Warren Asked Me the Right Question at the Right Time
I owe a great debt to Warren W. Wiersbe. He died last year, after a long and fruitful life of faith. The part of his work that I came to know and love is the “Be” series of commentaries he wrote. He wrote one for every book of the Bible, and he wrote with a heart for new people–people like I was at the time–who hadn’t really ever studied biblical things before. He was not a layman, but he wrote his commentaries for laypeople, and he did it without condescending to the reader as most commentary for non-scholars does. Most of those “commentaries” are devotional reading, at best, and not terribly useful for deeper study or understanding. Wiersbe’s books aren’t like that.
The first commentary I ever purchased was the one in the title photo. Be Holy: Becoming “Set Apart” for God. What a title, right? I bought the book because I had just finished chapter 17 of Leviticus for the first time, and I was all-in. I’d had my supernatural moment with the Holy Spirit in chapter 17, and now I wanted to know everything there was to know about Leviticus. Little did I know, I was about spend the next calendar year totally dug-in with learning, but on that day I knew almost nothing about deeper theology or biblical context or “Christianese” jargon. I call it “churchinese” sometimes, too, but I digress.
In March 2017, all I knew was that I was on a Spirit-driven mission to learn the book of Leviticus. I’d only read roughly 25% of the Bible at that point, and I’d literally emerged overnight as a believer after two solid decades of total unbelief. I needed a book–lots of books–and I knew it.
Now…commentaries, in case you didn’t know this already, can get really expensive. Grace is free, but books are not. I didn’t understand what half of the language in most of them meant. There were a lot of “isms” and “ologies” I didn’t understand in the sample pages, and they all cost like $40-$80 dollars. That’s what stood out when I got to Wiersbe’s commentary. It was inexpensive. It had a pretty cover on it. The title made sense. The sample pages were easy to understand. Did I mention that it wasn’t expensive? Yeah, so I bought it…and when it showed up in my mailbox, I consumed it like a starving man.
At the bottom of page 15, which is the very first page of Chapter 1, Wiersbe asks a crucial question:
“Have you ever thought of personal holiness as the most important thing in the world?”
I had not. I don’t think it had ever even crossed my mind, and that’s the problem that most of us have in trying to understand Leviticus. We don’t consider personal holiness. A lot of us have what scholars call an “over-realized eschatology.” That sounds like an intimidating term, but what it means is that, as Christians, we know that Christ has covered our unholiness and made us right with God for all eternity. In other words, we know that we’re saved. So we stop valuing holiness. We take our eschatology–our knowledge that in the end, we will be with God–and over-realize it by living as though our sin no longer matters, as though Christ has already returned, and as though personal holiness is no longer our responsibility.
The work is already done; Christ’s kingdom is already here; all blessing and promise is already ours; and all we have to do is sit back and reap the benefits while we wait upon the Lord’s return.
That is a simplified version of an over-realized eschatology. Prosperity and victory interpretations of the Gospel are another form this can take. Once you really grasp the concept, you start seeing it in a lot of devotional materials, sermons, and well-meant statements from fellow Christians. Wiersbe doesn’t use the term over-realized eschatology in his book, but he describes it perfectly.
In Leviticus, holiness is the most important thing in the world. When you put a 21st-century Christian with an over-realized eschatology into Leviticus, (s)he generally won’t be able to make sense of it. We don’t have eyes to see it. That’s the chief problem and the primary mental block that makes Christians and the church as a whole throw up their hands with the book of Leviticus. We joke about it. We talk about how boring, gross, or nonsensical it seems. We dismiss it as “part of the Old Covenant, and it doesn’t matter for us.” Those of us who take it seriously and try really hard come through it saying, “Man, I’m so glad we don’t live under that system anymore.” But none of us really get it, do we? Not without help, anyway.
I was given a gift. I didn’t do anything special. I just sat down and forced myself to read Leviticus like every other Christian who muscles through it in a devoted reading plan. God just gave it to me. He gave me a deeper longing for this book, and he gave me Warren Wiersbe’s little book to get me started. He gave Warren that question about holiness, and then Warren gave it to me. And the answer was, “no.” No, I had never considered personal holiness–“likeness to Jesus Christ”–as the most important thing in the world.
There Can Be No Fellowship Between Holy and Unholy
The entire book of Leviticus is about holiness. It is about God’s holiness, and it is also about our own personal holiness. It is a series of images, overlapping and one right after another, that demonstrate what God wants for us. We were created to be in perfect and eternal relationship with a holy God. He is holy, so we must be holy. The end.
These laws we’re studying are no longer something we’re meant to physically obey and carry out–none of the laws in Leviticus are–but the images of holiness they paint are very much for us. They were lessons given by our eternal God, and those don’t change because he does not change. He has not changed his mind about what our relationship with him is meant to be. He was and is and is to come, so if it was important to God in 1445 BC, it’s still important to him in 2020 AD.
Leviticus is the book God gave to his people when he came down to dwell among them for the first time since Eden. He came down again as the Christ to dwell among an Apostolic generation. He is still coming down to dwell–this time within us–ever since the Pentecost. Same God. Same three persons. Same plan. Same desire for relationship. Same. Holy. God. He wants to dwell with us, and he is holy. That means we gotta be holy, too.
This is gonna get repetitive, but it’s important. Just bear with the boredom of repetition because what I’m trying to do here–and I hope it helps–is drum the theology of holiness into your understanding. Say it out loud. Tattoo it onto your brain. God is holy, so we must be holy.
Holy, holy, holy
Lord, God Almighty
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee
Holy, holy, holy
Merciful and mighty
God in three persons blessed Trinity
The God of Leviticus is the same God we worship under the New Covenant. The moral of the story in Leviticus is the same moral in our story. You and me. He is holy, so I must be holy. He is holy, so you must be holy. Our bodies are the Temple. Our bodies are the Tabernacle. Our bodies are the sacred space that God fills with his glory to dwell amongst us. Jesus fulfilled Leviticus. He did it all. We don’t need the structures and the sacrifices because he became the sacrifices and made us into the structures.
To love Christ as we’re meant to love him, and to know the breadth and depth and height of what he has done, we need to “get this.” You…are the sacred space that has to be kept holy. I am the sacred space that has to be kept holy. We are the Tabernacle, y’all. The ash heap cannot stay here. Unclean things must not be allowed to soil us. We are the sacred space where God dwells among his people. My brothers and sisters, after everything we’ve studied so far, that should knock your breath out.
Holiness. It is the most important thing in the World.
I want you to go through your colored pencils, highlighters, or pens–whatever you use when taking notes in bible study. Pick a color you don’t normally use. Make it a special color. If you have a metallic gold pen you always want to use but never do…pick that one. We’re almost out of the offerings, and we won’t be coming back to the subject of offerings again until the very end of Leviticus, so I’m trying to emphasize this perspective before we move on.
There are several places in Leviticus where “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am Holy” will appear. I want you to mark it, every time you see it, with your special color/special pen/special whatever. I want it to stick out and scream at you every time you turn to Leviticus in your Bible in years to come. It is the thesis statement of Leviticus, and my personal opinion is that it is a thesis statement for the entire Genesis-Revelation arc for the whole Bible.
We’re going to get into some heavy, heavy stuff soon. Sections of Leviticus have been misused over centuries to hurt people, shun people, and condemn people. You need to understand what Leviticus is doing and what it is for before we get into that, because I’m not going to skip it or go light on it. Prepare to get uncomfortable and challenge some things, okay? We’re going to be talking about periods and sex and “nightly emissions” and homosexuality and “tattoos” and dead things before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle.”
I will never suggest anything outside of basic Christian orthodox theology, so don’t get scared that I’m gonna take you away on the heresy train or something. I’m not. I’m a deeply liturgical and conservative Christian with a high view of Scripture. But you need to prepare to get uncomfortable and challenge some things.
Leviticus is about showing you–you, who are a beloved child of God–the importance of holiness. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, but God is holy, and we are his sacred space. God wants his sacred space to be kept holy, for his glory and our good. Every lesson that this book teaches contributes to the pursuit of that end.
Okay? Good. See you next time.