The Significance and Awkwardness of Leviticus in the New Testament (@Byers_Andy)

Leviticus: what does this arcane, ancient document from the sands of the Near East have to do with Jesus and the writings of the New Testament? Here are some citations and “echoes” (allusions)…

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Be holy, for I am holy“—Lev 11:44. This command is the primary theme of Leviticus. Because God is distinct and set apart (holy), Israel must be as well. This now applies to the church, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:16.

And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtle doves or two pigeons“—Lev 12:8. This command was for women who had just given birth. Mary and Joseph are fulfilling Leviticus 12:8 when they appear in the Temple with baby Jesus. Because Luke cites only the latter part of this verse in 2:24, it is implied that Mary and Joseph were not in a position to afford a lamb for the required sacrifice.

You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them…“—Lev 18:6. Paul cites the latter part of this verse in Gal 3:12 where he is urging the Galatians to live not by Law but by faith.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself“—Lev 19:18. Jesus designated this command as the second greatest of all and bound it indivisibly to the greatest command of loving God with all our being (Deut 6:4-5). Leviticus 19:18 is cited in Matthew 22:39 (cf. 5:33); Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8. There is hardly any other Old Testament verse that looms so heavily in the New.

If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him“—Lev 24:19-20. Ghandi is remembered for upturning the wisdom of this ancient verse: an eye for an eye, until everyone is blind…. But Jesus beat him to the punch (no pun intended) when he preached, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you… if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people“—Lev 26:11. This verse depicts one of the most emphatic themes of the entire Bible. God intends to dwell among us. What the book of Leviticus provides is a vision for how that is to happen during a certain season of salvation-history. When Paul cites this verse in 2 Cor 6:16, he understands that God’s dwelling among us is no longer made possible by the levitical system of sacrifice. It is made possible through the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

Leviticus is also being cited when we come across the phrase “without blemish.” It denotes the primary requirement for the sacrificial offering. No injured lambs or doves will suffice. And Jesus, of course, was the unblemished Lamb (Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 1:19) whose death in turn made us, the church, “without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27; Philippians 2:15).

Leviticus is probably being echoed when Paul referred to himself (and us) as a fragrance or aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). The social exclusion of lepers in the time of Jesus goes back to Leviticus. When Jesus declared all foods clean in Mark 7:19 he was directly engaging the levitical dietary laws. And when Peter heard “kill and eat” in that rooftop vision of the animals, food requirements are being eased as a symbolic means of including Gentiles within the people of faith.

Leviticus and New Testament Theology

From the list above, we see that Leviticus has a heavily important role in New Testament theology. But it is an awkward role. In one sense, Leviticus is foundational for the message of the Gospel. The word “atonement” occurs around 50 times in the book. When New Testament writers describe Jesus as a sacrifice that removes our sin, they are drawing from Leviticus.

Yet in another sense, Leviticus is upended and revised by the New Testament. Jesus fulfills the sacrificial system and makes holy a people made up of Gentiles as well as Jews. Dietary laws and the elaborate instructions for offerings are no longer necessary. But it is hard to appreciate this change in our way of relating to God without getting Leviticus and the way of life it prescribed into our heads.

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).