Learning From Leviticus - No. 3 - The Last Word

There is always an advantage for the speaker who has the last word in a discussion or debate. The last words in any conversation are typically the ones best remembered. Also, the expression the last word can refer to ultimate authority, such as, “The doctor has the last word on my physical therapy.” Chapter 26 of Leviticus presents the Lord’s “last word” on worship and holy living which makes this chapter especially important for our Christian lives. The final verse of the chapter reads, “These are the statutes and rules and laws that the Lord made between him and the people of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai” (v. 46). This verse implies all of the instructions found in the whole book: “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying. . .” (1:1). After that the Lord gave Moses the message of the book to the people. So chapter 26 wraps up the revelation made at the Tent of Meeting.

In chapter 26 the Lord sets before the people the choice between obedience and disobedience and describes the consequences that will ensue in each case. If the people choose to obey, the consequences are wonderful blessings. If they choose to disobey, the consequences will be calamitous. But the Lord reveals that the people in the days to come will choose disobedience, and their persistent recalcitrance will result in eventual exile from the land. The history of Israel proved that God was right. Although deserving final annihilation, the Lord promised that in their exile the people would come to the senses and repent. They would be restored to their land, and the blessings of God would flow once again. “Why did the Lord relent on his judgment,” we may ask ourselves? The passage ends on the Lord’s last word on the matter. God’s faithfulness to his promises incites him to show grace to the repentant. God himself will change the hearts of the people, and he will restore them.

Verses 1, 2 of chapter 26 call for loyalty to God. In a word the gold standard for measuring the loyalty of the people to the Lord is their sole worship and obedience to him. By gold standard I mean the highest example of faithfulness. The passage expresses this by listing two commandments found in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were the centerpiece of the covenant agreement that God and the Israelites entered into on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20). The covenant included promised blessings but also forewarnings of covenant curses depending on the response of the people to the stipulations the covenant agreement (cf. Exodus 23:25-33; Deuteronomy 27, 28). The two commandments are connected because they both concern the worship of God.

False worship (v.1): The second commandment in the covenant prohibited the making and worship of idols (Exodus 20:4-6; 34:17; 1 Corinthians 10:7; 1 John 5:21). The worship of idols was universal in ancient religions. Typically, ancient religions boasted of a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Theirs was an inclusive system in assimilating the various gods of the nations into religious syncretism. It was the Israelites who were the “odd” ones, for they worshipped a God who could not be represented by any physical object. God is Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit (John 4:23, 24). The idea that any deity could be captured in a stone or metal idol is the height of spiritual darkness, utter foolishness (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Isaiah 41:29; 9-20; I Corinthians 8:4). Christian worship today is also countercultural, not in step with the prevailing notion that the worship of God can be legitimate as long as it is moral and sincere. The Christian claim that only through Christ can a person come to God is an unthinkable tenet today. This, it is said by our popular culture, reflects the West’s intolerance and prejudice. Christian orthodoxy that teaches there is but one Savior and Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ who is the Son of God, has been denigrated as nothing more than religious dogma used for subjugating others by the ruling powers of Western culture.

If we give in to the pressure of the popular voices today, we fail to worship God in the only means whereby we can authentically know God and serve him. The clearest statement of this is Jesus’ own words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But elsewhere the New Testament continues to make this abundantly clear: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).

True worship (v. 2): The positive call to true worship is the faithful observance of God’s “Sabbath” and “reverence [for God’s] sanctuary” (also Leviticus 19:30. “Reverence” means “to stand in awe” of God. The word occurs only three times in the book of Leviticus, and each time it is tied to the observance of the Sabbath. The point is to honor God by showing obedience, as in the exhortation, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and father” (19:3). In particular God says “my Sabbaths” and “my sanctuary.” These are distinctive of their God. They are his and must be honored by following his instructions. Chapter 25 called for the people to honor the Sabbath year and Year of Jubilee. Our passage builds on this. Here the Lord calls for the people to observe his Sabbaths, which would include the two just mentioned and the weekly Sabbath. The Sabbath day was the sign of God’s covenant with the Israelites (Exodus 31: 13, 17). By keeping Sabbath the Israelites were expressing in a tangible way their surrender to the rule of God. It was their visible weekly claim on God’s promises.

The mention of “sanctuary” refers to the former instruction of Leviticus that pertain to the central place of worship in the life of the community. The Tent of Meeting was in the middle of the wilderness camp. This symbolized that God was the center of Israel’s identity. He and he alone was the One who united them into a nation and who had redeemed them from Egyptian bondage. The purity of the sanctuary was essential in the worship of the people. It was the various sanctuaries of the ancient peoples that that their gods and goddesses were known in their clay, wooden, and metal idols. But Israel’s sanctuary had no such images. The image of God was the people themselves. Keeping the instructions regarding the sanctuary, properly carrying out the sacrifices by the priest and people, and the holy living of the people exhibited the people’s reverence for God in his sanctuary. The prophet Habakkuk said it well: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). We as Christians know that the temple of the Lord is not of the same sort as found in the Old Testament. Now the presence of God in Christ, the incarnational tabernacle of God (John 1:14), has made worship centered in a person, not a place. We come to the Lord and through the incarnational Jesus, whose body is the way into the presence of the Father (John 2:19-21; Hebrews 9).

Despite the obstinacy of the people of Israel, the Lord God was not through with his people altogether. Grace is his last word in this chapter. After purging the people of their sins, he promised to restore them to their land and prosperity.

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