Leviticus 1 - Directed by God, unto God
When we think about worship today, we are confronted with different approaches. On the one hand, you have contemporary worship with its watering down of much that is considered offensive, in order to be seeker-sensitive. With it there has come a loss of the creeds and confessions, and even the preached word. On the other hand our Reformed worship has suffered, because for many it is no longer personal and meaningful. Rather, it has become a duty without much delight.
Worship in the Old Testament, however, stands in contrast to much of what takes place today. Rather than a watered-down form of worship, there was depth and meaning behind every element. In the book of Leviticus we learn about worship, we see that every action by the worshiper and every ritual by the priest had great significance, literally or symbolically. In particular with the burnt offering, we see that every part of it was weighty with meaning.
As we consider the subject of worship from the book of Leviticus, it is good for us to get a sense of the feel, smell, and sounds of worship from the Old Testament. In particular, it is good if we can see how meaningful and moving worship was for the Old Testament believer. It was not a passive time of pew sitting, but a deeply personal and active time of confession, forgiveness, praise, and adoration.
As we consider this, our theme is as follows: God instructs us that worship of Him is volitional, conditional, and personal.
The burnt offering is the first offering listed in Leviticus because it was the offering that symbolized atonement for man’s sin. It is called the burnt offering because essentially the whole offering was consumed by the fire of the altar.
Yet verse 3 also tells us that it was a volitional part of worship — meaning that it was an act of man’s will. We read, “If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord” (Leviticus 1:3). Worship in the Old Testament involved the will. Approaching God, seeking to confess sins and be forgiven, was an act of the will, and that is how the burnt offering was to be brought.
There were times that the burnt offering was offered otherwise. In general, it was to be offered twice daily by the priest on behalf of the people. In addition, Numbers 28 and 29 tell us that it was offered on the Sabbath, at the beginning of the month, on Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles and the other feast days. And, of course, on the great Day of Atonement — Yom Kipper.
But what we read about in this passage is the personal, voluntary offering of the individual. It was to be brought if a man had sinned whether intentionally, unintentionally, or had become defiled in some way. It was to be brought on special occasions, such as when a vow was fulfilled, a priest ordained, or a child born. Yet the common element was that it was voluntary.
As we see throughout Leviticus, what was to be brought was regulated by God. He demanded the best of the herd or flock. And as we see in this passage, how it was to be brought was also explicitly made known to the worshiper. And even though God told the people that this is how they were to maintain their relationship, He left it to each man to voluntarily bring the offering. And I believe that the reason is that it was to be a personal act of devotion.
It was to be from a sincere desire to maintain one’s relationship with a heavenly Father. It was to restore what was broken and remove God’s anger. It was not to be done as a mindless exercise, as a superstitious ritual, only from a sense of compulsion. But rather, willingly, with a sincere desire for restoration and forgiveness.
The writer of Psalm 66 knew of this and wrote about it many times. He did not write that he was obligated to bring offerings or reluctantly would give them. No, he said,
I will go into Your house with burnt offerings; I will pay You my vows, which my lips have uttered and my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble. I will offer You burnt sacrifices of fat animals, with the sweet aroma of rams; I will offer bulls with goats.Psalm 66:13-15
Willingly and joyfully he came to worship his God. And in his joy to do so, he invited others to come also, verse 16 of Psalm 66, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what He has done for my soul” (Psalm 66:16).
The Psalmist sets forth worship that pleases God — worship that is done in joy and delight, worship that is from the heart and the innermost desires of a person. Worship by men and women, boys and girls, who desire to receive from God — to receive forgiveness, atonement, and restoration. And that is what is being said here: the Lord delights in and is pleased to offer forgiveness of sins. And He desires worshipers who desire it. He desires worshipers to willingly come near Him, through His Son, that they might be forgiven and be restored to a right relationship. Verse 9 tells us that it’s a “sweet aroma to the Lord.”
In a sense it seems odd, odd that a bloody, mutilated animal would be sweet to the Lord. Here’s a ceremony about sin, a ceremony about death, a ceremony about sinful people, yet it is sweet to the Lord. And this is possible only because it’s not about us, but about the offering. When Noah left the ark (Genesis 8:20), he “built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done’” (Genesis 8:20-21).
The Lord was pleased, not because man had changed — he hadn’t — but because of the burnt offering of Noah. It pleased the Lord to accept Noah because of the offering. And the same is true today; the Lord wants us to willingly come to Him with the only burnt offering that will please Him, His Son. The Son is a pleasing aroma to the Father.
One of the things about camping is that by the end of the trip, if you’ve had a campfire, everything smells like smoke. It permeates clothing, sleeping bags, and all your equipment. And in a way, that is what the burnt offering did. The smoke of the offering rose from the altar and anything nearby also took on the aroma. And what we learn is that we should desire to be covered in such a fragrance, and in Christ we are.
2 Corinthians 2:15 says, For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life…2 Corinthians 2:15-16
The Lord says ‘Come, come near to Me, come worship Me, but come with the fragrance which is pleasing to Me, come with the aroma of My Son, who is the aroma of life.’
And so worship begins with the burnt offering, the sweet aroma of the cross of Christ, an offering by which men and women are forgiven and restored to a proper relationship with their heavenly Father.
Secondly, we see that the burnt offering was conditional, verse 4: “Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4). Here it is directly stated that the burnt offering was to atone for sin. It was literally to cover over sin. It was something that would appease the wrath of God against the sinner. Ultimately only the work of Jesus would appease the wrath of the Father, but until He came in the flesh, God was pleased to accept the type or shadow which pointed to Christ.
What atonement actually did was provide a substitute for the sinner. The sinner would come before God, guilty and deserving death. Yet God said, ‘Kill a bull, a sheep, or a bird, and I will turn My wrath away for now.’ In this way the sinner could ransom his own life, by providing a substitute.
We see this in the Passover, where God said, ‘When I take you out of Egypt, then I get your firstborn son, he is mine.’ For the Egyptians, it meant that God took their lives and it would have been the same for Israel, except He provided a substitute. He said, ‘You can redeem your firstborn if you kill a sheep in his place and sprinkle its blood on the door-post.’ And so the burnt offering was to atone for sin, yet what we see is that it was conditional.
Notice again in verse 4, “Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4). The burnt offering would be accepted and would atone for sin on the condition that the one who brought it put his hand on its head.
So we might ask, why does one laying his hands upon the animal determine whether the offering will be acceptable for making atonement? The answer is that it was more than just touching the animal. Literally, it meant to “lean upon” the animal. And in so doing, the sins of the man were passed to the animal, which would die in his place. We see this again and again with the other offerings of Leviticus in chapter 3:2, it was to be done with the peace offering, and in 4:4 it was to be done with the sin offering. The one who brought it was to lean on or press against the animal with his hands.
Yet it’s not until chapter 16 that we see the whole story; the laying on of hands was accompanied with prayer and confession. We read in Leviticus 16:21 that on the great Day of Atonement, Aaron was to “…lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and then send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man” (Leviticus 16:21). And so a man did not just bring an animal and toss it on the fire; no, he was to prayerfully confess his sins and transfer his sins to it by the laying on of his hands. Then God would accept it.
What did David write in Psalm 51, after he had sinned with Bathsheba? We read in verse,
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise.Psalm 51:14-17
What kind of offerings does God accept? Those which are given with a broken and contrite heart. David could have offered a sacrifice; he could have brought the best of his herd or flock to be killed, but he knew that it would mean nothing unless his own heart was broken and humbled. Only when that took place could he bring the offering.
And we read the same thing in other places. God told the people through Jeremiah and Hosea not to bother to bring their offerings, as we read in Amos 5:21, “I hate and despise your feast days, And I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings” (Amos 5:21–22). Why? Because at the same time they were bringing burnt offerings, they were also worshiping idols.
They were not bringing offerings with true confession and repentance, and so they were not accepted. And it is no different today. Where does true worship begin? It doesn’t begin by merely showing up at a building, singing a song, or sitting in a pew for an hour. No, it begins with a confession of sins and claiming by faith the forgiveness found in Christ. Today we no longer bring the sacrifice because Christ’s sacrifice has been given once and for all, but we still come to worship in confession and humility. We still lay hold of Christ by faith for atonement.
Finally, we learn from this passage that worship is not only volitional, involving our will; conditional, involving our heart; but it’s also personal. We read on in verses 5-6,
He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And he shall skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces.Leviticus 1:5-6
Old Testament worship was personal and it was meaningful. After laying his hands on the animal, “the worshipper prepared the animal for the sacrifice, by killing it, skinning it, washing the dirty parts, and chopping it up.” As the worshipper killed it, the priest would catch some of the blood to throw against the outside of the altar, symbolizing God’s demand that blood be shed for sin. As the writer of Hebrews says in 9:22, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). After the blood, the worshiper would bring the pieces of the animal, and, starting with the head the whole animal would be burned on the altar. Then, as he stood there, he watched as his offering went up in smoke, which would happen quickly on the altar, which measured seven and a half feet by four and a half.
And so the worshiper did all this, knowing and confident, that just as smoke ascended to heaven, so his sins were lifted from him and his relationship with God was profoundly affected.
This reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is the prerequisite of true worship. Only those whose sins are forgiven can enjoy God’s fellowship and praise Him from their hearts. And so for the Christian, worship and fellowship with God involves personal engagement. Today we no longer bring the sacrifice, but we still lay hold of it by faith and confession.
In 1 John 1:7 and 9 we read, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9).
Like that worshipper of the Old Testament who could stand before the altar of God in assurance that his sins were forgiven and his relationship with God made right, so too can we through Christ.
And so God invites us to come, to come willing with a conscious desire to be forgiven and restored. To come in humility and sincerity, not just saying the name of Christ, but laying hold of Him, leaning hard against Him as it were, as the only sacrifice acceptable to God. And with the confidence that in Christ we have and can receive forgiveness and cleansing from all our unrighteousness.