Some of America’s biggest mega-churches have rejected traditional formalities. Contemporary worship bands replaced robed choirs. Pastors deliver sermons in jeans and wrinkled shirts. Pews, and sometimes even crosses, have disappeared from church buildings. That may be why the detailed prescriptions for worship in Leviticus seem odd to many of us. We have a tough time making sense of all the ceremony. What’s more, the blood sacrifice system offends our sensibilities. There’s a definite gruesomeness.
First, we need to re-orient ourselves to the historical context of Leviticus. The Israelites left Egypt less than 14 months earlier. They had the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; and while the practice of sacrifices and burnt offerings is not itself new, there’s still so much they don’t yet understand about their corporate identity and about God Himself.
They needed to absorb the realities of God’s holiness and how they, as His people, would be required to revere and reflect that holiness. The prescriptions and prohibitions regarding the sacrifices were signs and symbols of God’s perfection and of their sin. There were right and wrong ways to approach this God. Worship required obedience and acceptable practices.
The first seven chapters of Leviticus deal with the various sacrifices the people could bring to God. The burnt offering, as described here in chapter 1, is one of the sacrifices for securing atonement. Atonement is a critical term for understanding Leviticus. A reconciled relationship with God is possible only when sin is dealt with. Because sin incurs the penalty of death, either we will die for our own sin or a substitute will be required to which we transfer our guilt.