Burned for our Sins
When a wrong is committed, atonement must be made, but how can atonement be made for the wrongs we have committed against the LORD? The first type of sacrifice covered in Leviticus answers that question.
The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), Gordon Wenham
Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People (Preaching the Word), Kenneth Mathews
Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison in 2012 for a Ponzi scheme which was estimated to defraud people out of $8 billion dollars. He’s already in prison, but lawyers are still working on his case because now the courts are sorting out how to repair the wrong done to those who were defrauded. Some of them lost their retirement accounts, for example, and had to head into retirement with no real money because of what Stanford did. A real wrong was done, and to put it in biblical language, what lawyers and the judicial system are now trying to figure out is how the wrong done can be atoned for in the sight of the people he wronged.
Today we’re beginning a series of short series of sermons through the book of Leviticus, and when it comes to books of the Bible, Leviticus is right up there with Revelation on the list of books that tend to intimidate Bible readers, only it has less scintillating imagery than Revelation, so most Bible readers tend to ignore it, and that’s part of why I want to preach on it. I don’t want you all to have parts of the Bible you fear or ignore; all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for us. On top of that, Leviticus provides some helpful background to Hebrews, a book of the Bible we plan to pick back up on in February, Lord willing. As we get into this first chapter of Leviticus today, the question of atonement is also central to it. As Stanford wronged many though his Ponzi scheme, we have all wronged God, and therefore, the question we face is how our wrong can be atoned for in his sight. We may try to excuse ourselves, punish ourselves, or improve ourselves, but today we will see in this passage to atone for your sins, you need a precious, substitutionary sacrifice to be given entirely to God. It must be precious, it must be your substitute, and it must be given entirely to God.
The book of Leviticus is known as a compilation of law codes, but in verse 1 we can see that it really is a story: The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. In your Bibles, Leviticus follows Exodus, and they are two of the five books that make up what we call the Pentateuch, which comes from the Greek words for five and scroll, as in five scrolls. These five books were almost entirely written by Moses, an important figure introduced here in verse 1, and they have been handed down to us in the order in which they appear in your English Bibles. That is not true of every book of the Bible; sometimes people years ago had to decide in what order to put the books of the Bible, but while we do not have the original copies of these that Moses himself wrote, all the evidence points to the order we have them reflecting the order Moses intended. So to help you understand the story with which Leviticus begins, let me just catch you up a bit on what came before.
The Pentateuch began the whole story of the Bible in the book of Genesis, and in it God created the first humans to live in his presence in a garden called Eden. There we read in Genesis 3 that God used to walk with the humans. But, the first humans sinned against God, and were cast out of his presence. Nonetheless, they reproduce, humanity begins to spread, and God promises to be God to one man, Abraham, and his family, so that through them all the families of the earth would be blessed. But in the book of Exodus, the one just before Leviticus, Abraham’s family ends up enslaved in Egypt, and the big central event of that book and really of the entire Bible prior to the coming of Jesus was God leading Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt through a man named Moses and bringing them out into the wilderness with the promise of eventually leading them into the land God promised their ancestors he would give them. The idea of that rescue was not just that slavery is bad, though it is. The idea is that God was delivering his people from the hard service of Pharaoh back into his own presence, that they might again engage in the service for which they were created, the joyful service of worshipping the true God.
So the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus focus on the instructions for and the erection of a tent in which God promised to meet with his people, and which would serve as the place on earth where their worship of God would be focused, and this is called the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting is like a mini restoration of the garden of Eden, where people can come back into the presence of God! Sounds great, right? Well, in Exodus some problems already emerged. To give just the cardinal example, in Exodus 32, shortly after God commanded the people not to worship him through the use of carved images, they made for themselves a golden calf and worshiped it as though it was Yahweh, the true God. And in judgment, 3000 of the people died, and the LORD sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:28, 35), and what that revealed was that The LORD, the God of Israel, the God who brought them out of slavery, was a holy God, meaning he was purely good, but the people were still sinful. And as a holy God, he cannot simply wink at evil. As many celebrated when the judge in the case of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers did not simply wink at their evil, as you no doubt feel some measure of hatred for at least some of the evils you see committed, imagine that justice purified and magnified to an infinite extent. The question that raises, and the question the book of Exodus really sets up in the Pentateuch, that gets us into Leviticus is, “How can a holy God dwell with a sinful people without destroying them?” The Garden of Eden worked because the people were not yet sinful. And when they sinned, the solution “worked”: God simply removed them from his presence. But if this holy God wants to still dwell with his sinful people, how can he do it without killing them in judgment?
In Leviticus 1:1, God begins to answer that question when he speaks to Moses. And not only did he speak to Moses, but he told Moses to speak to the people of Israel in verse 2. What God is about to say is not just for a select few, but for all the people of Israel. The book of Leviticus, daunting as it may seem, is not just for pastors and theologians; it is for all God’s people.
It must be precious
With all that introduction, let’s get into what he says. In verse 2, what God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel is that when they bring an offering to the LORD, and it is from the livestock, it shall be from the herd or from the flock. In other words, if it is from the livestock, it can be a cow from the herd, or it can be sheep or a goat from the flock.
Notice, then, that the first answer Leviticus gives to the question of how a holy God can dwell with a sinful people without killing them, and the answer on which we will focus this week and over the next three weeks, is by those sinful people bringing offerings to the LORD, offerings we more commonly refer to as sacrifices, for reasons that will become clearer as we progress through the passage. But not just any offering will do. The modern West is characterized by what sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism”. The basic idea of expressive individualism is that it is your duty as an individual to express whatever you feel most deeply. And insofar as Christians have allowed themselves to be conformed to the pattern of the world in this way, it has led people to think of service to God or worship of God as a matter of expression: “God isn’t concerned about how you worship; he’s just concerned with your heart.” “Church should be a space where we come and express whatever we need to express that day, and receive whatever we need to receive from God.” Such sentiments appear to many to be very authentic, but that kind of expressive individualism actually kills authentic relationship with God.
Think about any authentic relationship: Isn’t part of it letting the other person’s individuality impose itself on you? The holidays just passed, and I tried to get my wife a gift she’d like, so I spent time thinking, “What would really make her happier?” Would it really have made our relationship more authentic if I had instead simply considered what it would make me happiest to express? That’s not an authentic relationship; it’s just selfishness. So if you want an authentic relationship with God, like you want to know the real God, you have to drop this idea that you can approach him however you feel. If that’s how the real God operated, the book of Leviticus would be incredibly short. Verse 2 would just say, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, when any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, just make sure you really feel it.”
But it doesn’t do that. Instead, God regulates the offering, and the first way he regulates it is by saying that it must be a precious offering. The first way we see that is in that it must be from the herd or the flock, rather than from an animal you just caught or killed in a hunt. Animals in flocks or herds were cultivated animals, animals you put resources into feeding and caring for. They were furthermore part of your livelihood; at this time Israel did not have bank accounts in which to store assets. Your flocks and herds were your assets. God also made a way for Israelites who were too poor to own livestock to make an offering to him with a bird, with which our passage concludes, but the idea here is that the offering should be precious, according to your ability.
Further details are then given according to the animal offered: Verses 3-9 focus on the laws for a cattle being offered, verses 10-13 on sheep or goats, and verses 14-17 on birds. The order is according to value: The cattle were the most valuable livestock, then the sheep or goats, then the birds, and in each case, there are minor differences in the procedure for practical reasons, but the essentials hold good for each, and so rather than preaching sequentially through each of them, I am going to focus on verses 3-9 as the most detailed description of the burnt offering, as it is called in verse 3.
In verse 3 we see further evidence that the offering must be precious in that it must be a male without blemish. Male cattle were not necessarily more valuable than female cattle, but males were valuable in their ability to produce more cows. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a single mature bull can impregnate 25 to 35 cows per season, while a highly fertile bull can impregnate up to 50. So in offering the male cow, the Israelite was limiting his potential gains. Perhaps more important than the cow’s gender, though, was that the cow must be without blemish. God would not accept the cow who was diseased and who you were already thinking you could do without anyway. He will not accept the leftovers. He requires that the offering be precious: From herd or flock, not caught at random, the gender with greater reproductive capacity, and the best of your herd or flock, not the bottom of the barrel.
Consider the resources you uniquely devote to the Lord. Let’s start with time. It is significant that for thousands of years now Christians have gathered for worship on Sunday mornings, the first part of the first day of the week. Christians get up on Sunday morning to begin a new week, and what’s the first thing we do? We get ready to gather for worship. And in so doing, we are saying with our actions, “LORD, you are the most precious thing to me, so I want to give you my most precious time.” Isn’t that why many don’t go to church? I mean, most of you only get two days per week on which you don’t have to go to work; those are pretty precious days! And if leisure is more precious to you than God, you will tend to spend those days on it, rather than gathering to worship him. I was challenged even in preparing this to consider my sleep habits: I often stay up late on Saturdays even though I know I need to be up early on Sunday to pray and prepare to gather for worship, and as a result, I find I don’t have as much energy to give to the Lord on Sunday mornings because I spent a decent chunk of it on a college football game the night before. Consider your daily use of time: Are you giving your best, most attentive time to prayer, or does prayer get squeezed into the margins, the blemished time as it were?
Or, consider your money. When you consider your spending or your budget, what do you consider first? Investing that money in heaven, or investing it in your life on earth, whether by spending it now on your pleasures, or investing it to bolster your future security on earth? When was the last time you reevaluated how much you were giving to your local church? Let me encourage you to do so regularly, and to consider how you could offer the LORD the most precious of what you have, even though it usually does mean less travel, less enjoyable food, less education for your kids, less investment in retirement, and a smaller house. How you give says something to the LORD about how you value him.
The offering the LORD accepts must be precious, and the next thing we’ll see is that it must be your substitute.
It must be your substitute
In verse 4 we see that once he brings the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting, he shall lay his hand on it, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. That word for “lay” there is a bit weak; the idea here is more like he is going to lean on it, and what that enacted was some sort of reliance of the worshiper on the animal. When you lean on something, you expect it to hold your weight. But the symbolism also runs deeper because what verse 4 says will happen as a result of this is the bull will be accepted for him to make atonement for him. That idea of being accepted “for him” means something like the bull is accepted in place of him. By leaning on the bull with his hand, it is like the worshiper is transferring himself onto the bull, and the bull is then accepted as his substitute. And the point of all that, the point of the burnt offering really, is right there in verse 4: To make atonement for him.
To make atonement for someone is to pay a price for someone that releases him or her from the legal demands placed on him or her because of his or her guilt. I already mentioned the Stanford example, consider another simpler one: Let’s say I steal your cow, butcher it, and eat all the meat. I am now guilty before you. I should not have done it. What can you do now? You can say, “Well forget you then” and cast me out of your presence forever, but we’ve already seen that God doesn’t want to take that route with his people. Another option, then, to make it right, to make atonement, that reconciles the relationship, is to accept some other payment in its place. For example, you might offer to accept another cow of equal or greater value in its place, or a certain amount of money, or 4 sheep. If I pay it, I would then be making atonement.
So, remember the question Exodus placed in front of us: How can a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people without destroying them? The first answer is the burnt offering, because in the burnt offering, the animal is accepted in place of the sinner. The sinner deserves to die for their sin; 3000 sinners died when Israel made the golden calf! But God, in his grace, arranged in his law that by offering to him a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, or even a turtledove or a pigeon in the case of the poorer Israelites, the sins of the worshiper could be atoned for, and the sinner allowed to continue living with the LORD in their midst. Many assume that the God of the Bible and especially of the Old Testament is a kind of mean, harsh God, but do you see how gracious he actually is? He is giving this law to make a way for sinful people to dwell with him without being consumed, and while it is somewhat complicated, it is not infinitely so. Offer the sacrifice in the way the LORD has appointed and his promise was, verse 4: “It shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.”
A few years back a historian named Wilfred McClay wrote an essay entitled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt”. In it, he points out how nobody likes feeling guilty, and many in the West had assumed that if you want to get rid of guilty feelings, you get rid of religion. So many have tried to do that, but what we have found is that guilt strangely persists, and on a cultural level has even increased in many ways: Now you may be told not to feel guilty about your sexual desires, but you are told to feel guilty about how wealthy America is compared to other nations, how we are destroying the planet, systemic racism, your various forms of privilege, and so on. Guilt hasn’t gone away, McClay points out…but atonement has.
To put it in biblical terms, our world has Exodus, but no Leviticus. It has its commandments like the ten commandments, but no sacrificial system like this one, in which one is promised: “It shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” So what’s it been replaced with? How do many today try to atone for their guilt? How do you? Our world leaves us with at least three basic options: You can try to excuse yourself, you can try to punish yourself, or you can try to improve yourself. One attempt at atonement for our guilt is to excuse ourselves. If you can convince yourself and others that the wrong you did was not actually that bad, that can resolve the guilty feeling. The most common way people do this today is by trying to accentuate their own status as victims. If you are the victim, you can’t be the perpetrator, right? So yes, American wealth and systemic racism and global warming are really bad, but they’re all someone else’s fault, and in fact, I’m the victim of them! That’s one way people in our world try to atone: Excuse yourself.
Another is to punish yourself. So yes, American wealth and systemic racism and global warming are really bad, so I’m just going to constantly talk about how terrible my country, my racial group, my family, and I are. In more religious garb, yes I looked at pornography, so now I will just berate myself until I feel better. What is much self-harm but an attempt at self-atonement? And then, finally, there is self-improvement. I looked at pornography, but now I’ll just keep reading my Bible until I feel better, not because of the content of what I read there, but simply from a sense that my good now outweighs my bad. Yes I feel guilty, but I’ll go plant trees or serve at a soup kitchen until I feel better. Many of those things may be good in themselves, but neither excusing yourself, punishing yourself, or improving yourself can atone for your sins in God’s sight. They may be a temporary help to guilty feelings, but even that tends not to last very long or go very deep, because the real issue we have is not guilty feelings, but guilt…real guilt before a holy God, not because we haven’t kept the laws our world has imposed on us, but because we have not kept his law. Until that issue is dealt with, guilt will always strangely persist.
But the real God doesn’t just give us a law; he provides a way of atonement. He provides a way for our guilt to be transferred to another, here symbolized in the worshiper leaning on the bull, and for that bull to then be accepted in the place of the guilty worshiper, so that the worshiper could know, despite his guilt, “It shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” To atone for your sins truly, you need not only a precious sacrifice, but a substitutionary sacrifice, and finally, we see in this passage that sacrifice must be given entirely to God.
It must be given entirely to God
Ok, so when we come out of verse 4, the bull has been brought in front of the tent of meeting, and the worshiper has leaned on its head with his hand. Then what? Verse 5 tells us he shall kill the bull before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall take the blood that’s spilled and throw it against the sides of the altar. So you have the architecture in your head, in front of the tent of meeting there was a big basin of water used for washing, and an altar, on which the sacrifices were offered. Then the worshiper flays the offering, meaning he skins it, and cuts it into pieces. Aaron’s sons then put wood on the altar and place the pieces of the animal on top of the wood, except the entrails, which are basically the intestines, and the legs are to be washed first, probably because of their contact with excretion. As the offering was to be precious, without blemish, so it was to be clean. But the thing to notice at the end of verse 9, after the instruction about washing, is that all of it is then to be burned on the altar by the priest as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
Before we consider that more deeply, though, notice who’s engaged in the activity here. The priests certainly play an important and irreplaceable role: They handle the blood and pour it on the altar, they prepare the fire and place the pieces of the animal on it, and they light the flame. But it’s the worshiper, the average Israelite coming to offer his or her sacrifice, who kills the animal and cuts it into pieces. Even before the coming of Christ, it was never the case that service to the LORD was reserved for the priests. Every Israelite was called into the LORD’s service. The worshiper did not just come to the tent of meeting to watch the priest do their thing. They came to participate. How do you come to these worship gatherings? We are so used to being entertained: We watch television, we pay to go to concerts, and in these and other cases, we expect to come and watch the activity of someone else. That is not how God has designed worship. You do not come to church to simply listen to the “band” and the “speaker”. By God’s design you come to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, to pray along as you are led, to listen attentively to the preaching of God’s Word and consider its application to your life, to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper together. That’s true of the church’s ministry more broadly as well: The job of pastors is to equip the people for the work of ministry, not to do it all for them. The priest here leads and helps the worshiper; he doesn’t replace the worshiper. I thank God for the ways you all assume responsibility for the work of ministry under the leadership of us pastors. That’s very much how God designed his people to function.
Back to this final element of the sacrifice here, then: One of the distinctive features of the burnt offering compared to other offerings is that the entire thing was burned on the altar, except for the skin in the case of the bull: “The priest shall burn all of it on the altar” (verse 9). In other words, all that precious meat that could have been sold, that could have fed the owner, that could have fed the priest, that could have fed the poor even, is instead burned up until it is reduced to ash. That’s probably why it is called a food offering in verse 9; not because the LORD himself is eating it, who obviously doesn’t need food or have a body through which to eat it, but because the thing offered is itself food. And the conclusion in verse 9, repeated also in verse 13 and verse 17, is that it is a pleasing aroma to the LORD. Imagine the smell of an entire bull over an open flame, perhaps at first enticing to us like the smell of a good steak on the grill, but then eventually turning into the smell of burnt meat, reminding us that this food is not for us, but is offered entirely to the LORD.
What does such an act communicate? It communicates, for one thing, that the God to whom it is offered exists. He’s real. Otherwise, what a waste! Why take a precious animal that could have been sold for money, eaten, or used to feed the poor, and simply burn it up?! Because the God to whom it is offered exists, and, next, it shows us that he is precious. I already alluded to this earlier when we saw that what we offer to the LORD must be precious, and here we see that again in that the animal must not only be a valuable animal, but the whole thing must be given to the LORD. What’s that say? It says God you are real, and you are worthy of this animal. We give you all of it. And remember, this is the same animal on which the worshiper leaned with his hand, and what the giving of the entire animal was then meant to signify was the giving of the entire worshiper. We offer our most precious resources, our time and money, to the Lord directly when we offer those things to the local church of which we are members, not so that we can keep the rest of it for ourselves, but as a way of saying to the LORD, “It’s all yours! I am all yours!”
And it was this feature of the burnt offering with which Israel would struggle, and with which we still struggle, don’t we? In the generations that would follow Leviticus, the people would still offer the burnt offerings, but they would withhold their hearts, and prove it by continuing to disobey God’s commandments. They gave their bull, but kept back their money, their sexuality, their love for one another, and spread their devotion to other gods. And so many of us may have acknowledged the existence of God, may have even given some time to church gatherings, and perhaps even gave some of our money, but kept our hearts for the praise of others, relationships, or wealth. To truly atone for our sins, we need a better burnt offering, a precious, substitutionary sacrifice, given entirely to God, and rather than require that sacrifice of us, God himself has offered it for us. Remember in my earlier example of stealing your cow and eating all the meat, I said you now have two options: You can cast me out of your presence forever, or you can accept some payment from me as a substitute for the cow. There is actually a third option, though: You can pay for it yourself. That’s what God has done. In Romans 8:32 we read that God did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all. One in being with the Father, truly God, he is the most precious being in all of existence, the one of infinite value, and God gave him up for us.
As a human, not only was he without any physical blemish; he was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, so that when he died on the cross, he died not for his own sins, but for ours, as our substitute, the guilt of all his people being transferred on to him, and he gave himself entirely in the place of all who would ever believe in him. Ephesians 5:2 even describes the sacrifice of Christ as a “fragrant offering”. And we know God accepted the sacrifice because on the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended, not into a tent of meeting on earth, but into the heavenly tent made without hands. He is the precious substitute you and I need. Lean on him today. Put all your weight on him to be your substitute before God, and however heavy your sins are, he will bear them, and you will be forgiven.
Do not try to excuse yourself. Before God, you and I have no excuses. He has never wronged us, his commandments are not burdensome, and yet we have violated them. We may be victims of others, and some of you here today far worse than others, but none of us are victims of God. Do not try to punish yourself. That may help with the guilty feelings, but you have not ultimately sinned against yourself. You have sinned against God, and only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as your substitute shall be accepted for you to make atonement for you in his sight. And do not simply try to improve yourself. Do not even simply go from here today saying to God, “Ok Lord, you get all of me”. Notice that would have been insufficient even for the Israelite. They couldn’t just resolve to do better from that day forward. God required from them a sacrifice, a substitute, to make atonement for them, and you also must first lean on Christ for atonement before you can genuinely improve at all. Then and only then, with all your weight on Christ, with all your hopes for acceptance with God resting on him, give yourself entirely to God. Say to him today and every day hereafter: “Whatever you want, wherever you want.” Is there an area of your life you aren’t letting him into? Let him in today. Offer yourself entirely to him today, and in Christ, it will be a pleasing aroma to him.