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To state the obvious, Scripture is very concerned about our holiness. For example, Peter says,

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

The Bible’s main term for “holiness” occurs about 850 times in the Bible. Of those, 152 occur in the book of Leviticus. This frequency demonstrates that holiness is preeminent in this biblical book.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, states:

Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament. (19.3)

This paragraph raises some interesting questions. For example, do ceremonial laws have any bearing on the New Testament people of God? Why would God give so much space in the canon of Scripture to describe such strange rituals and laws if they no longer apply to the people of God?

This article will focus on the so-called Holiness Code in Leviticus and the purposes of rituals, ceremonial regulations, and other practices so that we may see how Israel was different from the other nations. Next, we will discuss what God was trying to teach His people by including these prohibitions in His revelation to His specially chosen people. Finally, we will conclude by briefly discussing the significance of these ritual laws for God’s new covenant people.

the holiness code in Leviticus

August Klostermann in the nineteenth century was the first to call Leviticus 17–26 the Holiness Code. Chapters 1–16 of Leviticus were considered a different editorial strand. Nevertheless, to make Leviticus 17–26 a distinct section from chapters 1–16 would seem to destroy the connections between chapters 16 and 17 and unnecessarily separate chapter 17 and the manual of sacrifice in chapters 1–7.

Holiness is the dominant and all- encompassing theme in these chapters of Leviticus: 17:1–16 addresses the place of sacrifice and the sanctity of blood; 18:1–20:27 speaks about sins against the moral law; 21:1–22:33 makes clear how priests must be holy; 23:1–44 addresses holy convocations (e.g., the Sabbath, the Passover, the offering of the firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the seventh month, the feasts of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths); 24:1–23 discusses the holy oil, the bread of the Presence, and the sin of blasphemy; 25:1–55 addresses the sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. Finally, 26:1–46 addresses the sanctions—that is, the blessings and curses. Now, let us be honest: when we read through these chapters in Leviticus, many of these practices seem strange to our modern sensibilities. Even so, this was our forefathers’ world: it was filled with blood and guts and demanded strict adherence to these practices, or the consequences would be dire.

God was teaching His people that holiness will be joined with prosperity and blessing in the ultimate consummated kingdom—that is, the world to come.

More specifically, what is challenging for us moderns to understand is the differences between ritual impurity and sin as a transgression against the law of God. That is to say, religious defilement refers to impurity, i.e., to the impurity of sinful acts that profoundly affects the land. This refers to the morality of everyday conduct. For example, sinful acts such as murder, sexual immorality, and idolatry (often referred to as “abominations”) bring about an impurity that is moral and defiles the sinner (Lev. 18:24), the land of Israel (Lev. 18:25; Ezek. 36:17), and the sanctuary (Lev. 20:3; Ezek. 5:11). This, in turn, leads to displacement from the land of Israel (Lev. 18:28; Ezek. 36:19).

In contrast, ritual impurity is often brought about by natural means (such as bodily emissions and touching a corpse), and therefore these are not morally sinful (e.g., Lev. 11–15; Num. 19). Rather, they bring about generally a status of impurity through an impermanent contagion.

This distinction, in general, has led to two major trends in biblical studies: the first trend has been to avoid these insights altogether, while the second has been to blindly equate impurity and sin.

We must recognize, however, that by these rituals and ceremonial regulations, God intended to train His people in holiness—that is, to make them realize the absolute necessity of moral uprightness and obedience to God’s moral demands and in the ritual practices commanded by God, which were meant to avoid ceremonial uncleanness. These practices, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith (7.5), were meant to help the people understand that there was a greater, anticipated holiness that would come when the substance of these shadowy types was fulfilled in the Messiah:

This covenant [i.e., the covenant of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

Therefore, the Hebrew Scriptures and these ritual practices really did hold forth the truth of the promised Messiah for the Israelites. Significantly, one of the proof texts for the confession at this point comprises three whole chapters from the book of Hebrews (Heb. 8–10).

what god was teaching through these laws and rituals

In these chapters, the Lord was teaching His chosen people the necessity of holiness if they were to remain in their land. After all, the Lord had set them apart to Himself. Notice, for example, the fourfold repetition of the idea of separation in Leviticus 20:22–26. If the Lord had vomited the former inhabitants out of the land that the Israelites were soon to possess (18:25; 20:22–23), how much more would the Lord do the same to the people who are the apple of His eye, His holy, separated people (see 18:28; 20:22–26)? In chapter 21, God drives home the point that if the people were to be holy and separated, how much more so the priests, especially the high priest?

Through all these things, God was inculcating in His people a profound appreciation for a vital principle: Holiness must be conjoined with moral behavior and character in the land of the Lord. Or to put it another way, God was teaching His people that holiness will be joined with prosperity and blessing in the ultimate consummated kingdom—that is, the world to come (see Heb. 3–4). Therefore, the measure of Israel’s obedience to God was both the purity with which its rituals were upheld and the morality of everyday conduct by the people. An infraction of either would “wound the land.”

how these laws and rituals apply to new covenant Christians

As with all other matters that derive from the Old Testament, proper interpretative principles must be used in connection with the new covenant church. Some things apply; some don’t. Especially in ritual practice, many things are now expired and have become obsolete (see WCF 19.4–5).

On the other hand, we must recognize that some topics in the Holiness Code have been applied and should still be applied today. For example, modern marriage laws are largely based on the limitations set out in Leviticus 18. Or another example: offering of the firstfruits (23:9–14) symbolized the consecration of the entire harvest to God, which has typological significance in the New Testament age by being applied to gentiles and individual Christians (see Rom. 8:23; 11:16; 16:5). Consider especially that our Lord Jesus Christ is the firstfruits of the grave (see 1 Cor. 15:20, 23); see also 1 Corinthians 16:15; James 1:18; and Revelation 14:4, where the concept is applied to groups of believers.

Holiness is vital for God’s people. That was the case in the Old Testament, and that is the case in the New as well. The writer to the Hebrews was so concerned about the pursuit of holiness that he wrote, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

We can learn much about how impor­tant the prerequisite for holiness is for all those who dwell in God’s kingdom and in His presence; nevertheless, as New Testament Christians, let us give thanks to almighty God that Jesus fulfills the whole sacrificial order on our behalf.

The Holiness of God

Declared Holy

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From the July 2024 Issue
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