In last week’s devotional we saw that if you want to understand Leviticus, you have to understand holiness, as seen in the theme, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (19:2), which you find again and again throughout the book. But now we should ask what holiness is, since many of us have a mistaken idea of it. Somehow we think of holiness in exclusively ethical terms. Because we think of ethics as a scale from 0 (if you’re very bad) to 100 (if you’re very good), we think of holiness as kind of moving up the scale.

In the matter of these purification laws, Jesus explains what these ritual requirements were meant to do. The principle is that it’s not what comes into you or touches you that makes you unclean, but what comes out. The problem is not external, but, rather, the problem is the uncleanness of your heart. Jesus said: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’” (Matt. 15:17-20a). 

The first section is that of clean and unclean foods (Lev. 11). This distinction between clean and unclean animals goes all the way back to the flood, because the animals that came on board were identified as either clean or unclean. However, we weren’t told back then how they were distinguished. Now we are told. In addition to making this distinction between animals for health reasons, we can also see how this first section demonstrated the second explanation above, namely, as a way to separate God’s people from the world.

The last offering was the guilt offering, and it was made for damage that was done to another person or to another person’s property. We mustn’t think, of course, that if you damage somebody’s property either deliberately or by negligence, that all you had to do was go to the temple and present an offering. That would be an easy way to get off the hook. No, Leviticus describes very carefully what you have to do. You have to repay it, and then you have to add twenty percent—a fifth of the value—and then you had to give it to the person whom you had defrauded on the very day you went to present your offering.

Of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is mentioned first because it was the most important. Leviticus doesn’t tell us what it was for because the answer is obvious. All the sacrifices on the altar are for sin. The text focuses on how the animals are to be handled. Notice two matters about this. First, the worshiper was to lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering that was going to be accepted on his behalf (see Lev. 4:1). That’s a very critical idea and it pertains to all of the sacrifices. When the worshiper put his hand upon the sacrifice, this was a way in which he symbolically transferred his sin or guilt to the sacrifice. It was a kind of confession of sin, such that in a symbolic way his sin was passed to the animal. And then when the animal was taken and killed, it was killed in the place of the worshiper.