All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness — 2 Tim 3:16
The book of Leviticus has very detailed instructions for the system of offerings and sacrifice for Israel. We are convinced that these instructions are profitable for us today. But how?
Certainly we know from the book of Hebrews and throughout the New Testament that the system of offerings primarily prefigured Jesus and his serving as high priest and offering to cleanse us from sin. But there are at least two ways we can press the typology further. First, as we delve into the elaborate details of the different kinds of sacrifices we should gain a greater appreciation for just what it is that Jesus accomplished for us: not just dealing once and for all with the great problem of our sin, but also ushering us into his presence and sharing a fellowship meal with us. Second, Leviticus actually lays out the pattern of worship for Israel. The system of offerings was not just how Israel made peace with God, but how Israel drew near to God. My purpose in this essay is to explore the implications of this pattern of worship for how the church worships today.
Offerings and sacrifice
The Hebrew for offering is qorban. It is etymologically related to the word qarab, which means to offer, bring near or draw near. An offering is not just something given to God, but something brought near to God. More than that, an offering draws near to God on behalf of the worshipper, or, in the case of Jesus our offering, bringing the worshipper with him.
God describes five major kinds of offering in Leviticus. Each of the offerings went through the same basic steps, with some variations in emphasis:
- First, the worshipper laid or leaned his hand on the animal. This designated the animal as the worshipper’s representative to enter into God’s presence. The worshipper was not only expressing his desire to enter God’s presence, but by implication confessing his sin, confessing that someone (a son — a “son of the herd” — a subtle reminder of the seed-son who ultimately needed to die) needed to die in order for him to enter God’s presence. For the Christian today, we lay hold of Jesus by our confession of faith; we designate him as our representative by putting our trust in him.
- Next, the worshipper himself killed the animal. This death was the judicial penalty for his sin. Concerning our justification, this is a reminder that we are active participants in putting Jesus to death (“we all carry in our pocket his very nails” — Luther). Concerning our sanctification, this is a reminder that we must be actively putting our own sin to death.
- Then the animal’s blood was displayed. This varied for each offering, but in each case blood was displayed, a covering for sin. In a sense, we can say that blood makes a way, that blood opens doors.
- Then a portion of the animal (or in some cases the entire animal) was made to ascend in smoke. There is surely worthwhile typological mileage to be gotten out of considering what parts of the animal ascended, how they were prepared, etc. But for our purposes the main idea we want to recognize here is that of ascension. The animal ascended in smoke into God’s glory cloud, into God’s presence. It is even said to be food for God. So while the death of the animal was judicial, a punishment or payment for sin, the burning of the animal was actually a very positive image. The animal entered into God’s presence, through the fire of God’s spirit, and was thus united to God as the worshipper’s representative.
- Finally, in most cases a portion of the animal was eaten. In many cases it was eaten by the priests. In one case it was eaten by the worshipper himself. This meal was the high point of the offering: once the worshipper was symbolically welcomed into God’s presence, he enjoyed a communion meal with God.
The five types of offering each follow this basic pattern. I will name each offering according to a more helpful literal translation, but indicate the traditional names in parentheses.
- The trespass offering was given for high-handed sins, or sins of significant trespass against God’s holy things. There seem to be several ideas wrapped up in this: the idea of repayment for trespass, the idea of converting high-handed unforgivable sins into those that could be covered by a purification offering, and the idea of removing or rescuing the worshipper from the higher standards of holiness required for those who come into contact with God’s holy things. This offering was always a male lamb, so that in a sense it is the one most typical of Jesus, who cleanses us from the worst of our sins.
- The purification (sin) offering cleansed the worshipper, in some cases from lesser sins (unintentional sins, sins of being led astray), and in other cases merely from uncleanness rather than sin. The emphasis here is on the covering of sin and uncleanness and death, so the display of blood was prominent. The blood was often displayed in more than one place, depending on who was being purified. Jesus’s blood cleanses us completely.
- The ascension offering emphasized the ascension of the animal in smoke into God’s presence. This is often translated as “burnt offering,” but the underlying word olah simply denotes ascension. The whole animal was burned except for its skin, so that for this offering there was actually no fellowship meal. Jesus brings us into his presence as our ascension offering.
- The tribute (grain) offering involved the giving of grain, oil, incense, and later wine, as a gift to God. This offering was always offered on top of an ascension offering, so that in a sense the animal carried the gift into God’s presence. This is a reminder both that the works of our hands are to be dedicated to God, and also that even the works of our hands must be offered to God through Jesus. This offering also captures part of what we do in the Lord’s supper — lifting up bread and wine as a memorial to God. The Father delights in being reminded of the work of his son.
- Finally, the peace offering emphasized the fellowship meal with God. This is the only offering which the worshipper was allowed to eat. This offering captures another aspect of the Lord’s supper — Jesus sets before us a table, a fellowship meal that we eat together with him.
Prior to the Exodus there were only ascension and tribute offerings, and anyone could offer an animal to God on any altar. But in this new covenant arrangement, God drew closer to his people. This meant that there were greater restrictions, such as who could approach God and when; but there were also greater privileges, such as covenant fellowship meals (contrast with Abraham, who did not eat with the three men in Genesis 18). While Gentile God-fearers could not serve as priests, they could bring offerings (Num. 15:14-16).
From the Pentateuch we can piece together a Levitical order of worship. The three main offerings seem to have been the purification offering, the ascension offering, and the peace offering. Wherever they appeared together, they were offered in this order. The tribute and trespass offerings were more incidental: the tribute offering was always combined with an ascension offering, and where the trespass offering appeared, it always preceded a purification offering.
Interestingly, Leviticus describes only the peace offering as a sacrifice (Hebrew zebach). We tend to use sacrifice and sacrificial system as general terms to describe the entire system, but offering and system of offerings would be more accurate. There are a few places outside of Leviticus where sacrifice appears to refer to the entire system, but it is comparatively rare. Sacrifice, then, connotes the idea of a fellowship meal much more than the idea of an animal offered for sin. In this sense, then, it is possible to describe the Lord’s supper as a sacrifice — not that anything is offered for sin, but that it is in fact a fellowship meal with Jesus.
The tabernacle and temple were typologically dense, with many layers of associations. A temple is literally a palace for God (and a tabernacle a tent-dwelling); a priest is literally a palace servant or steward. We know the tabernacle and temple are symbolic of Jesus’s own body (John 1:14, 2:21), and therefore both our own bodies (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:19) and the church as the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5ff).
We also know that the tabernacle and temple were patterned after heavenly things (Exodus 25:9-40; 1 Chr. 28:11-19; Hebrews 9:23-24). The entire tabernacle and temple complex served as a microcosmic model of the heavens and earth. This can be seen not only in their architectural symbolism, but also in the pattern of seven speeches that God gives to Moses to describe the tabernacle design. These speeches closely mirror the seven days of creation and reflect the fact that this covenant, like all of God’s covenants, was a new covenant that established a new creation. All of God’s covenants point toward the new covenant in Jesus that is renewing all of creation. Heaven is still the final pattern into whose image the church and the world are being made (Matt. 6:10).
This is where we can begin to see the value of Leviticus for understanding and patterning the corporate worship of the church. We want the worship of the church to be patterned as much as possible after heavenly worship. It begins to be evident that what we have in Exodus-Leviticus is not an obscure and haphazard system of offerings, but a model of heaven that can give us valuable insight into heavenly worship.
Certainly a great deal must transform between Leviticus and today, or between Leviticus and heaven. There is no longer any offering for sin (Heb. 10:18) and the priest-king has sat down (Heb. 1:3, 10:12). But we are comfortable with such transitions; it is well understood, for example, that the altar of incense symbolizes the fragrance of the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8), and we are comfortable speaking of a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15) and of ourselves (Rom. 12:1); and of offering ourselves, unreached people, and gifts to God. In fact, the Greek word often translated as “worship” in Romans 12:1 is a word used for the priests’ service in God’s sanctuary. No longer is there a nation of priests standing between God and Gentile God-fearers; now all of God’s people are his priests, his household stewards (Eph. 2). The Spirit’s fire upon us has made us into offerings (Acts 2:1-4), so that we ourselves ascend into God’s presence.
What we need to do is understand what sorts of transitions must take place, and also look for other confirmations of this pattern. While we will not explore it in this essay, all of Leviticus, even the sexual legislation, has typological implications for the church. At a minimum it shows us the degree of faithfulness and devotion Jesus has for his bride, and it teaches us that the bride must be relentlessly faithful to her husband-redeemer.
My thesis is this: the corporate worship of the church is not merely the giving of praise and thanksgiving to God. Rather, it is an ascending into God’s house, drawing near to him for the purpose of receiving from him and giving back to him. More than that, our king has laid out a pattern, a ceremony, for how we are to appropriately approach his throne. This properly begins with his invitation and culminates in a fellowship meal with him.
Ascension to the house of God
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” — Psalm 122:1, a song of ascents
There is a persistent theme throughout scripture of ascending to meet with God. This is sometimes combined with the idea of entering God’s house, or drawing near to his throne. The pervasiveness of these themes allows us to confidently identify worship as a going up, drawing near, going in. When we link this idea of ascension to what we have learned from the ascension offering, we further see that it is Jesus himself as our representative offering who ushers us into his own presence in union with him. (This gives us interesting insight into Psalm 24. This Psalm speaks of our ascent to worship God, and of his ascent in victory. But it is just in his victory that we ascend in union with him.)
God established his own home in the heavens, which are architecturally “above” the earth even if they only physically touch at certain times and places (e.g., Gen. 7:11; John 1:51). There are in fact three heavens: the visible heavens, the firmament-boundary, and the “third heaven” (1 Cor. 12:2) where God is enthroned. Then when God made a home for man, he created a sanctuary-garden within the land of Eden, within the world. The garden is on a mountain plateau (Gen. 2:10-14), and when Adam and Eve are cast down from God’s presence they descended.
It is a pervasive theme throughout scripture that man ascends a mountain to meet with God and to worship. It seems likely that after the fall, when Adam and his sons brought offerings to God, they did so by ascending and drawing near to the gate of the garden. In Genesis 8:20, Noah built an altar on Mount Ararat. In Genesis 11 we see a false mountain, Babel. Abraham met with God in the hills between Bethel and Ai in Genesis 12. The Journey out of Egypt (Abraham, and later Israel) into God’s land was a going up. Abaham met with God at a high place (Genesis 18) and went to sacrifice Isaac at Mount Moriah (Salem/Jerusalem). God appeared to Moses at Horeb-Sinai in the burning bush, and to Israel after the Exodus. Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah, and Ezekiel’s visionary temple was on a very high mountain (Ezek. 40). The Psalms make constant reference to the idea of ascending, going up to meet with God in worship. This is not just a side effect of Jerusalem’s mountains of Moriah, Zion and Olives; it is potent imagery of going up to meet the exalted king of kings.
There are counterfeit mountains. The angels counseled Lot to flee to the mountain, but he chose a mountain of symbolic death rather than the mountain of the Lord. Edom, the descendents of Esau, were a counterfeit nation of priests, and Mount Seir often appears prophetically as a false mountain of the Lord. There were other false mountains, such as Bashan (Psalm 68) or the high places of Israel’s false worship. Worship on the high places was forbidden — even if it was not consciously idolatrous — as long as God’s presence was focused upon the physical house of the tabernacle or temple.
As early as Genesis 8 we see the building of altars to bring offerings to God. It is clear that altars were symbols of the mountain of God, not only because of the visual association (their overall shape and elevation, the horns on well-developed altars, and the descent of God’s fire upon the altar mirroring God’s descent upon Sinai), but also because Ezekiel’s altar is called the mountain of God in Ezekiel 43:15 (widely mistranslated). Altars and mountains are also linked by the pervasive Biblical symbolism of rock and stone. Jesus is himself the mountain-stone that crushes all competing powers (Dan. 2). All of this means that the altars functioned not only to cause the offering to ascend God, but as an elevated symbolic mountain for the worshipper himself to draw near to God. Once the fellowship meal of the peace offering was instituted after the Exodus, the altar-mountain took on a meaning not only of ascension but also as the place of a fellowship meal, a “communion site.” The people of Israel ate with God near the altar-mountain just as Moses, Aaron and the elders ate with Jesus on Sinai in Exodus 24.
Ascending to meet with God is not only an Old Testament theme. Jesus was frequently said to minister or pray on mountains, sometimes in particular the Mount of Olives. The transfiguration took place on a mountain. The disciples met with the resurrected Jesus on a mountain (Matt. 28:16). The Lord’s supper took place in an upper room, and there are several events in Acts that took place in upper rooms, to which Luke purposefully calls our attention (Acts 1:12-13 — on a mountain, 9:36-39, 20:7-8 — on the Lord’s day). Revelation itself took place on the Lord’s day (Rev 1:10), and was an ascension into heaven as part of a heavenly worship service.
We will see below that the house of God is symbolic of the body of Christ. Since Jesus’s ascension, the mountain of God is also transformed. Worship at the mountain and at Jerusalem are symbolic of worship in the New Jerusalem, the church (John 4:26). All ascensions to meet with God point toward the heavenly mountain of New Jerusalem that comes down from above (Rev. 21). The church does not ascend a physical mountain to meet with God, but we ascend in worship to enter the presence of our king (Heb. 12:18ff). In fact, the entire book of Hebrews presents the Levitical system as a type, not only of Jesus’s work on the cross, but of the church and her worship, so that Jesus has become, as Sinclair Ferguson puts it, the true worship leader of the church. The church is the city of God set on a hill (Matt. 5:14). Jacob saw angels ascending and descending between himself and God on a sort of staircase (Genesis 28). Jesus, who is both the altar-mountain and the ascension offering, is now our staircase (John 1:51), both bringing help down to us and bringing us up into his presence.
Pillars (Gen. 28, 31, 35; Exodus 13:21-22; etc.) are also symbols of ascension and ladders to heaven, similar to altars, mountains and stairs. (Though, as with many things, there is layered symbolism here; pillars are also symbolic of people.) Trees are as well (Gen. 12:6-7, 13:18, 18:1-8, etc.), with the double imagery of both a ladder to heaven and a canopy symbolic of God’s glory cloud.
We have already noted that the tabernacle and temple themselves were architectural models of the heavens and the earth. By design the movement of entering into God’s house was intended to symbolize going up into the heavens. This is certainly true in the progression of holiness and nearness to God. This is also symbolized by various architectural features such as the images of heavenly cherubim. There is a progression of glory as well, from bronze to silver to gold covering to solid gold. There is even an escalation in the relative height at which the furniture was carried on the shoulders of the Levites, based on the placement of the rings for the poles. The tabernacle and the altar were a portable heavens, a portable Sinai.
The words tabernacle and temple were not specialized or mystical words to the Hebrews. To them they would simply have expressed the ideas of a house-tent and a palace. What this signifies to us is that God really did dwell among his people, that there was a physical house of the Lord and you could draw near to the presence of the king of kings. We know that the physical house of the Lord symbolizes the church (1 Peter 2:5), so that we enter God’s house when we gather as the church. What may be more surprising is to consider the fact that this association must have been obvious to David as well. Consider the many Psalms of David that speak joyfully of the house of the Lord: Psalm 23, 26, 27, 122, etc. At the time David wrote these, God’s ark had been separate from the tabernacle for a number of years, and God’s glory would not appear again in a house until his son Solomon built the temple. Depending on when these Psalms were written, the ark might have been kept in a tent in Jerusalem, but it was a lesser tent than the tabernacle, and was certainly no temple.
Knowing the symbolism of the house of the Lord, and the great prophetic insight of David, it seems clear that David had in mind the imagery of the people of God as the house of God. Certainly David knew that God was enthroned upon, or dwelled within, the praises of his people (Ps 22:3). There are other clear typological associations between God’s people and various aspects of his house (one obvious association is the twelve loaves of the bread). David’s own extensive reforms to Levitical worship (this is the first time that music plays a significant role in worship) built upon the Levitical patterns of worship and continued to emphasize worship as ascension. In fact, David’s liturgical reforms are very instructive to us — they represent a Spirit-inspired application of Levitical worship to the corporate gathering and song.
Finally, scripture speaks at times of worship as drawing near to God (throughout Hebrews; James 4:8). As we saw earlier, drawing near is the very essence of an offering: an offering is literally something that is brought near, something through which the worshipper draws near. And as we have seen, drawing near through an offering began with cleansing, involved ascension, and culminated with fellowship. What is pictured in physical terms is also true spiritually: as we draw near to God, we progress from alienation, through cleansing, to fellowship and rest.
If Israel could ascend architecturally into the physical house of God, we can certainly ascend symbolically as the spiritual house of God at the spiritual mountain of God into the presence of God. This is just what we do in worship. While Jesus is always present with us through his Spirit, his word, and through one another, the corporate worship of his church is the one time that we are said to enter into his presence. As Protestants we know that there is nothing special about the church building. But what is truly at one moment only an auditorium, becomes spiritually God’s sanctuary as the people of God ascend into his presence. Only a handful of Old Testament saints had the privilege of ascending into God’s presence. We now enjoy this privilege on a weekly basis.
The fellowship meal
One of the most pervasive biblical figures for salvation, for fellowship with God and participation in his kingdom, is that of a meal or a feast. This imagery stretches from Genesis to Revelation, so that the very first sin has to do with a misuse of God’s gift of food, an impatient and faithless seizing of fruit before its time; and the full and final realization of God’s kingdom is a feast. For a book concerned with God’s redeeming mankind, the Bible has an amazing amount to say about food and eating.
Consider that under the system of offerings, the priests were essentially cooks in God’s house, preparing daily meals for him. Many of these meals were shared with the priests and worshipers. Meals are so much associated with the making and renewal of covenants that we speak of a covenant meal. God instituted a weekly Sabbath feast for his people, and other feasts throughout the year. From Passover to the Feast of Booths, these feasts tell a story starting with God’s rescuing and setting apart a people, and ending with all nations being welcomed to join in the feast. Sorrow and mourning were forbidden, and joy and satiety were commanded (Neh 8, Deut 14).
Jesus equates trusting in him with feeding on his flesh and blood (John 6). But he in turn takes us into his mouth (Rev 3:16), into his body, the church. We eat and are eaten. Evangelism is most basically an invitation to God’s feast (Luke 14, Rev 19), to taste and see his goodness.
So we see that the fellowship meal, now the Lord’s supper, is the high point, the culmination of worship as we ascend into God’s presence. This is not to deny the importance of other aspects of worship, only to say that all of worship anticipates the fellowship meal, and that in some ways the fellowship meal most fully realizes the church’s foretaste of Jesus’s return. It is our weekly family meal at Jesus’s table, and we do well to celebrate it with great frequency, joy and gusto.
Order of worship
We have seen that Levitical worship gives us a pattern, an order for worship, both in the actions for an individual offering, and in the relations between several offerings. We have also gained confidence that the idea of worship as ascending into God’s presence supports the use of the Levitical patterns for worship today. Levitical worship is patterned after heavenly worship, so we can look to it for instruction as we seek to pattern our own worship after heavenly worship.
What this gives us is a sequence of (1) corporate confession of sin and assurance of our forgiveness; (2) ascension into God’s presence with gifts in hand; and (3) a fellowship meal with Jesus. For various reasons, these are often combined with (0) an invitation or call to worship, and (4) a commissioning, a sending out into the world, fed and equipped and charged. This pattern can also be observed in how God makes or renews covenants with his people: God calls his people; sets them apart from the world; gives them instruction; gives some variety of sacrament or sign; and makes arrangements for the continuing or succession of the covenant.
This pattern is so consistent in Israel’s renewal of covenant with God that worship according to this pattern is often called covenant renewal worship. We have already identified worship as drawing near, and God’s covenant is simply our means of drawing near to him. More than that, worship actually is a kind of covenant renewal; it is the assembly of God’s people before him, and it culminates in a covenant meal. What we evangelicals typically think of as worship happens in step 2 — singing praise to God, receiving instruction from God through a sermon. But observing Biblical patterns of worship makes clear not only that all of these aspects are important enactments in our weekly corporate dialogue with God, but also that their sequence is important. If we alter the sequence, we are left stumbling through transitions that cannot fully capture the life and joy we have in Jesus — first we sing of God’s forgiveness, but then we dwell on our sins, and next we try to experience joy in the supper.
I believe that Jesus’s church should pattern its worship every week according to this basic pattern. This involves:
- A public call to worship
- Corporate confession of sin and public assurance of God’s forgiveness toward his people
- Ascension into God’s presence in song, receiving his word, and giving gifts to him
- Enjoying a weekly meal with Jesus at his table
- Commissioning God’s host, his army, to go out into the world
We know from the Psalms and elsewhere that our worship should involve a sense or experience of all of these things — God’s invitation to us, our sinfulness, God’s forgiveness, our rejoicing, God’s speaking to us, our giving tithes and offerings, the Lord’s supper, and God’s charge to us to walk in his holiness, power and blessing throughout the week. It is necessary for us to include all of these elements, and it is important to do so in the gospel-testifying order that God has modeled for us repeatedly throughout Scripture. For example, if we do not deal with our sin and reckon ourselves decisively forgiven at the very outset, we cannot obey James 4:8ff, Leviticus 21:10 or Nehemiah 8:9ff as we draw near to our holy God. We approach our king with joy (Neh 2:2).
This is the sequence of Israel’s worship for the 1,400 years before Jesus, and has been the sequence of worship for much of church history. As we experience this week by week, year by year, we will internalize the cruciform and covenantal reality of how it is that we approach God. The pattern of heavenly worship will be imprinted on our worship here. Our mental posture in worship will be trained not just to hope for, but to experience drawing near to our king. We will be most fully aware of, and most fully taste, our privilege as the church of drawing near to God in this time of the “not yet.” Our weekly corporate worship is in a sense a refreshing microcosm and microchron of both our life and salvation experience.
The church gathers before her king, husband and commander every Lord’s day. We do so to ascend into his presence and draw near to him. In various ways, we gather as his household servants (priests), his bride, and his mustered host or army. We gather to receive assurance, instruction and sustenance from him, and to bring confession, praise and offerings. Our king is understanding and accommodating, overlooking our feebleness and imperfection as we seek to honor and worship him. And we have far more freedom to come closer to him than at any other time in history. But there is an appropriate ceremony for drawing near to the king, and we should consider it a delight rather than a duty to do so in the way he has prescribed, and seek to do so with greater skill and understanding. God has made us and his world in such a way that the rhythms of ritual, ceremony, relating together, and the giving of honor are all bound together; we experience this in our own marriages as much as in the church’s marriage to Jesus.
For further reading
There is nothing original in this essay, only distillations from various sources. My primary sources are as follows:
James Jordan’s books, essays and lectures are a fantastic resource for matters of Biblical theology and typology. His book Through New Eyes is an excellent place to start, and has a lot of material on typological connections in the tabernacle and temple. The complete audio collection of his lectures is a fantastic resource, although you have to be prepared to spend a few years digesting it!
Jordan recommends Vern Poythress’s book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (or read it online). I haven’t yet read it myself but it sounds like another helpful resource on Biblical symbolism and typology.
Jeff Meyers’ book, The Lord’s Service, provides an outstanding detailed introduction to and defense of covenant renewal worship.
Peter Leithart covers both Leviticus and King David’s expansive liturgical changes in his book, From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution. He shows how David’s reforms are a typological application of Levitical worship.
Peter Leithart’s book, Against Christianity, discusses the notion of the church as not merely an ideology but a competing culture or city, replete with its own language, story and ritual. He addresses some aspects of liturgy, in particular the sacraments, as part of his discussion on the meaning and purpose of ritual. Leithart makes the point that sacraments are not merely signs of our fellowship with God, but real occasions of fellowship with him. In terms of the Lord’s supper, it is not simply a reminder of Jesus and his sacrifice, but a real fellowship meal that we share with Jesus in his presence.
Leithart also has a helpful little book, A House for My Name, which is an Old Testament survey and covers in brief many of the same themes and ideas that Jordan covers in greater depth in Through New Eyes.