promised. This means strict justice requires the death of sinners before they can be forgiven.
But mercy and grace are also expressions of God’s holiness, and mercy prompted God to establish a system of substitution to satisfy his justice. Before sacrificing an animal, the worshiper laid hands on its head. This symbolized the transfer of his sins to the animal, who then received the death penalty in his place. God’s justice was satisfied, and the sinner was forgiven.
Atonement in Leviticus features forgiveness that upholds God’s justice. It also reminded the Israelite of the seriousness of his sin.
3. God Calls Us to Share in His Holiness
Four times Leviticus tells us to “Be holy, for God is holy” (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7). God calls us to be like himself—separate from what is common. True holiness is not external; it’s about transformed hearts and minds. It has little to do with whether we drink craft beer, watch Star Wars, or wear makeup.
True heart-holiness shows up in behavior that is uncommon in this world. Holy people care for the poor (Lev. 19:9–10). They don’t steal or lie (19:11), oppress employees or subordinates (19:13–14), or hate anyone (19:17). They refuse to take private vengeance or bitterness. Holiness loves its neighbor—even those who are enemies (19:18). And that was, and remains, exceedingly uncommon.
The New Testament quotes Leviticus in affirming these same godly behaviors in passages such as Romans 12:20 and 1 Peter 1:14–15.
4. Sexual Sin Is the Natural Bent of the Fallen Heart
Moses wrote to a people leaving Egypt and preparing to enter Canaan, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:3).
The rest of the chapter describes what the Egyptians and Canaanites did. It includes sex between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, fathers and daughters-in-law, brothers and sisters, and so on. Moses also warns against sex with animals, lying with a male “as with a woman,” and sacrificing infants in the fire to false gods.
Affirmed in the New Testament
Because the Bible is a unity, the cross sums up and validates the truths of Leviticus.
It displays the holiness of God. He doesn’t solve the sin problem as we would. He is holy. He cannot just forgive and forget. Justice must first be satisfied.
The cross also demonstrates God’s passion for nearness with his people. It’s the measure of his love and grace for the undeserving. Jesus experienced the judgment we deserve. Figuratively, the fire of God consumed him in our place.
The cross convinces us that God is serious about us sharing his holiness. Jesus’s perfect obedience, culminating in the cross, is the holiness we must have to relate to God. It’s the standard, and God imputes it freely to all who believe the gospel. His grace motivates us to pursue a holy life.
How, then, do we access the benefits of Leviticus? Not by working or performing or achieving. God befriends and redeems only one class of people: those who repent and trust in Christ’s substitutionary death.
Take some time to study Leviticus. Read it in the shadow of the cross, and you’ll be richly rewarded.