This is our third week of walking through Leviticus as a series–not a line by line study, but focused conversations on top, concept and hyperlinks (scriptures that are pointed towards and scriptures that point back towards it).
Leviticus starts off by talking about and giving directives on a handful of different types of offerings. There are burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. This pointed towards the theme of the book–what we reflected on in week one of this series: God desires relationship with humanity, and what we do in that relationship matters.
The book then moves into directives surrounding the priests as they care for the temple, offer sacrifices for the people, and speak the blessing of God over the people. Last week we talked about the priests and dwelled on the tabernacle, the physical dwelling place of God with His people.
We talked about how the priests worked in the temple (or tabernacle), and about how Jesus is the High Priest. So then we, being the dwelling place of God because of Christ, are the temple of God so that we can be a blessing to all people.
So we remember over and over as we process this text and its hyperlinks that God desires relationship with humanity and what we do in that relationship matters.
Let’s review what leads up to our text. We saw the Isrealites stepping out of the oppression of Pharaoh, who had been the oppressor, the untouchable, the uncaring, the manipulative, the cause of pain, the mean, the insecure, the hindrance. And then we saw in Exodus, Moses leading them out of Egypt–the burning bush, the plagues, the Passover, the Red Sea, and the wilderness. And in all of this we saw how God was in incredible contrast to Pharaoh. God is leading, helping, providing, hearing, sharing, directing, building relationship.
And in Leviticus, the dump of details in relationship display that God does desire relationship with humanity. We’ve seen offerings and priests, and today as we bring in the idea of uncleanness, there is repetition that what we do does matter in relationship.
As the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai–a connecting place with God–it’s a place where the passage of time really slows down in the text and there is an explosion of writing from this season.
So today, we are going to start off with a little processing.
There is a paradox inside of expectations. It can sound appealing to have relationship where you don’t have to do anything and there are no expectations–where what you do does not matter. But this type of relationship has consequences. Let's talk about them.
What is the impact of no expectations on a relationship?
This is not an easy relationship–it is actually not a relationship at all.
Leviticus 11-15 gives directives as to being clean, what makes a person unclean and the process of going from unclean back to clean, whether with food or diet, after childbirth, during skin disorders and discharges–directives, restrictions, and steps to being clean. But how is this connected to us? Let’s start with this:
When have you been remarkably dirty?
Sweaty, muddy, smelly, sticky, gritty, goopy, dirty does not make a person bad, but there tends to be a natural pull towards becoming clean.
With this dirtiness in mind, let’s look at the Jewish culture of 2000 years ago, the one that Jesus was born into. They held the commandments in the highest regard–these are found in Exodus 20, which is from the timeframe of Leviticus:
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall make no idols.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Keep the Sabbath day holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet.
And they held the mitzvot in the highest regard. These were 613 commandments, traditionally understood to come from God and to be intended for the Jewish people to observe.
Jesus lived in the middle of a culture that held these in the highest regard. Knowing this cultural context, look at these two things. One, I have faith that Jesus was perfect:
He never sinned. No lie or bad talk ever came from His lips. (1 Peter 2:22)
Christ never sinned but God put our sin on Him. Then we are made right with God because of what Christ has done for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Our Religious Leader understands how weak we are. Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted, but He did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
And two, I believe that Jesus was passionate about relationship with people:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Now, in His acts of doing this love, care, compassion, and meeting needs, things get complicated.
In Leviticus 13, there is direction to people with bad skin diseases:
The person who has the bad skin disease will wear torn clothes and not cover the hair of his head. He will cover his mouth and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He will be unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He will live alone. His home will be away from the tents. (Leviticus 13:45-46)
Then we bring a moment from Leviticus back in the offerings:
If a person touches anything that is unclean, the dead body of a wild animal, or of cattle, or of anything that moves on the earth that is unclean, even without knowing it, then he will be unclean and will be guilty. Or if he touches a human who is unclean for whatever reason, without knowing it, when he learns about it, he will be guilty. (Leviticus 5:2-3)
Then we bring Jesus into the picture. Jesus touched a leper:
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)
Jesus touched a dead body:
While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples. Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up. News of this spread through all that region. (Matthew 9:18-26)
Now we turn the page to Leviticus 15, which might be a little uncomfortable:
If a woman has a flow of blood for many days, at a different time than when it happens each month, or if the blood flows longer at that time, all the days the blood flows she will be unclean. It will be as if it were the time when she is unclean each month. She will be unclean. Any bed she lies on while her blood is flowing will be like the bed during the time she is unclean and whatever she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches them will be unclean. He must wash his clothes and wash himself in water and be unclean until evening. (Leviticus 15:25-27)
Yet we see Jesus, in the middle of the earlier passage from Matthew, be touched by a woman who was unclean:
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20-22)
These texts could have focused on Jesus’ steps to becoming “clean” again, or on the Mitzvot and how Jesus was a Mitzvot breaker. But instead these stories focus on Jesus loving, caring, helping, and meeting the needs of people. Here’s a complex question:
With the words of Leviticus in our minds, what does the focus of these narratives in Matthew tell us?
Jesus also spoke to the commands. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount and He nudges us beyond just the commands. Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Jesus continues in the Sermon on the Mount, speaking about how you live out righteousness in front of others and how to be generous, about religious practices and worry and not judging others and more (Matthew 5-7). There is a theme in Jesus’ teachings, that what is happening internally is really what matters. It is the heart, it is the intention, it is the internal.
Jesus said right in the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
What is righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees?
What is the difference between internal righteousness and external righteousness?
In Acts 10 we get another window into clean and unclean:
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. (Acts 10:9-18)
Here’s a bit more about Peter: He was raised in a fishing village called Capernaum. His people were deeply committed to keeping the Torah, which included the parts about avoiding impurity. They understood God to be holy and pure, and they organized their lives around reflecting this purity. These purity laws included food and also people. In the same way that you wouldn’t touch a dead animal, they also wouldn’t touch someone who was considered unclean. Their commitment to being clean was so extensive that they wouldn’t even go into the house of someone they considered unclean, which meant anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Which meant, basically, everyone else. (What is the Bible)
AND at the same time:
Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (Acts 10:30-33)
Here’s a bit more about Cornelius: This man was no small figure in the land of Judea. His being a Roman centurion meant that he had under his command, at the bare minimum, one hundred men, because the word centurion comes from the Latin root “centum” which means one hundred, but most centurions at that time commanded somewhere between 200 to 1000 men, so it’s obvious that Cornelius was a man of great importance and was already widely known to the Jews who were living in Judea. (Patheos)
What does God’s declaration of Cornelius being “made clean” tell us about “being clean”?
Now let’s pull this all together. Today we have talked about the impact of no expectations on relationship; being dirty and the fact that you are not in that state of being right now; Jesus’ focus on people over “cleanliness”; internal and external purity; and God’s declaration that Cornelius, an outsider, was clean.
And now we pull it back into focus. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising many descendants and a great nation. But why?
“and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:18)
This is the tension that is lived out in front of us, that Jesus ran directly into, and that is a repeated narrative in all of scripture. It is so easy to live out righteousness–cleanness–in order to be better than others or to try to deserve preferential treatment from God or to impress (or oppress) others or to pet our ego. But our calling to be “clean” is so we can be a blessing.
The path to connection with God should never be a barrier for relationship and connection with others. When we believe that the only way to identify with God is to count ourselves as more pure, righteous, holy, chosen, correct, right, or good, we are completely forgetting that the purpose of connection with God is not to be better than others, but instead to be a blessing to them, a blessing to the world. How can that be achieved? How can we participate in God’s blessing? How can we care for those He desperately wants relationships with if we view them as less than?
What is the difference between being set apart (clean) in order to build yourself up and being set apart (clean) in order to be a blessing to our world?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read James 2:1-13.
- When have you felt over- or under-dressed? Do you think others noticed? How do you know?
- Preferential treatment can be a window into a person’s heart. If you look through that window, what would you see?
- Treating all people equally can be a window into a person’s heart. If you look through that window, what would you see?
- Why is loving others / loving all an important aspect of being Christlike?
- How are you challenged, encouraged, focused, frustrated, and/or confused by this text?
Bible Reading Plan
- 1 Samuel 23
- 1 Samuel 24
- 1 Samuel 25
- 1 Samuel 26
- 1 Samuel 27