All Paid Up
In the final type of major sacrifice covered in Leviticus 1:1-6:7, we look at the guilt offering, which focuses especially on the debt that sin incurs and how it can be repaired.
The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), Gordon Wenham
Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People (Preaching the Word), Kenneth Mathews
On June 22nd of last year, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Philadelphia Reparations Task Force. The mission of the task force, in the words of official communication from City Council “is to provide the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the United States of America with a comprehensive overview and report on how reparations can atone for the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism in America for Black Philadelphians.” Without attempting to wade into the specifics of the racial reparations conversation in America, we can see in this decision of City Council the sense that when someone commits a wrong, the damage that wrong caused needs to be repaired if atonement is to be achieved.
We’re wrapping up our short series of sermons through the first few chapters of Leviticus this Sunday, in which we’ve been looking at the five major types of sacrifices introduced there. It began with this discussion of atonement, the same word that interestingly appears in City Council’s communications on reparations. Atonement, making right what has been made wrong so that God’s people can continue to dwell in God’s presence without being destroyed by God’s justice, is at the foundation of the entire sacrificial system, but today we come to the final type of sacrifice which deals especially with this aspect of repair: The guilt offering. Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham even suggests in his commentary on Leviticus that it should be called the reparation offering. And while I’m afraid this passage does not definitively settle the question of racial reparations in America, it does show us that particular sins require particular reparations, and it does so by addressing three types of sins, and prescribing for each the appropriate reparation: Sins against God’s property, then sins of ignorance, and finally sins against another person’s property.
Sins against God’s property
I mentioned last week that beginning in chapter 4, we get into the two types of sacrifice designed to address particular sins: The sin offering, which we looked at last week and which chapters 4 through 5:13 address, and the guilt offering, to which we now turn our focus. The burnt offering, the first type of offering covered in Leviticus, was more general. It dealt with the fact that we are sinners generally, but the sin and guilt offerings correspond to particular sins we commit. So what are they?
The first one we encounter in this passage in verse 15 is when anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the LORD. That word there translated “breach of faith” is a pretty serious one throughout the Old Testament; it refers to an act which is not faithful to the covenant God made with his people. And yet, the sin is still viewed as an unintentional sin in verse 15. So, much like we saw last week, it is still sin, and even serious sin—it is called a breach of faith—but provision is also made for the fact that it was unintentional. We see an example of this sort of sin in Leviticus 22:14 when someone eats of a holy thing unintentionally. In other words, certain food has been dedicated to the LORD, which was then only to be eaten by the priests, like we saw a couple weeks back in the grain offering. But, a common Israelite, maybe a friend of the priest, may not realize that, and eat it unintentionally. That is viewed here not so much as taking from the priest, but taking from the LORD’s holy things.
Of course, in one sense everything is the LORD’s. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”. But under the law, God ordained that certain people, the priests, and certain objects, those used to build the tabernacle and those used in tabernacle service, and even certain foods, like those that were to be eaten by the priest only, were to be set apart exclusively for use in his worship. The tabernacle was built as the place where the LORD would dwell with his people; we have seen it called the “tent of meeting” in Leviticus already. And the LORD invited his people in to a point, but as we would expect any time we invite someone into our home, he expected that we respect his property. So one of the particular sins covered by the guilt offering is when one of God’s people would damage or misuse one of his holy things.
Today when someone becomes a Christian and is baptized, they are set apart as holy to the LORD. Anytime a Christian uses their body as an instrument of unrighteousness, then, they are, in a sense, committing a breach of faith in one of the holy things of the LORD (Rom 6:13). Consider that when you are tempted to sin as a Christian: You are actually taking something that now bears the LORD’s name and using it to sin. That said, we can detect more direct parallels to the sort of sin described here in other things to which the LORD’s name is uniquely attached. For example, when I preach a sermon, I’m not just speaking in my own name, but in the name of God. I claim that what I am saying to you in this sermon is what God wants to say to you, and I feel I can do that because I believe he’s called me to this office in this church and because I am taking what I am saying from the words he inspired in scripture. But if I were to unintentionally say something false in one of these sermons, you can probably sense why that’s a bigger deal than if I were to unintentionally say something false about the Eagles over dinner with a few buddies. Perhaps you’ve unintentionally disseminated falsehood about the LORD to others in public teaching or private conversation. Perhaps you’ve unintentionally promised people things in the LORD’s name that you later realized he did not promise: “God’s going to give you that house; I just know it.”
We can think of other things in addition to preaching and teaching to which God’s name is uniquely attached: The church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline. In one of the prayers of confession we use regularly, written by the 17th century pastor Richard Baxter, we confess that we have neglected and abused God’s holy worship, and sometimes we do so unintentionally. I can think back to baptism services in which I participated which I now realize were not administered according to God’s intention, which were disconnected God’s church, and in which the person performing the baptism was not authorized to speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Here I served as one of the elders who used to administer church discipline without the authority God has given the entire congregation. None of that was an intentional effort to repudiate God or his law, but I now realize they were breaches of faith in the holy things of the LORD.
And the temptation of modern Western Christians today is simply to say, “Oh come on; God sees your heart, he knows you weren’t trying to get it wrong, and that’s what really matters in the end. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” And there’s a point to be made there: God does see the heart, and God cares about the heart. He does distinguish between unintentional sins and sins done “with a high hand” (Num 15:30-31). But he doesn’t dismiss them. If they didn’t matter to God, there would be no guilt offering. But the fact that there is a guilt offering shows us that all sin, even unintentional sin, matters to God! He is holy, and he calls his people to be holy as he is holy. We should not tolerate any sin in our lives, even unintentional sin.
But we should also not beat ourselves up over them. God has provided a way of atonement for breaches of faith and unintentional sins in his holy things in the guilt offering. So verse 15 continues to say that if anyone sins in that way, he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued in silver shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. Unlike other sacrifices, here the type of animal is specified, along with its value, and this shows us the unique perspective of the guilt offering: The guilt offering exists to cancel a debt, and therefore the particular value of the animal offered is significant. Last week we saw that sin defiles not only us, but the place of God’s meeting with his people. Here we see that sin also incurs a debt, and God enabled the debt to be paid through the guilt offering.
On top of that, though, sin against God’s property does have a material consequence. If you eat food the LORD intended to give to the priest, now the priest can’t eat it. So those who sinned in such a way were also responsible to repair the wrong they had done by restoring whatever they took, damaged, or desecrated, and adding to it a fifth of its value. The addition of the fifth acknowledged that the damage done by such a sin went beyond the mere material loss, and served as a deterrent, to encourage God’s people to exercise extra caution when dealing with his property. In the case of food, it obviously replaced the food the priest would have eaten, but in any of the holy things of the LORD, it was a kind of reparation to the LORD for the damage of his property, and since you can’t give it to the LORD directly, the LORD directed that people who were guilty of such sins give it to his priests as giving it to him.
So if you find that you are guilty of a breach of faith in which you sinned unintentionally in any of the holy things of the LORD, what should you do today rather than dismissing it or beating yourself up over it? You should confess it to the LORD as sin against him, and you should seek to repair whatever damage your sin caused. When we sin in the LORD’s holy things, we do damage to his name. If you taught someone something false in the LORD’s name, you should go back to them, admit it, and instead tell them what you now realize is true. When I realized we’d been administering church discipline unbiblically, I felt I needed to not only confess that to the LORD, but apologize publicly to you all, and lead us to move in a new direction, to basically repair the damage done to God’s name by our lack of conformity to what God commanded in the use of his holy things. That was all uncomfortable, and it is meant to be. Let that element of this offering deter you from committing the sins for which it is required. If you notice that you are about to speak in God’s name or do something that uniquely carries with it God’s authority, be careful to examine the scriptures and do so according to the mind of God revealed therein.
In the examples I’ve given thus far you could probably sense that a number of them sprang from ignorance; I or we just didn’t know any better at the time, and that’s probably why God speaks of those sorts of sins next in verse 17. Let’s look next at sins of ignorance.
Sins of ignorance
In verse 17 the scope is broader than in the prior verses as it addresses not only sins regarding the holy things of the LORD, but any of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, “though he did not know it”. We could call these sins of ignorance. Last week we saw that sin in God’s eyes is not only “conscious transgression of known law”. Unintentional sin is still sin. In addition, here we see that sin includes transgression of unknown laws. After I first trusted Christ for salvation, some time elapsed before I got baptized and joined a church because I simply was unaware that God required such things of me in his word. I even continued attending a Roman Catholic Church for a time because I didn’t know the things they taught were actually contrary to scripture. I skipped church gatherings for silly reasons because I didn’t understand the importance scripture attached to that particular gathering. I have known Christians who dated unbelievers because they just didn’t know God required Christians to only marry other Christians. A Christian might indulge an angry thought because they didn’t know that God’s commandment not to murder applied not only to their actions, but to their thoughts as well. A Christian might not give their money to their local church because they simply don’t know that the Bible requires that. You might take something from someone else without realizing it belonged to someone else.
Now again, God makes provision for the forgiveness of such sins, but we have to start by realizing they even are sins in God’s sight before we will seek the way of forgiveness that God offers. The existence of sins springing from ignorance is not an excuse to sin. Sometimes Christians can be afraid to really search the scriptures and seek pastoral counsel on what God wants them to do because they are afraid that if they really found out, it might mean having to do something they don’t want to do. So they remain willfully ignorant. But sins committed out of willful ignorance are no longer sins of ignorance; they are deliberate attempts to avoid the law of God. Don’t settle for an uninformed conscience. Get to know the Bible and seek the wisdom of those who know it better than you do. Be willing to consider counsel that is not the counsel you are already hoping to hear so you can be fully convinced in your own mind of what God actually requires.
And yet, once again, there is hope for forgiveness here. Here there is no requirement of restitution, because the sins covered do not necessarily involve a sin against someone’s property that would then need to be restored and repaired, as in the sins we’ve been talking about against the LORD’s holy things. And yet, even though no property was damaged, a debt was incurred. Did you catch that in verse 19? It says anytime you break one of the LORD’s commandments, even when you did not know it, you have incurred guilt before the LORD. So the guilt offering was still required to be given to the LORD in that case. Much like unintentional sins against the LORD’s holy things, if you realize you are guilty of doing something that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, though you did not know, do not excuse or dismiss it. Confess and repent of it.
And, finally, the guilt offering covers sins against another human’s property.
Sins against another human’s property
Chapter 6 begins the discussion of a different type of sin, which verse 2 describes again as a breach of faith against the LORD, and the examples it gives are deceiving one’s neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or oppressing his neighbor or finding something lost and lying about it, swearing falsely. Notice that in each of these examples, the sin would seem to be against one’s neighbor: Deceiving them, robbing them, oppressing them, but they are still described as breaches of faith against the LORD. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he talked about loving your neighbor as yourself, but only after he said that the first and great commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Sometimes there are neighbors you might look at and by the world’s standards, find little reason not to deceive, rob, or oppress. If you can get away with it and it helps you, why not do it? But for God’s covenant people, that’s never an option. That neighbor, whoever he or she is, is an image of God, and to deceive, rob, or oppress them would not only be a sin against them, but a sin against the God in whose image they were made.
That’s why Christians believe no human should be deceived, robbed, or oppressed. If you are here today and you are not a Christian, I am guessing you agree with that, but why do you? Where do you get your “should”? Maybe you have personally chosen not to deceive, rob, or oppress others, but my guess is that you would also say nobody should do those things. If you found yourself a victim of deception, robbery, or oppression, you would probably be even more likely to say the people who did those things to you should not have, and not just that you wish they hadn’t. Why, though? If all we are as humans is what we each individually decide to be, who are you or I to tell anyone else that they should not decide to be a liar, thief, and oppressor? Perhaps you’d say we have these moral intuitions as a product of evolution, but again, why should others be bound by them in that case? How do you go from a statement about what “is”, especially when what “is” can change, to a statement about what “ought” to be? As Tim Keller put it, evolution can explain moral intuition, but not moral obligation.
And yet, you probably do not treat deception, robbery, and oppression as mere moral intuitions; you really think people should not do them. Can I suggest to you two other explanations for why that is the case? First, because you were, just like me, created in the image of God, and therefore God has etched into your conscience a sense, however distorted, that to tell the truth is better than to deceive and to give better than to steal. And, second, if you live in Philadelphia now, you have inherited, to some degree, thousands of years of Christian influence. The idea that the powerful should not oppress the weak, for example, is not actually one that every culture has shared throughout history. Where’d that come from? A non-Christian historian, Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, suggests it came from Christianity. For more of a Christian perspective, Glenn Scrivener has written a book called The Air We Breathe and the subtitle is How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, and of course, his answer is the influence of Christianity.
In any case, returning to our passage we can also notice before discussing the specific sins that there are no qualifiers on these sins like “unintentional” or “though he did not know it”. I can accidentally misspeak about something that I genuinely did not know, but lying implies intentionality. I can take something I did not know belonged to my neighbor, but robbery implies intentionality. It is hard to see how oppression would be unintentional. Maybe between last week and today as we have spent a lot of time talking about unintentional sins and sins of ignorance, some of you have wondered, “Ok, but what about me? I know I have sinned deliberately. Is there any hope for me?” Here we see that yes, there is. Let’s talk briefly about the sins covered here then before talking about the required reparations for them.
First there is deceiving a neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, and this would be like a neighbor asking you to watch their house, walk their dogs, or letting you borrow their car, and you damage such things in some way, but then lie to them about it. Robbery is obvious: Taking without permission that which does not belong to you. Then there is oppression, and I want to pause on that one briefly because it’s become something of a buzzword in our day like toxic, abuse, and trauma, which all refer to something that really exists and is really evil, but tends to get thrown around and applied to anything the person using it does not like. Someone telling you you are something you do not identify yourself to be or telling you you ought to do something you do not feel would be right for you is not necessarily oppressing you. That’s certainly not what is in mind here. The clearest example of oppression in the Bible is when someone hires a worker for a certain wage and then does not pay them it at all, or delays their payment of it. More generally, it refers to anytime someone in authority uses that authority to enable them to sin against someone under their authority. Then there is finding something and rather than reporting it lost or returning it to its owner, you just keep it and pretend it’s yours. And then, beyond these specific examples, verse 3 adds this general statement: “In any of all the things that people do and sin thereby”. The intention there is probably not to include every conceivable sin; there were some sins under the Old Covenant that God simply punished with the death penalty, and no sacrifice could atone for them: Blasphemy, adultery, murder, false prophecy, manstealing, and a few others. But, as verse 5 puts it, this covers “anything about which he has sworn falsely.” In other words, if you gain anything from your neighbor by sin, here’s what you do.
First, verse 5 says, you shall restore what you gained in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day you realize your guilt. In this case you don’t give it to the priest; you give it to the person from whom you took it. In this we see affirmation that though all things ultimately belong to the LORD, he gives individuals private property. There are things God has entrusted to you that he has not entrusted to me, and I have no right to take such things from you whether by deceit, robbery, or oppression. If I do, I have to give it back to you and add a fifth to it, again to recognize that the damage I caused was not merely the material loss, and to serve as a deterrent to me and others from sinning in similar ways. Notice also that the one who sins in this way is required to do this on the day he realizes his guilt. No delay permitted. On the day you realize you have sinned against your neighbor, that’s the day to repair the damage you caused.
In fact, the text here says you should make that repair before you even bring to the priest as your compensation to the LORD a ram without blemish. Pastor Adriel Sanchez in his sermon on this text points out how Jesus taught the same principle in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). Jesus is imagining a scene like this there: You come to offer an animal on the altar, but realize that your brother has something against you: You’ve sinned against him in some way. You might think, “Well the first thing I should do is deal with God, and then go deal with my brother” and certainly praying before talking to your brother or sister would be a good idea, but the idea in this passage is basically that if you are unwilling to repair the wrong you have done to your neighbor, God will not accept your worship in place of that.
If you are here today, you obviously chose to come to this church gathering. I imagine a number of you plan to take the Lord’s Supper after the sermon, as we typically do in our services. Do you have a brother, sister, or neighbor with something against you, though? When we give you that time of self-examination before taking the Lord’s Supper, that’s one of the questions to consider. Don’t reserve it for that time, though. Consider it before you come to church gatherings. If someone confronts you and suggests that you perhaps have sinned against them, take that seriously. You may not agree with their assessment immediately, but if you cannot come to agreement on it, involve one or two other witnesses, or even a pastor, to help you see whether you were guilty of sin in that case or to help the other person see that you weren’t (cf. Matt 18:15-17). But Jesus’ point is that God’s people should never accept a status quo in which they know someone has something against them and they just go on worshiping him like they don’t.
And when you do realize you have sinned against someone else, do not delay in repairing the wrong you have done to them. If you have in some way damaged their property, restore it to them, and add to it some portion of its value. In many cases you may not have damaged their property, but consider other ways you may have caused damage to them. If you were talking about them behind their back, you damaged their name, and you repair it by going back to the people to whom you did that, confessing, apologizing, and saying true, positive things about that person instead. If you said something hurtful to them directly, you repair that by confessing, apologizing, and speaking words that build them up. That kind of repair work is costly, but it’s meant to be. You caused the damage; you are responsible for the repair. Let that be a deterrent to you, and let it spur you on to diligence in treating each person with the dignity they deserve as image bearers, including their property.
The temptation you will face when you realize your guilt against someone else, though, is to delay dealing with it, to keep trying to minimize it or devise another way besides repairing it, because our flesh just so hates admitting we were wrong and taking responsibility for it. One thing I’ve done to fight that tendency in myself that I heard from a pastor named Bruce Wesley is when I realize my guilt against someone else, I start a mental clock of 24 hours. I have 24 hours from then to pick up the phone or meet with them and deal with this. If I need to pray about it first, if I want to prepare what I’ll say, if I need to seek counsel, fine. But I get 24 hours; otherwise it’s too easy for me to just push it off because it’s uncomfortable. And then, typically, a brief, specific confession is in order, along with any necessary repairs. I say it should be brief because when confessions get long, they tend to evolve into excuses. I say specific because particular sins require particular reparations, and you can’t repair something particular you can’t name particularly. And in my confessions of sins to others, I try to always include these three phrases: I’m sorry, I was wrong, will you forgive me? Those of you who have been through premarital counseling with me know those phrases well, and there is nothing in scripture that mandates them, but I submit them to you as wise counsel on how to repair sins committed against others. Express contrition, admit that you were wrong (it was your fault, not theirs) and let them know what you want them to do with that: Will you forgive me?
Ok, so when you sin against another’s property, the first thing you do is repair the wrong done to the person, but then once again our passage ends with bringing to the priest the compensation to the LORD of a ram without blemish from the flock, or something of equivalent value, because again, the value is the emphasis in this sacrifice, and the priest shall make atonement for such a one before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty. Since even sins against your neighbor are ultimately breaches of faith against the LORD, our sins also incur a debt before him, and the ram was his appointed compensation. And yet, you have maybe noticed that so far in this sermon, I have not told any of you to offer the LORD a ram for your compensation. I have tried my best to give examples of ways I have and ways you might sin against the LORD’s holy things, sin out of ignorance, or sin against your neighbor’s property, the sins which this passage covers, but I have not told you to offer a ram as your compensation for them. Why?
Because even an unblemished ram from the flock is not sufficient to truly pay down the debt our sins have incurred. If I steal your car by deceit, I can adequately repair that in your sight by giving the car back to you and adding a fifth of its value to you in cash, because the sin is easily identifiable, and the car is of finite value. But do you really think you can track down every time you sinned in one of God’s holy things, every time you sinned out of ignorance, every time you sinned against your neighbor’s property, and repair it? And more importantly, do you really think a ram is sufficient compensation when we have sinned not only in God’s holy things or against the property of God’s images, but against God himself, the one being of infinite value? To sin against a being of infinite value incurs an infinite debt, and that debt can only be paid by a guilt offering, not of silver shekels, but of infinite value.
And so as Anselm of Canterbury explained in the 1000s, this is why God became man: Only he possessed the life of infinite value! To pay the debt our sins have incurred, then, God the Father sent God the Son to take on human flesh in Jesus Christ and to offer himself as our guilt offering. So Isaiah 53:10 even describes his death on the cross as a guilt offering, and we know God accepted it, because on the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven, never to die again, nor ever to be offered again. The Israelites in Moses’ day could offer a ram without blemish from the flock for these sins, and God accepted it as atonement so that they were not killed by his wrath for their sin. But the only true atonement, the only eternal atonement, the only forgiveness that brings not only temporary salvation from death but eternal salvation from the wrath of God and eternal life, is the guilt offering of Jesus Christ. That offering is sufficient to cover not only unintentional sins against God’s holy things, sins of ignorance, or sins against another person’s property. That sacrifice is sufficient to cover blasphemy, murder, adultery, any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.
So if you realize your guilt today, do not try to bring the LORD a ram, do not try to bring the LORD excuses, do not try to bring the LORD even your resolutions to do better in the future. Instead, confess your sin, receive and rest upon Jesus Christ as your guilt offering, and then seek to repair whatever damage your sin has caused, whether to God’s property, God’s name, or to your neighbor’s property, and you shall be forgiven.