Through the Lectionary Desert

Understanding the Ceremonial Law of Exodus and Leviticus

For any Bible reading plan, the latter part of Exodus (chs. 25-40) and all of Leviticus (chs. 1-27) is the desert. There are a few narrative oases (i.e., Exodus chs. 32-34, 40, and Leviticus chs. 8-10), but by and large, these chapters are a slog. If you invest the time to pay attention to what is being described in these chapters, it will tremendously boost your subsequent reading of Scripture–but you do have to make it through them, and the likelihood of derailing one’s effort to read through the Bible is quite high.

Moses Breaking the Commandments

So, how do we make it through this desert? Well, first of all, some perspective is in order. It is common to think that in the Old Testament people were saved by keeping the Law, but in the New Testament, they were saved by Christ. That was never the case. Looking back in retrospect, God’s people in both the Old and the New Testaments were only ever saved by God’s grace in Christ Jesus. In the Old Testament, though the great salvific event was God’ drawing His people out of the bondage of slavery in the Exodus from Egypt. This would be a type or image foreshadowing the greater salvation to come of Christ drawing His people out of the deeper bondage of sin through His death on the cross, His resurrection from the grave, and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the Old Testament, it was after God saved His people that He gave them His Law.

Having formed a people for Himself and delivered them from their bondage, it was God’s intention that His people reflect His character and image, and that image was fundamentally a moral one. So, what they needed, first, were the core principles that were to govern their moral conduct and their covenantal relationship with God. That is the Moral Law (the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue), found in Exodus ch. 20. This is still core to the ethical behavior of God’s people even under the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ. Second, as a newly freed nation, they needed civil case law applying these core principles to help them think through matters of civil justice simply to order and regulate their society. This was the Civil Law, found primarily in Exodus chs. 21-24. With the dissolution of the Israelite state as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of the eighth and sixth centuries BC respectively, the Civil Law is no longer the formal laws of any state, but they do highlight principles of general equity that are useful for civil society, in terms of establishing justice and restraining evil. Lastly, the God’s people needed to know how to worship God rightly as part of their covenantal relationship with Him. This is the Ceremonial Law, which covers Exodus chs. 25-31, 35-40, and all of Leviticus. This pointed ultimately to the sacrificial work of Christ, whose work has subsequently superseded that the sacrificial system. The Ceremonial Law is no longer to be observed.

So, why even bother to read all this sacrificial stuff if it has already been obviated by Christ? The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:19-4:11 describes this Law as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews talks about the superiority of Christ over the sacrificial system. As a tutor, what the sacrificial system was intended to do was to make concrete for God’s people through practice and habit some concepts that would have been otherwise abstract but nevertheless central for them to understand and anticipate that greater salvation that would later come through Christ Jesus. Three concepts would have central.

Chief among these is the notion of God’s absolute holiness and the high standard of holiness that He is holding His people to. That also would have had the effect of highlighting how comprehensively and deeply entrenched sin is within us. In this regard, it would have provide a sense of conviction of guilt, but also the standard that God’s people were called to in their sanctification. Even for us under the New Covenant, we are all too inclined toward a casual attitude that does not take holiness seriously. As Christ teaches in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chs. 5-7), however, God’s standard of holiness has only increased, to get at our motives as well as our actions.

Secondarily, the Ceremonial Law would have forced a separation between God’s people and the surrounding nations, calling them to absolute fidelity to Him. God’s people were to be a peculiar people, uniquely devoted to only Him. The incident of the apostasy with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32 and 33), the subsequent apostasies that led God to expel the people from the land and take them into Exile in Assyria and Babylonia, and even the various apostasies in the history of the Christian Church since our Lord’s ascension testify to the difficulty God’s people have had in really grasping this concept.

Lastly, a third concept would be taught through the Ceremonial Law would have been that of atonement, or how are we made right with God. Such atonement would have been costly in terms of the animal sacrifices that were entailed, but that pales in comparison to the costliness of the Son of God being crucified on a cross by mankind. Such costliness would have shown by experience that people cannot earn their way into God’s favor and that salvation, if it comes at all, would only come ultimately by God’s grace, not man’s works. Even people today need to realize this, given the all-too-common view that somehow we can be “good” people.

If this is what the Ceremonial Law was to have taught God’s People under the Old Covenant, studying these chapters in Exodus and Leviticus adds a tremendous depth in appreciating more fully what Christ Jesus has done for us in inaugurating the New Covenant. So, it is definitely still profitable for us to read this material on the Ceremonial Law. Moreover, it is probably the earliest material to have been enscripturated, coming as it were right after the Exodus, and indeed, directly from the revelation of God Himself at Sinai. That in itself makes it foundational.

Still, while it may be profitable for us to read all this material on the Ceremonial Law, that does not deny the fact that it is tedious reading. So, how can we read this to actually get through it? A few helps are provided. First is an outline of Leviticus itself. More so than even most books of the Bible, this is a necessary roadmap for navigating the terrain. Second is a compendium of charts covering most of Leviticus. In reading through the text, the charts help to summarize what you are reading. In reading through the sacrificial system of Leviticus chs. 1-7, pay particular attention to what each of the sacrifices represent, what that would have meant for you if you were in the place of the ancient Israelites, and what specific ways might Christ fulfill those sacrifices as our high priest.

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