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.”John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 220. 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.
Jason Corn serves as the Missions and Discipleship Pastor at Lamar Baptist Church in Arlington, TX. He earned a Master of Arts in Old Testament from Southeastern Seminary in 2012, and is a current PhD student in preaching at SWBTS and minoring in systematic theology. He is married to his wife, Dawn, and they have three sons.
|↑1||John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 220.|