Preaching Pointers from Leviticus

Originally posted at Preaching Source.

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Few books of the Old Testament confound preachers and laypersons more than Leviticus. The hermeneutical and applicational matrix is difficult but not insurmountable, and the reward is worth the exertion. I hope to provide five pointers for Leviticus. My intention is to equip you with a basic framework for making sense of Leviticus as you read and study. To that end, each section ends with a diagnostic question you can ask of each passage.

Practice good sermon preparation. First and foremost, pray. Recall Paul’s words, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:12). Confess known sin. Stay clean and close to Jesus. Read the text. Read the whole book as many times as possible, perhaps ten times at a minimum. There is no magic number. Probe the text. John Stott admonishes preachers, “Probe your text, like a bee with a spring blossom, or like a hummingbird probing a hibiscus flower for its nectar.”[1] Consult good commentaries to help with difficult exegetical issues (here are some resources I found helpful). Good sermon preparation begins with time in the Word before the Lord. The diagnostic question: “What does this text mean according to the intent of the author?”

Seek out how a passage encourages love for the Lord and/or love for neighbor. Jesus says there are two commandments on which “depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:36–40). Jesus says the first and great commandment in the Law is to “love the Lord your God” and the second is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In his De Doctrina Christiana Augustine notes the “fulfillment and the end of the law and of all the divine Scriptures is love” (I.39). Therefore, “if it seems to you that you have understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them” (I.40). If we cannot answer this question of any passage, but especially in Leviticus, we are probably not ready to preach it. The diagnostic question: “How does this passage encourage love for God and/or my neighbor?”

Grasp the context of the book. Leviticus follows the description of the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle in Ex 40:34–36. God now dwells among his people again as an echo of Eden and a preview of the Temple. Sin and perfection could not cohabitate in Eden and cannot in Leviticus. Remember Leviticus is part of the larger Pentateuch. Yes, Leviticus is legal literature, but it is nestled in narrative, in the long arch of Scripture in which God dwells with his people in the beginning (Genesis 1), among his people (Jn 1:14), and then both in and among his people in the end (Rev 21:3). Leviticus demonstrates how all of life is to be lived in the presence of the Lord. Also, the context is essential to grasp because Leviticus follows God’s gracious redemption of Israel from Egypt. The diagnostic question: “How does this passage contribute to an understanding of all of life being lived in the presence of God?”

Keep grace in the background. Grace is the stage scenery for Leviticus. If you understand the context, you perceive Leviticus as a response to God’s grace. We must be careful not to make the distinction between law and grace so great that we do not see God’s grace in the OT. Leviticus answers the question long before Francis Schaeffer, “How should we then live?” God redeemed Israel out of slavery to Egypt, and because of God’s grace in his deliverance and his dwelling, Leviticus stipulates the covenant responsibilities of Israel. Leviticus is not primarily about starting or initiating a relationship with God because Israel did not determine to come to God and then subsequently set the prescriptions found in Leviticus. God initiated and delivered, but now Israel is called to respond. Remembering grace will also guard against legalism and antinomianism. The diagnostic question: “Am I trying to understand this passage apart from God’s previous gracious deed(s)?”

Use the theme as a template. The book functions as a cardiac tuning fork for Israel. Leviticus 19:1 gives the tone. The Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” God invites Israel to become as he is. If Leviticus were a song, it would be in this key. As a template, it demystifies much (but not all) of Leviticus. This is not dissimilar from what Abraham Kuruvilla terms “Christiconic interpretation.” Leviticus summons Israel to “theoiconic” living. One question you can ask of each passage you study is, “What aspect of holiness does this passage promote?” Answer this question by understanding the why of a passage. There are basic questions we ask of any text, those great investigative questions, but often our focus in OT law centers on the “what.” Do not misunderstand me. We need to answer the what. We need to know what a burnt offering is and what the word “abomination” means. Let us not forget, however, to investigate the why. Why is this in Scripture? This will help cross the bridge from then to now. The diagnostic question: “How does God intend for believers to become more like God (or Christ) through this passage?”

I hope these pointers help you as you labor to understand and to preach Leviticus. God will honor your labors in this important and wonderful portion of God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word.

[1] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 220.

Psalm 69

What do you do when everything goes wrong? Have you ever had one of those moments or one of those days, weeks, months, or years? I’m talking about a day or a time in your life when everything goes wrong but not only that but everything that was a consequence of all the things that went wrong are now going wrong as well. It’s like you’re caught in this endless downward spiral of things going wrong. What do you do in those moments when it feels like everything is going wrong, everything is falling apart and everything is crashing down around you?

David finds himself in such a situation. Everything you need to know about David’s situation can be heard in the first words of the Psalm, “Save me, O God!” Most of us have uttered that cry at different times in our lives and for different reasons. Hopefully at one point we realized our depraved sinfulness and cried out to God, “Save me, O God!” Or we walked in open rebellion against God and his will for our lives, and this led to a chaos in our lives. We don’t know how to get ourselves out of our own mess and we cry out to God, “Save me, O God!”

David’s life is in a state of chaos. He continues the verse with the reason for his plea, “For the waters threaten my life.” The word “life” is the Hebrew word nephesh and it doesn´t only mean his physical life, although it certainly means that. The word is more holistic than that. David feels like he is physically and spiritually about to drown! Oh, I don’t have to explain that feeling to you, do I? Your life is so chaotic that you feel like suffocation is just seconds away. You just need to stop sliding deeper and deeper. David felt that way. Look at v. 2 where he says I sink in deep mire.” What is mire? “Mire” is an area of wet, swampy ground. It is slimy soil that is usually very deep.

David uses this word in Ps 40:3 and listen to how he describes it there. “He [the Lord] drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon the rock, making my steps secure.” If you think about it, we often use geography to depict our lives. We call the good times the mountain tops and the bad times the valleys. Here when it comes to stability and instability, stability is being able to walk on solid ground, on the rock, and being able to take secure steps, not having to worry about what you’re walking on.

In contrast, the miry bog is the picture of instability. In the miry bog there are no sure steps, only struggle and strife. It is almost tortuous. To have only one thing you need and you are stuck in the one place that doesn’t have the one thing you need. But David continues by saying that he is in deep waters. Have you ever tried to tread water? You may know this about me but at one point in my life I was one signature away from enlisting in the Navy. One of the fitness requirements was being able to tread water for 5 minutes. I remember going to the pool and thinking, “Okay, I just have to sort of float and stay up for 5 minutes. No big deal.” It was about 1 minute in that I realized I was in trouble.

David is in deep water and he is exhausted. He then says the “flood sweeps over me.” The imagery is just relentless. The chaos and craziness is unrelenting! And David is starting to lose hope. He says in v. 3, “I am weary with my crying out.” That word “weary” is used in another interesting context. In 2 Samuel 23, David’s mighty men are battling the Philistines. A man named Eleazar was fighting and it says in v. 10, that he “rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to his sword.” What a picture! It’s like David is fighting, and fighting, and fighting . . . and he is so, so weary. How is he fighting? By crying out!

We talk about crying out to God but David cried out time and time again. He was weary with his crying out. He says, “my throat is parched.” He’s going horse pleading for God to answer and save him. He closes with almost a heartbreaking language. It’s like seeing a great warrior about to give up even though you may be cheering for him. He says, “My eyes grow dim,” they are failing. He’s seeing no light at the end of the tunnel. No hope. No coming deliverance just on the horizon. He’s looking to the horizon for a sunrise and yet he only sees pitch black midnight.

Have you been there? Was there a time in your life, or maybe it is right now where you need to cry out to God, “Save me, O God!” If you’re in the midst of such a time in your life and you haven’t cried out to God to save you, I would encourage that you do that. I spend so much time highlighting the nature of David’s condition because I think it only magnifies what we read towards the end of Psalm 69. Look at what David says, “I will praise the name of God with a song, I will magnify him with thanksgiving.” Wow.

Jesus, God’s Final Word

 The Book of Hebrews is concerned with demonstrating that Jesus as superior to anything and everything else. It will argue that Jesus is better than the prophets, angels, and Moses. The covenant Jesus enacted, the New Covenant, is a better covenant. Jesus’ blood, his sacrifice, is a better sacrifice. All of Hebrews devotes itself to holding up Jesus Christ as supreme, superior, and set apart. Jesus is in a league of his own and in a class of his own. Hebrews is written to Jewish believers to challenge them to see Jesus and listen to him. Why? Well, they were tempted to dwell on the past, to hold past prophets and priests in higher regard. To value anyone more than Jesus was to put them above Jesus.

We must be fair and say that we all it difficult to let go, and since we aren’t walking through Hebrews, we may miss the weight of what the book is saying. He is telling Jewish believers that Jesus is better than everything they value as being part of their identity, their culture, their livelihood! Everything that you think defines you, gives you meaning, helps you make sense of the world—all those things—Jesus is better and Jesus is higher. From the beginning of the book, the writer strikes this note: God has appointed Jesus as his final, supreme message; therefore, we must listen to him above all others.

Although I want to focus on Hebrews 1:1-2 in this post, it is worth quoting 1:1-4 in full. The author writes:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Jesus is God’s final, supreme message (v. 2). There are three aspects to note concerning this verse. 

First, God has spoken in the past through prophets. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges this. He writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (v. 1). First, let us not miss the fact that our God is a God who speaks! In places of the OT, this was the distinguishing factor between the true God and false gods. Listen to Ps 115:4-5: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” Our God is a speaking God but his supreme, final message was not one of the prophets but his Son.

Second, God speaks today through his Son. Notice the contrast in the rest of verse two, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son.” When he says, “in these last days,” he uses a Greek of rendering of OT terminology. When you read the OT prophets, they often talk about “in the last days.” These “last days” are the time when all the prophecies of the prophets will find their fulfillment. In other words, the prophets would often prophecy about “these last days.” The author of Hebrews is saying, “Those ‘last days’ the prophets always pointed to are now when God has fulfilled his promises and spoken through his Son.” I love how the commentator, F. F. Bruce put it. He says, “God’s previous spokesmen were His servants, but for the proclamation of His last word, to man He has chosen His Son.”[1] But to whom does God speak

Third, God speaks “to us.” The writer also says that God has spoken “to us” through his Son. Hebrews was written after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are post-Pentecost believers. Still the writer says that God has spoken to them through his Son. What God has said through Jesus was not applicable only while he walked the earth but it was relevant for these Hebrew Christians who were living some years after the life of Jesus. There was a definitive event— “God has spoken” —the authority of which carried to the present day of the readers; and this definitive event is also authoritative today! Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that God has spoken, to us (!), to you and to me, through His Son.

Application

Are you listening to Jesus? How does this change your time reading the Scriptures? When you open the Scriptures, God is speaking to you! This changes your quiet time. It is God conversing with you as you read and you converse with him as you pray. I would challenge you to listen to Jesus above all others. What decisions do you need to revisit that were made without submission to King Jesus? What coming decisions need to be surrendered to the Lord?

[1] F. F. Bruce, Hebrews, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 3.