If we printed red-letter Old Testaments, the pages of Leviticus would bleed redder than any of the gospels.
You cannot have King Jesus without also having his royal proclamations in the book of Leviticus.
Almost the entire book of Leviticus was dictated by Yahweh to Moses. Commentators and theologians widely agree that the appearances of Yahweh in the Old Testament are the pre-incarnate Jesus (consider John 1:18, 6:46 together with Exodus 33:11; consider also John 8:58). We cannot read Jesus into every single occurrence of Yahweh (Psalm 110:1 refers to the Father); but in Israel’s exodus it is even clearer than usual that Jesus was present, since some of the imagery surrounding Sinai portrays it as God’s marriage to his people.
Leviticus was and is meant to shape the consciousness, speech and life of God’s people. It is among the books that Moses commanded Israel’s kings to copy and meditate upon (Deut. 17:18-19). It is among the books that all Israel praised so highly in Psalm 119. It constitutes part of the torah-law which, if Israel obeyed, God promised to make the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:6-8, Micah 4:1-2).
In Leviticus, Jesus speaks of animal offerings, priestly service, food, leprosy, uncleanness, sex, feasts and more. Leviticus is not Jesus’s final word on these things, but it is his word, and — we must confess — a righteous word, on these things.
Jesus speaks Leviticus, but Leviticus speaks of Jesus. All of these things have a corresponding symbolic purpose relating to Jesus and his creation. And because Jesus means to transform creation and cause his people to mature into his likeness, some parts of Leviticus have a built-in obsolescence, while other parts grow intensified and transfigured. Acts 15:28-29 gives us a brief and helpful summary of what has gone and what remains. Gone are most of the laws of food and cleanness; remaining are laws concerning idolatry and sex.
God meant for forbidden foods to symbolize the Gentile nations. It would take some time to fully develop this imagery, but there are parallels visible in the law, and God makes it very explicit in Acts 10. Fifteen hundred years of practice at being strictly separate from the world have prepared God’s people to sacrificially conquer and inherit it (Rom. 4:18); and, by the Spirit, to handle the greater responsibilities of a greater unity (Eph. 2). So now that (you might say) Jesus eats all nations into his body (pace Rev. 3:16), we as the members of his body may also take unclean animals into ourselves. Just as the nations are God’s gifts to the church (consider Eph. 4:8), bacon and shrimp are God’s gifts to his people. If you reflect on the nature of maturing, the food laws’ coming to an end is not a great surprise. We know that God’s purpose in history is to grow his church from infancy to maturity (Gal. 4, Eph. 4), and infants and adults appropriately have very different diets and boundaries. Maturity brings mature food.
Sex has symbolic potency as well. It is meant to symbolize Jesus’s union with his bride, his body, his church (Eph. 5:32). Sex and marriage were designed to point to something bigger: the one and only marriage that will survive into eternity. Even strange laws like the jealousy inspection of Numbers 5 teach us how Jesus relates to his church down to this day (consider the jealousy inspections of 1 Cor. 10-11 and Rev. 2-3). From the first Pentecost at Sinai to the last Pentecost at Jerusalem, Jesus has always related to his people as husband to bride. This has enduring implications for human marriage and sex that stretch “from the beginning” (Matt. 19, Mark 10) to the end. So unlike the food laws, restrictions on sexual relations only grow more intensified in history.
Similarly, the laws of offering and sacrifice remain in the new covenant; however, they are transformed and intensified from animal sacrifice to human sacrifice in the death of Jesus. The laws of feasts remain, but are transformed into a single feast: the Lord’s supper. The feasting is intensified as well: instead of presenting ourselves only three times a year to God (Deut. 16:16), God now summons us to dine with him every week. Israel had three annual furloughs that were a great celebration and refreshment (consider the Psalms of ascent, 120-134); we have a weekly furlough from our labor, trials and suffering as we show glad faces to our king (Neh. 8:9-12).
Jesus is king of the nations and the husband of his church, but he has established separate administrations of his rule in these realms. In the church, his kingdom is tended and guarded by the judicial binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19) of baptism and excommunication. In the civil realm, the church does not carry out Jesus’s ministry of the sword, but she is called to disciple nations and kings in Jesus’s law (Matt. 28:19-20).
While it requires deep kingly wisdom to apply this law rightly, such wisdom begins with the fear of God (Prov. 1:7, etc.) and the love of his law (Psalm 119). While we do not understand it perfectly, we confess it to be holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). As in times of old, we must allow Leviticus to shape our consciousness and speech. God’s word — all of it — is still meant to be the envy of the nations, and the church has the privilege of leading the way in treasuring and proclaiming it.