Leviticus and Christmas (1)

It must be admitted that probably very few people, if they were going to come up with a three-word phrase in which the last two words were “and Christmas” would have “Leviticus” as the first word in that phrase.  But in this post, and in hopefully a few additional ones over the last days of this Advent season, I would like to present the case that “Leviticus and Christmas” are, in fact, appropriately juxtaposed.  What hath Leviticus to do with Christmas?  To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, in a somewhat related context, “Much every way”!

In this post, I wish to pay particular attention to the first verse of Leviticus 1, which simply reads:

And the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.

It would actually be hard to over-stress the importance of this verse in the narrative of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their subsequent journey which led them to the foot of Mount Sinai.  Prior to this, God had spoken to the Israelites in only a remote manner.  He had thundered from atop the mountain, a mountain that the people were not allowed to ascend, indeed, not even allowed to touch.  And he had communicated to the Israelites only by way of having Moses ascend the mountain and receive instructions for the people.

But now the tabernacle, also referred to as the tent of meeting, as in the present verse, has finally been constructed.  And in the last few verses of Exodus 40, the glory of the Lord has powerfully filled the tabernacle, so palpably that Moses had not even been able to enter the tabernacle.  And at the end of this account of the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle, the very next words are the first words of the book of Leviticus: “The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.”

The Lord’s location, the physical manifestation of his presence, has changed.  He is no longer thundering from atop Mount Sinai.  Rather, he is right smack dab in the middle of the Israelite camp, speaking to Moses from the tabernacle in which he has taken up residence.

The development is breath-taking.  The God of Israel, the holy, mysterious, transcendent Yahweh, the God who had come “darn near” close to destroying the Israelites on account of the golden calf incident, narrated just a few chapters earlier in the book of Exodus, has now decided to physically locate himself right in the middle of these rebellious Israelites. He has taken up residence in the tabernacle—he has “tabernacled” among them.  Samuel Balentine, in his book, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, has rightly captured the importance of this dramatic move:

Leviticus presents what God now says to Moses, and what Moses must now speak to the community of Israel, as the most immediate and intimate revelation from God available in the cosmos.

This is surely an astonishing claim.  The closest parallel in Christian Scripture is the assertion that God is fully present in Jesus (John 1:14-16). The Christian community will typically hear and embrace the latter claim as a requisite part of its credo. For many Christians, however, the revelation from Leviticus is passively ignored or actively shunned.

Did you catch that?  “The closest parallel in Christian Scripture is the assertion that God is fully present in Jesus (John 1:14-16).”  Here is one verse, v. 14, from the passage which Balentine references:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Perhaps you have heard a preacher state in a sermon, or you have come across a commentary which notes that the phrase “and made his dwelling among us,” could, with a great deal of justification, have been translated, “and tabernacled among us.”  They are correct.  The Greek word translated, “made his dwelling,” is one which comes from the same word as the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament used to translate the word “tabernacle.”  And the verb in John 1:14 is probably intentionally employed by the author to draw the reader’s attention to the Old Testament tabernacle, and how the God of Israel “made his dwelling” there.

When Jesus took on human flesh, when he became incarnate, when he took up residence among us, he was also fulfilling a type, he was replicating a scene from the last few verses of Exodus and the first few verses of Leviticus.  He was “recapitulating” the “Torah’s vision of worship,” a holy God living in the midst of his holy people.

Of course, we know that the Old Testament Israelites among whom God took up residence in the tabernacle were, in fact, an unholy people.  And when Jesus became incarnate and took up residence among us, he was

in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:10-11).

Nevertheless, what Jesus did in his incarnation, was to set about the process of a reclamation project in which he purposed to “recapitulate” this glorious and yet unfulfilled vision.  This process eventually culminated in his death and resurrection, a death and resurrection in which he accomplished his “goal” (Luke 13:32).  By this death and resurrection he began his priestly work of presenting the church “to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:27).  Indeed, because of Christ’s incarnation, his sinless life, his vicarious death, his victorious resurrection, his ascension, and his priestly intercession, the vision presented to us by the Torah, and by Exodus 40 and Leviticus 1, will finally come to its full realization:

Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christmas, the incarnation, is the fulfillment of the vision of Leviticus.

“Leviticus and Christmas.” Yes, those words do go together.

Jerry Shepherd
December 15, 2016

4 thoughts on “Leviticus and Christmas (1)

  1. Whoa thank you this reminder in the Christmas Season. This is very insightful. Thank you Dr. Shepherd. I am excited for the OT course next term!

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