When I was a college minister, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for pastoral theology. Actually, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for most things, with the exception of an atonement talk here or there. I suspect I’m not alone. Most of us don’t relish the idea of delighting our parishioners with details of cleansing skin diseases. 

But I’ve recently been learning how mistaken we are when we take this approach to Leviticus.

Pastoral Care in the Old Covenant 

In his recent work, Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (IVP Academic, 2015), L. Michael Morales draws our attention to the pastoral implications of Leviticus’ first verses:

The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.” (Lev. 1:1–3)

Whenever an Israelite offered a burnt offering to the LORD, he was to present it to the priests first. The priests were to inspect it for any hint of defect, blemish, disease, infirmity, or weakness (Lev. 22:17–28). As Morales points out, this gave the priests a chance to exercise pastoral care for God’s people.

Located at the center of the Torah, the provisions of the sacrificial system formed the heart of Israel’s shared life with God. Not only did God use them to instruct his people in holiness (contrary to what many of us have been trained to think, God likes to both show and tell), but they were how he brought sinful people into his presence. Sacrifice was as much about God’s longing for us to draw near as it was about our inability to do so.

Worshipers, then, were to offer God their best as an act of worship. Offering a weak or defective animal indicated either carelessness about the things of God or a lack of trust in his provision. They signaled a distant heart. So the presentation and inspection of the sacrifices was an opportunity for the priests to offer pastoral accountability, correction, and instruction.

Implications for New Covenant Shepherds

As members of the new covenant, we no longer offer burnt offerings in a tabernacle or temple. Christ’s finished work on the cross has done what the blood of bulls and goats could never do: cleanse us from iniquity and sin, and give us access to the presence of the living God (Heb. 10:4). But that doesn’t mean we’re done offering acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Paul urges us to offer spiritual sacrifices with the whole of our lives in response to the glorious mercies unleashed on us in Christ (Rom. 12:1–2). This means Leviticus still has something to teach us.

The application can be taken in two directions. One is simply a call for greater self-examination on the part of God’s people. Just as individual Israelites were to be conscious of the offering they brought before the Lord, we too should be careful not to treat God as an afterthought with our time, energy, emotions, or devotion. He deserves our whole selves.

Two Reasons to Embrace Hardship

Pastors themselves can also gain much by reflecting on this text. Though pastors aren’t “priests” in the specialized, mediatorial sense, discipling and leading the people of God in the worship of God entails examining their sacrifices. It’s tempting to avoid the difficult work of pastoral care and correction, but in light of the Levitical system we should resist that temptation for two reasons.

First, God is worthy of your labors. Speaking through the prophet Malachi, he asks:

When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 1:8)

Pastors, encourage your people for the sake of God’s great name.

Second, your people need your labors. Though we no longer offer sacrifices for atonement, they’re still at the heart of our communion with God. If your people aren’t offering themselves to Jesus, they’re offering themselves to something else: money, sex, power, family, career, or some other idol that will destroy them. More than anything else, our people need to give themselves in worship to Jesus. It’s what they were made for.

Four Ways to Pastor Like Jesus

While I’m no expert at pastoral care, there are at least four things pastors must do if they’re going to shepherd their congregations in a manner consistent with the priestly heart of Jesus.

First, we must be close enough to our congregation to see their lives. Examining a bull or goat for a broken leg or goofy eye is relatively easy. Examining a human heart, however, takes time, care, and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. It also requires some proximity. In other words, pastors, if you’re going to properly exhort your people to offer themselves unequivocally to Jesus, you must be part of their lives. Pastors who stand apart from their sheep won’t know them, and their pastoral direction will be uninformed and misguided.

Second, we must love them. That should seem obvious, but it’s actually the dividing line often between genuine, tender care and the sort of destructive, authoritarian “examination” against which many wounded refugees of the church rightly react. We must be sympathetic in our “priestly” work, just as Jesus was (Heb. 4:14–15). We must remember that we’re in the same boat as our people, struggling with temptations, sins, and failures demanding corrective grace (Heb. 2:17–18).

Third, we must have courage to speak, because this sort of thing can be awkward. We don’t want to be pushy or intrusive, or misread someone’s heart by bringing a word of correction that does more harm than good. This is why the last two points are so important. Speaking frankly only works when your people know your words come from a heart of love, since you know them so well.

Finally, we must constantly preach a Jesus worthy of our sacrifice. Only when we present him as the crucified and risen one—the only one who lived a life of perfectly sacrificial obedience in order to offer himself, for us, without spot or blemish—will we be able to see sacrifice as a delight and not a duty.

If Jesus, blazing in all his glory, sits at the heart of our preaching and pastoring, then by God’s grace he will reign in the hearts of our people and the heart of their worship.