First, why Leviticus? It’s one of those portions of God’s Word that can be challenging to modern Christians. But Leviticus is where the Second Greatest Commandment is taken from (Lev. 19:18). In some ways you might organize the whole book under the headings of the First and Second Great Commandments: Love God: Lev. 1-17, Love Your Neighbor Lev. 18-27. We live in a world that has attempted to redefine love as mere sentiment and feeling (although that is changing), but the law is how God taught us to love Him and one another when we were young in the covenant (cf. Gal. 4:2-4, 1 Jn. 5:3). Related is also one of the great themes of Leviticus, which is holiness. Peter quotes from Leviticus in his letter: “Be holy as I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). And Hebrews says that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). We are still called to be a holy people, and Leviticus was our Elementary School training in holiness.
Here in Leviticus 1 we are introduced to the most common sacrifice and the central invitation from the Lord for sinners to draw near to Him with hearts sprinkled clean, which is most pleasing to Him, a sweet-smelling aroma.
“And the Lord called unto Moses and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, if any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish…” (Lev. 1:1-17)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
This first chapter explains the burnt/ascension offering and gives three examples: the first describes the offering of a bull (1:2-9), the second describes the offering of a sheep or goat (1:10-13), and the third describes the offering of doves or pigeons (1:14-17). For the first two, the bull, sheep, or goat must be a male, without blemish (1:3, 10). The animal is brought to the door of the tabernacle, the worshiper lays his hand upon the head of the animal, and the worshipper is to kill the animal himself (1:3-6, 11-13). In the case of the dove or pigeon, the worshipper would cleave the wings of the bird (1:16-17). The priests were responsible for sprinkling the blood around the altar (1:5, 11, 15) and for putting the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar (1:8, 13, 15, 17). Finally, in all three, the offering is described as an offering by fire, a sweet savor to the Lord (1:9, 13, 17).
CORBAN & DRAWING NEAR
Literally, the text says that if an “Adam” will “draw near” with a “drawing near,” he should “draw near” with a “drawing near” of the herd and of the flock (1:2). The first thing to note is that the whole sacrificial system goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God stationed Cherubim with flaming swords at the entrance after Adam sinned (Gen. 3:24), setting up one of the great problems of the Bible: how can man drawn near to their Maker? The answer is: through a flaming sword. The word for “a drawing near/offering” is “corban.” This is the word that Jesus uses in the gospels when He rebukes the Pharisees for allowing their traditions to run right over the clear Word of God (Mk. 7:11). The fifth commandment said, “honor your father and mother,” which includes caring for them and providing for them in their old age, but the Pharisees said if someone gave what they were going to use to support their parents to the temple, they were exempt. The descendants of Adam have a terrible habit of imitating King Saul, thinking that we can modify God’s commands, but obedience is better than sacrifice, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:22-23). We make excuses for our sin by pointing at other good things we have done. But all disobedience is disobedience. Related to this, is the age-old hypocrisy of seeking to draw near to God in worship with your lips, while your heart is far from the Lord (Is. 29:13, Mt. 15:8). But we are always lifting our hearts up to the Lord.
A CONTINUAL ASCENSION OFFERING
The name “burnt offering” or “whole burnt offering” is not really a great translation. It is called this because the whole animal is put on the altar and burned, but the word literally means “going up” or “ascension,” and therefore would be better translated “ascension offering.” The word that is used for “burn” (cf. 1:9) literally means “turn into smoke,” which seems to highlight the same point. The action is not merely in the destruction of the animal, but rather in its transformation into smoke to ascend to God, Who receives it as a sweet-smelling aroma. This is the most common sacrifice offered at the tabernacle and temple, the morning and evening sacrifice, that constituted the “continual” sacrifice of praise (Ex. 29:42, Num. 28:3-10ff).
“And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor” (Eph. 5:2). And he immediately adds: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4). Clearly this does not mean that we cannot say those words because then Paul would be breaking his own rule. No, the point is that we should be so careful to avoid those sins that we cannot be accused of being guilty of them, and the Bible says that this is how we walk in love, as Christ loved us. This is a sweet-smelling savor.
We will no doubt come back to this passage as we consider all of the sacrifices, but the ascension offering reminds us of the command to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God which is our reasonable service and “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom. 12:1-2).
The ascension offering reminds us that God wants all that we are consecrated wholly to Him. Everything goes on His altar. He claims all that we are. Christ is our head, our substitute, who went into the fire of God’s wrath first for us, but if we are His body, we must follow Him into the fire. However, if we are in Him, it is no longer a fire a judgment but a fire of purification and transformation. He is bending, breaking, burning, and blowing upon our lives until they shine.
This is what Christian “headship” is. In contrast to many of our political leaders, Christian leaders must not ask of their people anything that they are not already doing themselves. We follow Christ because He laid His life down for us. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.