[Reading Leviticus] The Drama of Aaron’s Sacrifice

Do you struggle to pay attention reading through Leviticus? Last week I posted about how we can do more than simply “get through” it. Today I want to share an Aha! moment I had reading through Leviticus again last week. For all the times I’ve read Leviticus over the years, I never noticed the drama in the story Aaron’s first official sacrifice as Israel’s high priest.

In my ESV Bible the heading for Leviticus chapter 9 says, “The LORD Accepts Aaron’s Offering.” Straight-forward enough, right? Not exactly. Two events occur, one before and one after the sacrifice, that make the events of chapter 9 so astonishing.

The Drama Before

In Exodus 24:9-11 we read,

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ent up, and they saw the God of Israel. There were under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness…they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Keep this mind as we go.

In Exodus 32, before Aaron and his sons are officially installed as Israel’s first priests, Moses was atop Mt Sinai with the Lord, leaving Aaron to mind the store, overseeing the Israelites. In a move that even Barney Fife, on his worst day while Andy was away, wouldn’t have the audacity to do, Aaron gives in to the whims of the Israelites and creates the golden calf. And with it declares, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

This is the man who saw the Lord, who ate with Him on the mountain, who was used by God as Moses’ right-hand man during the encounters with Pharaoh leading up to the Exodus. And then, turning his back and his conscience on all of that, sets up Israel’s first (and sadly, not its last) national idol.

It is a miracle itself that God did not wipe him out right there. Which brings us to…

The Drama After

We’re not given a timeframe from Leviticus 9 to Leviticus 10. It could’ve been days, weeks, or months. Regardless, not long after the Lord accepts their initial priestly sacrifices, God kills Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu.

The details of the incident are divinely sketchy in the text, but we know they offered profane incense before the Lord, unauthorized or “strange” fire. In irony and contrast, the Lord immediately consumed them in his holy and vengeful fire.

Here again, we have to go back and reread Exodus 24:9-11. Right there in the text we see these two men were also on the mountain seeing the Lord and eating there with their father Aaron, their uncle Moses, and seventy elders of Israel!

And still they would go on to profane the worship of the Lord and suffer the terrible consequences.

The Drama in the Middle

Knowing all of this makes the drama of what took place in Leviticus 9 even more amazing, doesn’t it?

It is a wonder and a mercy that God even condescends to acknowledge our sinful race, much less bid us draw near in reconciliation.

It is also stunning to think God didn’t disqualify Aaron from ministry (or just kill him) after the golden calf incident, which from our human perspective seems as-bad or worse than his sons’ sinful perversion of God’s instructions for worshipping him.

Instead God appoints him to the greatest honor, to become the first high priest to the Lord. And on that inauguration day the Lord was pleased to receive the sacrifices on behalf of the priests and the people.

Thirdly, it’s mind-boggling to think that God allowed Nadab and Abihu to serve in ministry knowing full well what would later do.

Reminds me of how the Lord called and welcomed Judas into the fold, giving no indication whatsoever of his future betrayal. Jesus was so kind to him that not only did he let him hold the money bag while knowing he was stealing from it. Which is why in the upper room at the last supper when he announced one of them would betray him, the other disciples had no clue who it might be.

The Drama of Redemption

Ultimately, what we have to marvel at is the drama of redemption itself. What happened in Leviticus 9 not only foreshadows a better, eternal Priest, Jesus, who would offer the greatest sacrifice for sin, himself.

Leviticus 9, as with all of Leviticus and the whole Old Testament for that matter, reminds us in pictures of the depths of our sin and idols of the heart, Christ’s future perfect atoning sacrifice where by God accepts and reconciles us to himself, through no merit of our own. Our sins atoned and forgiven, we are restored and commissioned into service for our God.

Astonishing. And to think–how often have we grumbled that Leviticus is boring. God forgive us!

Help, I’m Reading Leviticus!

Have you ever said that? I’ll admit, I have. After the fast paced excitement of Genesis and the first half of Exodus, the narrative in the Pentateuch slows down as the Lord instructs Israel about building the tabernacle and its instruments, creating the priestly garments, consecrating the priests, and then (in Leviticus) the laws themselves. It’s tempting to skip over those seemingly irrelevant passages (and, later, the genealogies), but that’s not wise. All of God’s inspired Word is, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). So, how can we be faithful to the Lord and his Word? As I was recently struggling again with this myself, I have some ideas.

Remember the Three C’s

[Ed. Note: About five or six years ago I wrote the below essay. It’s included in my book. (Would it be wrong to link to it here? I don’t know. I don’t want to be annoyingly self-promoting. Tell you what…I mention it on the Our Story page and there’s a link there, if you like.) Anyway, here are some thoughts and then below this I’ll post some further thoughts I’ve had since I first wrote this.]

Some Christians avoid the Old Testament. They feel as lost in the Bible as I did in the North Georgia Mountains. For them it is unfamiliar territory. When I talk to some people about reading the Bible, one response I get is that the person started reading in Genesis, but gave up by Leviticus, only two books later. I’m reading Leviticus now in my own Bible reading plan, so I think about those folks as I make my way through it. It can be a bewildering landscape if you have no idea what you are reading, or why it is in the Bible. There are three ideas I keep in mind when I read Leviticus:

CONTEXT

Consider the context of the book. Here are over a million people who, until recently, were slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years. God delivered the Israelites out of Pharaoh’s cruel Egypt with his mighty Hand. Famously safe on the other side of the Red Sea, God leads them into the Sinai wilderness, en-route to the Promised Land. The children of Israel are learning to live not just on their own, but as new nation literally and miraculously birthed out of another and specially chosen to live as God’s chosen people. Leviticus is a book of laying down crucial ground rules and learning to follow the Lord.

CONSECRATION

The rules and regulations presented to the priests and the people signify something more: Being wholly devoted to the Lord. The word “holy” literally means, “to be set apart, consecrated.” Every other nation around them was steeped in pagan idolatry. Every other nation on earth veered hard away from God (really ever since Genesis chapter three). But God was doing a work, a much bigger work than they knew. They were to be wholly devoted to him. Impurity, idolatry, and iniquity were not going to be tolerated. Israel was to be wholly holy. They were to be the special, chosen, representative people of Yahweh. Yet, God knew they would sin. In his mercy he prescribed the means to seek forgiveness for their sins, which brings us to…

CHRIST

In Leviticus chapter 9 we see the first animal slaughtered for the sins of the people under these new rules of priestly intervention and atonement (hence the term “Levitical priesthood”). Over the next thousand-plus years millions of animals would be slaughtered to atone for the sins of the people. Yet none of those sacrifices, individually or all together, could truly take away the sins of the people. To use the question from the old hymn, “What can wash away my sin?”

The answer in the song is the answer of the Scriptures: Nothing but the blood of Jesus. All the sacrifices pointed in vivid picture form to the one great sacrifice that would one day come. Jesus, the Lord himself, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” would be the perfect one- for-all sacrifice for sin for those who would be saved from their just punishment.

R.C. Sproul tells the story of when he first started teaching the Bible as a college professor. Students would say to him, “Oh, Professor Sproul, you make the Bible come alive for me!” Aware that they were trying to compliment him, he refuted their words. “Look, I can’t make the Bible come alive, because I can’t make anything come alive that already isalive!” He said to them, “There’s nothing wrong with sacred Scripture. What you’re noticing with my animation and my excitement is my response to the Scriptures… The Bible makes me come alive, rather than my making the Bible come alive!”4

That is a great testimony to the value of studying the Bible. Regular Bible reading and study literally is walking alongside God. The Holy Spirit knows the way and delights to lead us. When we follow him he points out all the beauty and truth along the way.

My 2019 Thoughts

I still agree with the above. I’d also add a briefs Do’s and Dont’s:

Do

  1. Remember the burden it was on every Israelite to try and keep these laws
  2. Remember Lev 20:7-8 as the theme verses of the book; all of this was for God’s people to be holy (separated) to him.
  3. Remember that over and over again, in detailing the necessary sacrifices for sin, the lesson is the same: The wages of sin is death (Rom 3:23). Sin has consequences, and they are always awful.
  4. Remember that Jesus, who did the impossible, fulfilled these laws for us, most ultimately in becoming the perfect and final sacrifice for sins
  5. Thank and praise God you and I are no longer under the weight of these impossible laws

Don’t

  1. Skip over Leviticus. Don’t skip over the dry passages of Scripture. In his wisdom the Lord chose to put them in there for his good reasons. Trust him about that. Obediently do your part and read them.
  2. Take audio version shortcut. If you can read it, read it. Don’t take the shortcut of listening to the audio version. Saints of God have been both challenged and blessed by reading it for literal millennia. Submit under the opportunity to be sanctified by doing the hard things. In this Christian life reading through Leviticus will probably be the least difficult thing the Lord will require of you in your sanctification, trust me.
  3. Zone out with a “does not apply to me” attitude. I’m not saying you need to memorize which sacrifice goes with which occasion, but don’t just let your eyes scan the page and move on. Use the Do list above to help you engage thoughtfully with the text.
  4. Don’t forget that every paragraph, every sacrifice, every command to be pure and perfect…all of it points to Jesus. All of it glorifies him. He is the great fulfillment, the pure and perfect hero Lamb of God, and Prophet, Priest, and King.

Have ideas on how to more enjoy reading Leviticus? Share in a comment below.

Short Term Missions: Go Ye or Stay Home?

I only recently happened upon Stephen Neale’s blog Building Jerusalem. So far, I’m enjoying it, and him, very much. Stephen is a pastor in the Oldham area near Manchester, UK. As I understand it, this once-thriving industrial area is now blighted, not unlike our own Flint, Michigan or any number of formerly-great industrial cities here in the States. Ministry-wise, besides the economic factors, Neale’s ministry field is dominated by Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. All of this makes his writing insightful and compelling.

Having just returned from a short-term missions trip to Uganda, I was intrigued when I saw his recent post itemizing five reasons against sending out short-term missions teams. A few reasons he gives include how the work started is often unsustainable after the team has gone home, the incredible amount of lead-up planning and distraction (my word) it puts on the organizing pastor and how it can “lull” the local church away from their own evangelistic responsibilities. So how did Pastor Neale’s points line up with my own recent experience?

My Trip to Uganda: An Overview

My trip to Uganda was an almost-three week evangelism trip. You might be wondering, Why Uganda? Because last November I was invited to join a team on a short-term missions trip to …Uganda! Never before had I any thought of going there.

Uganda was described to me as being a “revival culture” right now, where the Spirit is especially turning the hearts of men, women, and children to repent and believe the Gospel. The purpose of the trip was to exhort believers in the need for committing to regular evangelism, and giving them a practical model of doing it.

About 30 of us from around the United States, Colombia, and South Africa went. For the first week we stayed at the missions house in Kampala/Entebbe where we were trained and exhorted over long days of group prayer, lectures, meals, and a concluding guest speaker each evening. Our training completed, we set out to Kaphorwa first then Tororo for small teams evangelism and open air preaching over the remainder of our time in-country.

The team was headed up by a pastor/professor based here in the States who has been ministering in Uganda via short-term trips for many years. While in-country we were also joined the entire time by one local pastor and a national coordinator for the small ministry I went with, as well as a few other Ugandan pastors, campus ministry workers, and church members helping as interpreters for those we’d meet who didn’t speak English.

I’ll be writing more about my own trip in upcoming blog posts, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.

And Then There is the Cost

The point Neale emphasizes the most is the cost. Short-term missions is a costly endeavor, no doubt. Neale argues the money could be better spent if it were simply donated to the local church.

The very church you are going to help on these trips would almost certainly be helped more if you took all the money you were going to spend on each person coming and gave it directly to the church to use in the sustainable work of weekly gospel ministry that they are trying to maintain. 

-Stephen Neale

Well, could it? Decide for yourself:

I spent $3,200 on the trip, plus another $300 donated by others towards my travel. And that didn’t include the $1,000 in required vaccinations and travel essentials listed on the suggested packing list and my own research. Plus there was money spent on material donations for Ugandans I hauled over in suitcases (mostly ladies and children’s clothes, hand towels, and pillow cases). Add some pocket money for incidentals like food in the airports, snacks in-country, and a few souvenirs and we’re now approaching US$5,000. Now multiply that by 30 (the size of our team).

Where I Agree

I loved my time in Uganda. I thanked God everyday for the opportunity to be there. I loved the experience and the friendships that came out of it. It changed me to see first-hand the broader perspective of what God is doing around the world and what fellow believers deal with day-in and day-out.

Let’s also not forget that experiencing the lack of so many American conveniences was, in itself, a crash course in enduring trials patiently and with joy. And just like cross-cultural traveling for secular reasons does, the experience made me a little wiser about the people and cultures of the world we live in. And yes, there is no question that some of the people we talked to truly became born again.

The water wasn’t always like this, but then again, even when it was clear, we had to be careful not to ingest it.

All that said, as I read through Pastor Neale’s article though, I found myself agreeing with every point. It was a herculean logistical effort on the part of the organizers, it took a tremendous amount of local resources before and during our time there, and all of it cost a great deal of money.

Where I Disagree

But does this mean we do away with short-term missions entirely? Do we just look at the bottom line and take our missions cue from there? I don’t think so.

If we’re just going to look at the bottom line for everything, what about efforts like nursing home ministry? I just preached this past Sunday to a dozen or so people in a nursing home, most of whom were asleep or only hardly aware of what was happening around them. The Bottom Line would say that, too, was a waste of time and resources.

I know that it is not at all what Pastor Neale is saying, and I’m not at all trying to setup a straw man to knock down. I’m only saying that there are non-quantifiable aspects to a lot of what is done in Christian ministry. Our shared faith is full of paradoxes. Short-term missions may simply be one of them.

Conclusion

So where do we go from here (or, to the question at hand, do we even go anywhere!)? I don’t disagree at all with Pastor Neale’s assessment, although I would add that there are some short-term missions projects that may be better returns on investment than others.

Missions that helps build a building, dig a well, train pastors and lay leaders, trains women in poorer areas on health and business, and other such concrete projects may, in the long run, be more viable short-term missions options than other efforts. But, then again, is there no one locally who can put up a wall or dig a well, or a pastor in a neighboring state or country who can train other pastors?

I do think short-term missions has non-quantifiable benefits. I think that so long as they are not “gospel tourism” trips, short-term missions trips can provide value. Would I, by comparative example, spend $5,000 on a three week class learning about art history by traveling across Italy? Or, as I did a few years ago, surprise my wife with a trip to a place she’s always wanted to go (Ireland)? Yes. So me and the others on the team going on a three week trip to share the Gospel and learn what God is doing around the world still seems like it was time and money well spent.