For 20 years I focused my research on the book of Leviticus. You learn a lot when doing that. Want to get out of a conversation at a dinner party? Simply tell people you’ve been researching Leviticus for two decades. Works every time! For most in the church today, Leviticus is confusing and irrelevant at best and offensive at worst. It’s where Bible reading plans go to die. How do you preach a sermon series from a book like that?
Enter Sidney Greidanus, the dean of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, and his new book Preaching Christ from Leviticus: Foundations for Expository Sermons. Having written books on preaching Christ from most other Old Testament genres (narrative, wisdom, prophecy/apocalypse, psalms), he turns in this book to the major genre that remains: law.
Preaching Christ from Leviticus: Foundations for Expository Sermons
Preaching Christ from Leviticus reminds pastors and congregations that key christological themes—priesthood, sacrifice, atonement, holiness—first originated in Leviticus before they came to full flower in the New Testament with the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his call to holiness. Greidanus provides the basis for fully understanding these and other themes with an exacting analysis of Leviticus and then provides the foundations for ten sermons on Leviticus through topics such as the burnt offering, the ordained priesthood, the day of atonement, the sabbatical year, and the year of jubilee, as well as the commandments to be holy, to love your neighbor, and to love aliens and enemies.
The main thing Leviticus did for me over two decades was deepen my understanding of the very work Jesus came to do.
He could have done this by focusing on Exodus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, but he chose Leviticus because of how little focus it has received in the church. And I couldn’t be more thrilled. The main thing Leviticus did for me over two decades was deepen my understanding of the very work Jesus came to do. There are deep riches to be mined in Leviticus; Greidanus sets out to help preachers know how to do it.
Helpful Approach to Law
Leviticus is primarily a series of laws, some focusing on ritual matters and others on non-ritual matters. This presents an immediate challenge, since it’s not uncommon for believers today to have negative impressions about Old Testament law. Only last week I surveyed a class of 30 seminary students and asked if the phrase “Old Testament law” raised more negative or positive impressions; almost everyone chose negative.
Without going into the cultural, historical and theological reasons for this, the fact remains that the longest psalm in the Bible—Psalm 119—models a completely positive perspective on the law. It is something the psalmist delights in (vv. 16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 143, 174), longs for (vv. 20, 40, 131), and loves (vv. 47, 48, 97, 119, 127, 140, 159, 163, 167). And one must not forget that he’s talking—at the least—about the Pentateuch, which includes Leviticus. What might help us to have room for Psalm 119 in our theology of the law?
Greidanus helpfully reminds us that laws are based on principles that reflect the lawgiver’s values. We understand this intuitively. Why do we have laws against murder? We value life. Against stealing? We value the right to private property. Similarly, God’s laws are based on his values, meaning that studying a book like Leviticus is actually a chance to have a window into God’s heart. That’s not typically how we think of Leviticus.
Studying a book like Leviticus is actually a chance to have a window into God’s heart.
What’s more, looking for the principles underlying a law opens up avenues for application. Greidanus explains by way of Gordon Wenham’s insight: “The principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different too” (12). True, finding the principle is not always easy, but a little spadework can return wonderful results when studying law through this lens.
Helpful Model for Preaching Leviticus
Readers familiar with Greidanus will know that he has developed a 10-step process for preaching Christ from the Old Testament. In the bulk of the book, he applies this method to 10 chapters of Leviticus. What he models is helpful in at least two ways.
First, he provides a good model for what a series on Leviticus might look like by choosing chapters that cover most of the book’s major themes: offerings, priests and worship, ritual impurity and holiness, the Day of Atonement, loving one’s neighbor, the Sabbatical year, and the Year of Jubilee. If other themes were to be included I would suggest sexual practices, a key issue today (Lev. 18; 20); feasts as central to Israelite life (Lev. 23); and blessings and curses central to understanding the covenant (Lev. 26). For other sermon series suggestions for Leviticus, see my list of resources.
Second, and even more important, the exegetical process he uses to examine each chapter of Leviticus models the work necessary for good expository preaching. If a sermon can be compared to building a house, the preacher’s goal is to use planks in the passage to build it. Greidanus’s method will help preachers focus on the text as the source of the planks, and to make sure they don’t miss any important planks. Skipping over the literary context is easy to do in Leviticus, yet the literary-context plank is necessary to build the house well.
If a sermon can be compared to building a house, the preacher’s goal is to use the planks in the passage to build it.
It’s also important to note that Greidanus is quick to say that the “sermon exposition” sections—which make up almost half of each chapter—“are not actual sermons” (xv). These read more like homiletical commentary, and it will be crucial to follow his advice: “preachers may have to omit many of the verses and details provided (lest their sermons lead to information overload) and add illustrations and applications relevant to their particular congregations” (xv). For examples of how to do this, Greidanus provides four sermon manuscripts at the very end of the book, the last three of which do especially well in managing the number of details provided and including a healthy degree of application.
Would You Dare to Preach from Leviticus?
A friend of mind recently did an informal survey of a pastors’ group on Facebook. Two of his questions were “Have you ever preached on Leviticus?” and “If not, do you ever intend to?” A significant number answered no to both questions.
I understand why. The task is not easy. Greidanus goes a long way in helping overcome the difficulties and modeling how preachers might actually go about the task.
Are you willing to give it a try?