As we come to the fourth of the major types of offerings for which Leviticus provides instructions, we come to the first that deals with particular sins, and through it we learn that the particular sins of particular people require a particular purification.
The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), Gordon Wenham
Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People (Preaching the Word), Kenneth Mathews
In 2021, Alec Baldwin was acting in the production of the movie Rust when a gun he was using as a prop went off, shooting and killing the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins. Baldwin thought the gun was empty; it was only supposed to be a prop, after all, and he says he didn’t even pull the trigger. As of April of this past year, all criminal and civil charges against him in the matter had been dropped. All the evidence suggests that while Baldwin did kill Halyna Hutchins, he did so unintentionally. And yet, do any of us really think it doesn’t matter, simply because it was unintentional? Baldwin doesn’t think that. In his first statement following the incident, he said, “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness.” When George Stephanopoulos asked him if it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, he said yes. Baldwin went on to say that he had dreams about it constantly, and woke up constantly where guns are going off. What’s happening there? In a way, the killing, though unintentional, defiled him. In a way, it even defiled the whole movie production scene. Suffice it to say nobody went about business as usual that day, or since then.
This week is the third week out of four in our short series of sermons through the first few chapters of the book of Leviticus, and in it we come to what is commonly known as the sin offering, but some biblical scholars have suggested the better name for it would be the “purification offering”. Sin not only renders us guilty; it defiles us, and it not only defiles us; it defiles the place in which we meet with God. And we will see in this passage that it does so even when the sin is unintentional. And yet, there is purification for unintentional sins and sins like them available in the sin offering. Through this passage we learn, then, that the particular sins of particular people need particular purification. We’ll look at the particular sins, the particular people, and the particular purification.
The particular sins
Verse 1 of our passage marks a new section. Remember the book of Leviticus began with a narrative: The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. Then chapters 1-3 were all the record of what God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, and it covered three types of sacrifice: The burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace offering. Collectively, these are the food offerings, which facilitate Israel’s communion with God: The burnt offering is offered entirely to God, the first portion of the grain offering is offered to God, and then the rest is eaten by the priests, and in the peace offering, the best portion is offered to God, other portions are eaten by the priest, and the rest is eaten by the common Israelites. The culmination of it all is the people also joining in the feast of divine worship. That was the first speech.
Chapter 4 begins a new speech though, as verse 1 again switches back to narrative, where we read again that the LORD spoke to Moses, and what follows is slightly different from what preceded. It starts the same as chapter 1, verse 2: “Speak to the people of Israel”, but then it describes a scenario: If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them. In chapters 1-3, no real scenarios were introduced that gave the occasion for those offerings. Other passages in God’s law do require the food offerings to be offered at certain times, but they don’t correspond to particular sins. And that’s not because they have nothing to do with sin; the burnt offering, remember, was offered to God to make atonement for the offeror, and where there is no sin, no atonement is necessary. Rather, the difference between the burnt offering and the sin offering on which we are focusing today is that the burnt offering is a more general offering, offered regularly to atone for the offeror as a sinner, rather than for the offeror’s particular sins.
Both of these are important to keep in mind: We are sinners, and we sin. In Christian theology we call these the doctrines of original sin and actual sin. Original sin refers to the guilt and corruption we inherit from Adam, the first human, into whose family we were all born on the day of our birth. Every human born of a human mother and father, which includes you and me, is born under the sentence of God’s condemnation on Adam and, in the words of the Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, wholly inclined to all evil” (6.4). Almost nobody, Christian or not, thinks they are perfect. Everyone typically assumes they are good, but could be better. The Bible’s assessment of us is far more realistic. It teaches that by nature we are not only not perfect, but opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil. And so we need atonement if we are to exist in the presence of a holy God without being killed by him, and God provided the burnt offering to enable just that.
But, we also commit particular sins. We are sinners by nature, and because we are, we commit actual sins. So the Baptist Confession goes on to say in the same article from which I’ve already quoted, that “From this original corruption…do proceed all actual transgressions.” That’s what the sin offering is dealing with. It is dealing with actual transgressions, particular sins, and verse 2 of our passage narrows the scope even further to a particular type of sin which it calls an “unintentional sin”.
What is an unintentional sin? Most obviously, it is a sin you did not intent to commit. To give one example from elsewhere in scripture, an unintentional sin occurs when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, but the head of the axe slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies (Deut 19:5). We might look at that and say, “Well that’s not sin; he wasn’t trying to kill his neighbor,” but God calls it sin, while recognizing that it was unintentional. God’s law requires that a human shall not murder another human, and killing another human with a loose axe head stills falls short of that standard. I know I’ve already thrown some doctrine at you this morning; let me give you one more. What is sin? The Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 14 defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” and once again, this runs contrary to conventional wisdom. Even John Wesley defined sin in a different way as “conscious transgression of known law”. Certainly to consciously do something you know the LORD commands not to be done is sin, but what the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly picks up on from scripture is that not only conscious transgression of known law is sin, but any failure to conform to God’s law and any transgression of it is sin, and that’s why unintentional sins are still called sins. Don’t miss the sin part of “unintentional sin”.
But don’t miss the unintentional part either. The sorts of sin Leviticus chapter 4 is talking about, to borrow Wesley’s definition again, are not “conscious transgressions of known law”. They could be any lack of conformity to God’s law, or unconscious transgressions, as in the case of the man with the loose axe head. Then there are also the particular sins listed in chapter 5. It is hard to tell whether these are examples of unintentional sins, or whether they are mentioned for some other reason. Some of them seem unintentional, like in verse 2 when someone touches an unclean carcass, and it is hidden from him. But then in verse 1, it’s hard to see that sin as unintentional. There a man hears a public call to testify in a case, an announcement like you might see on TV saying, “If anyone knows anything about this case, contact the police” and though he knows something about the case, he does not speak. Then in verse 4 we also read of someone making a rash oath and it is “hidden from him”. It is hard to see how you could make an oath without knowing, so maybe the reference there is to forgetting it or somehow not really understanding the weight of the oath. Think of the zealous Christian who rashly says, “I’m going to read the whole Bible in a month” and then fails to do so. That is sin; they didn’t let their yes be a yes and their no be a no, but they didn’t make the oath with the intention of breaking it, and the sin offering could also bring purification for it.
Combining this concept of unintentional sin and the list of particular sins at the beginning of chapter 5, we could summarize by saying that the sin offering was instituted by God for the purification of sins arising from our weakness as humans and as sinners. As humans, we just aren’t fully in control of things like whether we come into contact with a dead carcass. And even those who are born again as Christians and receive a new nature still deal with the remnants of their sinful nature, and therefore sometimes do things like make rash oaths and fail to follow through on them. It’s the difference between me telling one of my kids to get dressed and him saying “No” and him saying “yes”, getting started, but then getting distracted by a toy. The former is more of a deliberate sin of defiance, while the latter is still a falling short of what I commanded, but more so from his weakness as a human and a sinner. Both matter, but I treat them differently.
Ok, what do you do with all this? Recognize that even where there are unintentional sins in your life, they are still sin. One of the things that can most trip people up in growing to greater maturity in Christ is being unwilling to acknowledge when something in you is a sin of which you need to repent and exert effort to put to death. Here is a scenario I often observe in pre-marital counseling when we discuss conflict: One partner says something hurtful to the other, but then says, “I didn’t mean it. You know I’d never want to hurt you.” What I think they usually mean by that is, “I didn’t wake up in the morning and try to generate ideas of how to make you feel terrible”, but the problem with it is that when people say it, they typically do so to absolve themselves of responsibility. They may apologize, but never really deal with the underlying reasons they said it, and therefore, guess what? They tend to keep saying similar things. Jesus, on the other hand, teaches us that it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:43-45). In other words, if you said it, you did mean it in that moment, and if it was anything less than a word that built the other person up, fit the occasion, and gave grace to all who heard it, which is the biblical standard for our speech (Eph 4:29), then it was sin coming from a sinful root in your heart that needs to be put to death, even though it proceeded more from your weakness as a sinner than from a conscious, chosen desire to offend God and hurt the other person. Admit that your unintentional sins are still sin.
But don’t let the existence of unintentional sin in your life lead you to despair. Yes, you are a sinner, but the good news we see in these chapters is that God has provided a way of purification for sinners! But the particular purification required depended on the particular people who committed the particular sins. So let’s look next at the particular people.
The particular people
So follow along with me back in chapter 4 verse 2. After we read that the scenario envisioned is one when someone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, then we read the words in verse 3: “If it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people”. God doesn’t go directly to the purification, because the particular purification required depends on the particular person or people committing the particular sins. Four different classes of people are considered: The anointed priest, the whole congregation, a leader, and the common people. The case of the anointed priest and the whole congregation are similar, because the anointed priest represented the whole congregation before God. That idea of the anointed priest representing the people is the same as the idea of Adam representing all of humanity to which I alluded earlier. Therefore, when he sins, it brings guilt on all the people, as verse 3 puts it, just like Adam’s sin brought guilt on all of his descendants by ordinary generation, and obviously when the whole congregation sins, as in verse 13, it also brings guilt on all the people.
We can imagine many ways the anointed priest could sin—he could hear a public adjuration to testify and fail to come forward as a witness, he could make a rash oath, he could accidentally come into contact with an unclean carcass—he could do any of the things described at the beginning of chapter 5. He is, after all, a human, beset with weakness just like the rest of the Israelites. But how can a whole congregation sin unintentionally, as verse 13 says? Well, by unintentionally doing things God told them not to do. They could serve the Passover meal to an uncircumcised individual who they had assumed was circumcised (Ex 12:48), for one example. There was a time in the early years when we were still part of our sending church that we cancelled a worship gathering just because it was an inconvenient day and we wanted to give volunteers a break, and I now believe we sinned unintentionally in doing so. We simply didn’t understand at that time that God intends for Christian churches to gather for worship weekly. While part of our sending church, we also did not administer church discipline for a period of years, and when we started doing it, we got it wrong. We allowed elders who were not part of this particular church to exercise oversight of it, contrary to scripture. These were sins, but sins arising more from weakness than any willful desire to disobey God. I assume that even today there are some ways we as a church sin unintentionally, and just as with unintentional sins in general, so we should not excuse the sin because it is unintentional, nor should we despair of it. Let’s instead continue in the legacy of the Protestant reformers who went before us, whose motto was to be “always reforming according to the word of God”. Let’s continue to examine the scriptures deeply to find any areas we may be unintentionally out of conformity with them and strive to bring ourselves into conformity with them.
Next after considering the case of the anointed priest and the whole congregation, the law considers a leader in verse 22. Before the coming of Christ, there were various types of leaders in Israel. One example we encounter in this passage before verse 22, and that is the elders, who were to place their hands on the head of the bull for the sin offering when the whole congregation has sinned unintentionally. There were also judges, heads of tribes, eventually there would even be a king, and while it’s not always entirely clear how these people were chosen and how the offices related to one another, that officers of leadership existed in Israel is clear, and when a leader sinned, it was treated differently than when one of the common people sinned. The leader’s sin did not bring guilt on all the people like the anointed priest’s did, but the purification required for a leader’s sin was still different than that of the common person’s: A male goat rather than a female goat, because a leader’s sin matters more than the sins of a common person.
Perhaps you have heard someone say before that there is no degree to sin, and that is true in a sense: All sin is worthy of condemnation, but not all sins are equally heinous, and one of the aggravations of sin we see here that makes it more heinous in God’s sight is when it is committed by a leader, rather than by a common person. In the church since the time of the apostles there is now one main leadership office in the church, that of pastor, elder, or overseer, terms the New Testament uses interchangeably. The office of deacon is also a New Testament office, and in some sense deacons do lead, but always under the leadership of the elders and only over particular tasks, whereas elders were instituted by Christ to lead entire congregations. We use the word leader more loosely sometimes for a Citygroup leader or the set-up team leader, but we aren’t really giving them church authority beyond what we’d expect of every Christian: Sure, the Citygroup leader may send emails and facilitate a discussion and that’s valuable, but every Christian is called to the work of speaking the truth in love to others and helping others grow to maturity in Christ. The leaders of the New Testament church by Jesus Christ’s design, are the elders, with the assistance of the deacons.
Consider an elder’s sin, then. When an elder sins, the sin is aggravated above the sin of a common person for a few reasons. First, an elder’s sin typically brings greater reproach on the church and therefore on the name of Jesus Christ himself than a common person’s. Matt Schmucker, our guest preacher and teacher in a few weeks, once recounted the story to me of how a former pastor at his church disqualified himself from the ministry for sexual immorality, and the scandal was public enough that people outside the church in the neighborhood knew about it. Shortly thereafter, he overhead an unbelieving, gay couple in the neighborhood ridiculing their church for it. In the words of Romans 2:24, the name of God was being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of this leader’s conduct. Second, an elder’s sin sets a bad example for those he leads. We talked last week about how a little leaven of sin leavens the whole lump; well an elder’s sin leavens it even more. It communicates to those they lead: “Obedience isn’t really possible. All that stuff about putting sin to death and putting on righteousness? Nobody really lives that way. Nobody actually obeys God that seriously.”
So to my fellow elders in the room today and even to our deacons: Pay careful attention to yourselves. Keep a close watch on your life and your doctrine. Guard your heart with all vigilance. Because of your office, your sin not only now affects you, but those you lead, and God cares about that. So you all know, one of the ways we try to help one another in this as elders is at one of our two monthly elders’ meetings over dinner we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, and we have recently begun asking one another a series of specific questions that include, “Have you viewed sexually explicit material since our last meeting?” and “Have you had any interactions with a woman that could not be characterized as above reproach?” But brothers, let’s not leave it at that. Let’s lead by example in putting sin to death in our lives. And if you aspire to the office of elder or even of deacon, prioritize the character qualifications for those offices. They are almost the only ones that exist. And as we all as a church evaluate future leaders, that has to be our focus. A guy who is a little weak in skill, knowledge, and experience can develop those, but you cannot make someone an elder or a deacon if their integrity is at all in question. Above reproach means above reproach. Do not prioritize abilities, diversity, expertise in the world, or anything else above godly character in a leader.
And then finally, after the leader, the common people are considered, because their unintentional sins matter too. Yes, it is a bigger deal if the anointed priest, the whole congregation, or a leader sins, but there are no sins that do not matter in God’s sight. You may feel like just one member among many in this church, but your holiness also affects the health of the whole church, and it matters in God’s sight. Every particular sin of every particular person matters in God’s sight, even the unintentional sins, even the sins that arise from our weakness, even the sins of common people, because every particular sin of every particular person produces a particular defilement that requires a particular purification. So let’s talk last about the particular purification.
The particular purification
In talking about the particular purification, now we are getting into the sin offering proper. We talked about what sorts of sin this offering was intended for, and the difference between the particular people who might commit such a sin, but now let’s look at the sin offering itself. To summarize it, I’ll pull elements from the various descriptions. One element is that the sin offering is required once the perpetrator(s) realizes their guilt. We see that phrase throughout the passage, but in verse 13 of chapter 4 is one example. In the case of the leader and the common people, the way this might happen is either by their realizing it themselves, or as in verses 23 or 28, someone else makes it known to them. With unintentional sins it is often the case that because we don’t know we were doing them, someone else must make us aware of them. Don’t miss the importance, then, of believers being willing to tell other believers, “Hey, you may not have realized it, but God actually commands you not to do this thing you’re doing.” I remember a time when a member told me his car got hit and it was partially his fault, but the guy at the body shop basically pressured him into saying it happened while his car was parked, so he did. I was nervous to say it, but I told him, “It sounds like you lied. I think you need to confess that to God and then call the body shop and your insurance company to tell them what really happened,” and guess what? He did, and thanked me for it. And honestly, that’s been my normal experience in this church: People want to obey God, but they’re sometimes weak, and need others who are willing to confront them to help them do so. Be one of those who is willing to do so.
And when someone confronts you or the Holy Spirit simply makes you aware of sin in your life in some other way, don’t rush to excuse it, minimize it, or defend yourself. I’ve also been on the receiving end of loving confrontation in this church, and I know those are the first thing my flesh wants to do. And why do we do that? Isn’t it at least partially because we fear condemnation if we were to really admit that we sinned? But that’s the good news of the sin offering! You don’t have to fear the condemnation; there is purification, atonement, and forgiveness available to those who sin from their weakness! There is a sin offering, but no one would ever have offered it if they could not first admit they were guilty of sin! So we see in chapter 5, verse 5, that in addition to realizing his guilt, the Israelite was to confess the sin he had committed. We take time in our services every week to confess the sins we have committed together as a church. Do you do that in your individual life? Particular sins warrant a particular confession, as verse 5 puts it: The confession is to be of that particular sin he has committed. Make specific confession of specific sins a regular part of your relationship with God. “God, I confess that when I yelled at my kid earlier, I disobeyed your commandment not to murder. I was angry, and the words I spoke were about defending my glory rather than building her up. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” “God, I confess that when I looked at that woman lustfully, I violated your commandment to not commit adultery. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” “God, I confess that I’m anxious because I love the praise of people too much. In that I disobeyed your first commandment, to have no other gods before you. That is wrong of me. Will you forgive me?”
Ok, so far we see that purification involves recognition and confession. Then there was the bringing of an animal, much like the burnt offering and peace offerings. In the case of the anointed priest and the whole congregation, it was a bull, in the case of a leader, a male goat, in the case of the common people, a female goat or a lamb, and then in chapter 5, provision is made for those too poor for any of those to bring birds or even grain. The ritual then runs similarly to the past rituals we have covered, so I won’t cover it in great detail: The offeror lays his hand on the animal, and the elders do that to represent the whole congregation in the case of the whole congregation’s sin, and the offeror kills the animal. The priest then burns part of it in the altar, especially the fat, as we have seen in the previous offerings. But there are two key differences with the sin offering: The handling of the blood of the sacrifice, and the carrying of the remainder of the sin offering outside the camp, to be burned not on the altar, but with the ash heap.
The sacrificial animal was probably killed by slitting its throat, which enabled the blood to be collected in a bowl. In the case of the anointed priest and the whole congregation’s sin, the priest was then to take that bowl into the tent of meeting itself. This is the first time in Leviticus that anyone is instructed to actually enter the tent of meeting; so far everything has been occurring in front of it, but not inside it. Here the priest is told in chapter 4, verse 6, to sprinkle the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary. So inside the tent of meeting there was another altar, the altar of incense, on which the priest was to burn incense, and then another curtain, a veil, blocking the way of entry into the holy of holies, the holiest place, the LORD’s unique dwelling. Here the priest is being told to sprinkle the blood either on the veil or in front of it, and then to smear some of it on the horns, which are the corners, of the altar of incense, and then to take the rest and pour it out at the base of the altar outside the tent of meeting on which the burnt offering was offered. In the case of the leader or the common person, the blood was only smeared on that altar before being poured out at the base, rather than going into the tent of meeting.
What is the point of this? It is hard to tell from Leviticus alone, but Hebrews helps us. It reminds us that when the tent of meeting was built, Moses sprinkled it and the vessels in it with blood, and then it summarizes with this comment: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:21-22). What is the blood doing? It is purifying that which it touches, which shows us that these unintentional sins ceremonially defile the tent of meeting itself, at least in the case of the anointed priest and the congregation’s sins, and ceremonially defile the altar of burnt offering in the case of the leader and common people’s sins! As the anointed priest burned incense on the altar in the tent of meeting, his sin defiled it, while the offerings of the common people were on the altar of the burnt offering, and therefore their sin defiled it. And remember, if the defilement of sin remains in the presence of a holy God, what is liable to happen? The wrath of that holy God is liable to break out against it. If the priest goes back into the tent with that defilement of sin still there, he might not come out alive. If the people of Israel go in front of the tent of meeting with that defilement of sin still there, they might not come out alive. The blood of the animal, then, is a kind of detergent, or disinfectant, for the defilement of sin. And it is an interesting choice of detergent, isn’t it? What’s it teach us? It teaches us that God has appointed that the defilement of sin can be cleansed by the blood of an unblemished sacrifice.
So that’s the blood, but then there’s also the fact that the remains, after the fat was burned on the altar, were carried outside the camp to be burned in a clean place there. This seems to pick up another symbol that is distinct from the blood. The blood represents the blood of an unblemished sacrifice cleansing the defilement of sin, but the rest of the bull being taken outside the camp seems to represent the removal of sin from the camp. Later in Leviticus some conditions of uncleanness required an Israelite to live outside the camp for a time. Later in Numbers a man who sins with a high hand, unlike the one who sins unintentionally, is ordered by God to be stoned outside the camp. The symbolism here then seems to be this: For sin to be removed from the camp, the people who sinned could be removed from the camp, and sometimes were even killed outside the camp in judgment on their sins, but in the sin offering, as the offerors place their hands on the head of the bull, the bull becomes their substitute, and his remains are taken and burned outside the camp in their place. The sacrificial animal serves as the unblemished substitute whose blood cleanses from the defilement of sin, and whose body is taken outside the camp to be burned in place of the one guilty of sin.
And do you know that as of today a sacrifice even better than that has already been offered on behalf of all God’s people? On the cross, Jesus Christ shed his own blood as the one truly unblemished sacrifice, who had been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. And as Hebrews puts it, “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb 13:12-13). Whoever you are today, even if you could absolve yourself of all deliberate sin, which you can’t, we all know that we have been guilty of sins arising from our weakness as humans and sinners. Do not try to excuse or minimize your sins, as though simply because they were unintentional, they were not sin. You and I lack conformity to God’s law, and have transgressed it, whether consciously or unconsciously. When you become aware of that, just confess it, and receive and rest upon the perfect sin offering that Jesus already offered for you: Himself. His blood cleanses us from all sin, and his body crucified outside the camp has suffered all the punishment our sins deserved, so much so that after death he rose again and ascended into the heavenly tent which he purified with his unblemished blood, that all who believe in him might be able to enter there without being killed. As the smoke of the bull burned outside the camp ascended to God, so through Christ we are enabled to ascend to God in heaven, and one day, we will.