April 27, 2005
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter 14. Sometimes you get to passages in the Bible that are unfamiliar, and they’re difficult; and you study them, and you come away from them still not quite sure what the Lord is saying to you, having studied them. Well, I'm happy to say that this is not one of those passages tonight! It is not the most familiar passage in the Scriptures; it's not the most familiar passage in the Book of Leviticus; but it is the counterpart to the passage that we studied the last time that we were together.
The last time we were together we were together in Leviticus 13, and we saw the problem of these various skin diseases which caused people to be ritually unclean, and therefore unable to come into the presence of the Lord.
Well, Leviticus 14 gives us the provision (or the solution) to that particular problem. The diseases of Leviticus 13 prevented a person from being ceremonially clean, and therefore prevented a person from being able to come into the presence of God's people and into the company of God's people at the corporate worship of the living God. And therefore the disease was a double curse, in that it cut you off from fellowship with your family and with the community of faith; but even more dramatically, it cut you off from the experience of the manifestation of the presence of the living God in the gathered worship of God's people. And you can imagine how discouraging that would have been to someone who had fallen prey to one of these dread skin conditions or diseases.
Well, Leviticus 14 stood as a standing marker of hope for all those who are in that condition, because it described how, in God's mercy, He provided a way that a person who had been declared unclean would be once again declared clean, and not only re-enter into the life of the community of faith, but re-enter into the presence of God in the gathered worship of God's people. And so every time that that person who was fallen ill of those ailments described in Leviticus 13 and who had been declared ceremonially unclean contemplated his or her condition, he or she could also contemplate that in the mercy of God if there was healing, there was a way... there was a provision for that person to come back into the presence of God. And Leviticus 14 offers the sufferer hope of restoration to fellowship with his family, fellowship in the covenant community, and fellowship with the living God in worship.
So this is a great chapter of hope, and, very frankly, having looked through it over the last week or so, there is more that I would like to say to you about it than I have time to say. So what I want to do is very quickly to go to the reading of God's word. And before we read God's word, and even before we pray before we read God's word, let me outline the passage for you.
It's such a long passage–it's not quite as many verses as last time: we have 59 verses in Leviticus 13; we have 57 verses in Leviticus 14–but it outlines fairly simply. If you look at the first nine verses, what you’re told there is what is to be done in order for a person who has been declared ceremonially unclean to be declared ceremonially clean outside the camp before they can be brought back inside the camp.
So in verses 1-9 we have the ritual which actually brings about the person's being declared ceremonially clean, and thus admitted again into the camp–into the fellowship, into the community–of God's people.
Then, if you look at verse 10, all the way down to verse 20, you see the offering of atonement or reparation which must be offered by the person, who has been cleansed now and admitted into the camp, as his very first act in corporate worship. Isn't it interesting? First, there is ritual cleansing, then there is an atonement offering. Very interesting. We’re going to ask what the logic of that is, and what it might teach us about the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. But that runs from verse 10 down to verse 20.
Then if you’ll look at verse 21 all the way down to verse 32, here is a provision for those who are too poor in the people of God to be able to offer the atoning sacrifice described in verses 10 to 20. And doesn't that remind us again of how tender and compassionate our God is towards those in need? He makes a special provision for those who do not have enough, they don't possess enough, to be able to offer the atoning sacrifice described in verses 10 to 20. He provides an alternative for them so that they, too, may come before the Lord and offer the sacrifice of atonement.
Then, from verse 33 all the way to verse 57, the fourth section of the chapter, we have a description of what is to be done in the case of house and garment infected by either the skin condition or mildew, or some other manifestation of decay. So those are the four sections of the chapter. Let's look to God's word.
And before we do, let's pray.
Open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in Your law. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
[Now, here's the ritual that's given for a person who has been healed, and has presented himself to the priest, and the priest has said ‘Yes, this person has been healed.’ Once that declaration has been made by the priest, the priest then introduces him through this ritual back into fellowship with God's people. Now, once that is done, a second ritual is performed, and we see this in verse 10.]
[I simply want to make one comment about that passage. You noticed if you looked at the Prayer Reminder tonight that I've named this sermon “Amazing Remedies.” Now, there's a play on words there, because you will have noticed that in this passage this intricate and somewhat strange description of ritual is not the way the person is healed. It's not a remedy for their disease. It is a ritual done because they have been healed of their disease, so the remedy that it provides is not the healing of the disease. The remedy that it provides is the ritual cleansing of the person so that he can come back into the presence of God in worship. Now, that's very important, and I’ll tell you why in just a few moments. But there's the second section of the chapter. Now the third section, beginning at verse 21.]
[So there's the law for the poor who has been healed and now comes before the Lord. Now for the fourth and final section of the passage. It begins in verse 33, and here we see the laws for the cleansing of what we might call ‘a leper's house’ or ‘leper's garments.’]
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
There are six things that I want to emphasize from this passage tonight. There are so many more than that that I would like to talk with you about, but I'm going to have to restrain myself because I only have a few minutes to do it.
I. These rites are not physical remedies to heal disease.
The first thing I want you to see here I've already intimated, and that is this: these rites, this ritual, these rituals that are described here are not physical remedies to heal disease. They are theological remedies: they are ritual remedies for those who have become unclean by way of disease and then subsequently been healed.
Now, why do I mention that? Because you can look at comparative literature of pagan nations around Israel, and you can see instructions given to their priests regarding incantations and rituals which are designed to heal people of certain maladies. And it is striking that in this passage not once does God even vaguely hint that these rituals bring about healing. They do not.
They bring about ritual cleansing. They bring about the person being declared to be ceremonially clean in the sight of God, and thus suited to come back into the fellowship of God's people, and into the fellowship of God's people in the worship of the living God.
Well, why is that so important? Well, one thing: it distinguishes the ritual of Israel from the magical, mystical practices of the pagans. This ritual was no magic. God was not giving spells or potions, or occultic remedies to the priests of Israel to perform on people in order that they might be healed. No, He had a very different purpose in mind. He desired to teach them a very different lesson, and we've already talked about this lesson before.
The lesson was that these maladies which are described in Leviticus 13 were maladies that remind us of the un-wholeness that results fro the fall of Adam into sin, and of the introduction of sin into this world. Because these people are affected in a visible way by this un-wholeness, they are not fitted, ceremonially, to come into the presence of God's people and into the presence of God, because to fellowship with God requires wholeness. It requires purity, it requires a person to be in a condition of being clean; and these things mark a person out as being unclean. And so the purpose of the ritual is not to provide a mystical cure: it is to highlight the way that God provides for a person to be declared again clean and accepted into the community of his people and into the worship of the living God.
II. Only God can heal.
But there's another application of this truth, and there's a second point that I want to bring to your attention. The first thing is this: these are not physical remedies, and so when I called this sermon “Amazing Remedies,” I'm not calling it “Amazing Remedies” because by these ways the priests cure people. I'm calling it “Amazing Remedies” because these rather strange rituals are God's way of remedying uncleanness that has been caused by disease after the disease has been healed. So that's my first point.
But the second point follows on it, and it is this: Isn't it interesting that the very fact that the priests of Israel have no rites, no incantations, no rituals given to them by which they can heal, points to the truth that only God can heal. Israel was being told in Technicolor in Leviticus 14 that priests can't heal you: only God can. The priests can only instigate these rites once God has healed you.
Isn't it interesting how the passage starts? Look back at Leviticus 14:2:
“This is the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing.”
The priests can't even get into this until the Lord has healed. Now, that doesn't mean that the Lord wouldn't use a doctor. He might well have used a doctor. Whether the Lord used a doctor or whether the Lord healed the person directly, Israel was to understand this: God heals. And if the Lord used the doctor, praise God for that doctor; but that doctor was provided by God, and ultimately the healing comes from God. Or, if the Lord healed directly, how much more does the person healed realize that it's only God who can heal? The priest–he can't do anything about that disease until God has acted. The remedies come after the healing has come, and so Israel learns in Technicolor this lesson: Only God heals. And, my friends, that is hugely important for my third point.
III. Jesus is God because He can heal.
And for my third point, I want you to turn with me to the New Testament, to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter eight. What has just happened in Matthew 5 to 7? (I'm really asking!) Sermon on the Mount! Jesus has just preached the Sermon on the Mount, and what does Matthew say happens right on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount? Look at Matthew 8:1-4.
“When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came to Him, and bowed down to Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’ And He stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Jesus said to him, ‘See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and present the offering that Moses commanded, for a testimony to them.’”
Now, there's a passage which is a whole sermon! We don't have time for a whole sermon, but you see what's going on. Every good Jewish hearer of that divinely inspired message from Matthew 8:1-4 knows what truth? Only God can heal you! When that Jewish hearer sees that Jesus stretches out His hand and touches a leper and makes Him clean, what does that Jewish hearer know that that good Jewish Christian, Matthew, is trying to tell him? That Jesus is God, because He can heal.
Jesus doesn't say ‘Go to the priest, let him do some ritual incantations, I’ll pray for you, and maybe you’ll be healed.’ The man says ‘I know that if You want it, Lord, You can heal me.’ And Jesus says ‘I do want it; be healed, be cleansed. You’re clean.’ And immediately the man is cleansed, so that passage is testifying to the fact that Jesus, in His capacity as the God who spoke the world into being, had the power of cleansing.
Now, it's interesting, isn't it, that Jesus commands the man not to tell anybody about this. This factors into the very point that this is a testimony that He's God; because if this man starts telling other people that he was cleansed by Jesus from leprosy, they’re going to know immediately the significance to that claim with regard to the person of Christ, and Jesus was not ready yet to explain in detail that reality to His disciples, much less to the multitudes. Remember, it would be at Caesarea Philippi many months later before Peter would begin to get it:
‘You’re the Christ; You’re the Son of the living God.’
‘Right, Peter. Flesh and blood hasn't revealed this to you. My heavenly Father has revealed this to you.’
Jesus wasn't ready to make this kind of a broad announcement yet, but He was ready to send this man back to the priests–as a what?–as a testimony to them, because those priests knew the laws of Leviticus 14, and they knew they couldn't heal: Only God can heal. And when that man came to them and they said ‘Well, how did you get healed of your leprosy?’ and he said ‘Well, there is this man named Jesus, and He's from Nazareth; and all He did was touch me and I was healed,’ wouldn't that create a stir amongst the priests? And of course, Jesus was quietly beginning to make a testimony to the priesthood as to who He was.
So when Jesus heals the leper here in the New Testament and elsewhere, He's giving us a beautiful testimony as to who He is: God in the flesh.
IV. This points us to the grace and graciousness of God.
I'd better hasten on to my fourth point. My fourth point is this: This passage points us to the grace and graciousness of God. This ritual provision which is given for the priests to perform–the law that Jesus calls ‘the offering commanded by Moses’ in Matthew 8:4–this ritual itself is a reminder of God's graciousness to His people in need.
Why do I say that? Because it shows how God himself provides a way of restoration for those who have once been declared unclean, and then healed. Their fate is not sealed when they are declared unclean. There is yet hope for them, and God provides this way whereby they may be declared clean and again welcomed into the assembly of the saints.
Now, my friends, that stands as a reminder to every sinner upon whom the just judgment of God has fallen, upon whom the sentence of “unclean” has been pronounced, that there is a way that has been provided by God himself back into fellowship with Him and with His people. And so this Leviticus 14 passage is a passage of grace in the law. It's a gracious provision of God in His law.
V. Atonement has to be made so that we can stand in God's presence.
But fifthly, in this passage we're reminded that in order to be ushered back into the presence of God and His people in worship, what has to happen? It's repeated three or four times in Leviticus 14: Atonement has to be made. Isn't it interesting? The man is healed! He's pronounced clean, but before he can come back into the presence of God, what has to be done? Atonement has to be offered. A guilt offering, a sin offering, has to be offered in order for him to come back into the presence of God.
Isn't that interesting? What do you think that points to? Well, I want to suggest... (and this is in my sixth point. You could call it 6a and 6b. I'm cheating. I don't have seven points, I have 6a and 6b!)V. The Atonement reminds us that God is sovereign in healing and healing requires blood atonement.
I think it points to two things, and here's my sixth point (6a). I think it points to two things. And here's my sixth point–6a! This ritual atonement, first of all, reminds the person who has been healed of the sovereignty of God in his healing. Think of it. In this ritual, what had to happen? Two birds are taken. One of those birds is killed. One of those birds is set free. And every time a person participated in that ritual, that person could think back on others of his companions outside the camp who had not been healed, and he might think ‘Lord, the one bird died, and the one bird flew away free. And I've been healed, and my friend outside the camp has not. And that comes from You. I could be the dead bird, Lord. I could be the man yet unclean, diseased. But in Your sovereign plan, in Your sovereign will and Your sovereign purposes, You have deigned to cleanse me. All the praise goes to You, and none of the credit comes to me, because I am no better than the man still out in the camp, unclean, diseased.’
You know, when we got the message at the church this morning that dear Andrew Vincent had cancer in his lungs, it was one of the first things that came to mind: ‘Lord, here's a young man in his twenties; he's got a baby two weeks old...two weeks old; he's got another one under two years; he's got a young wife to take care of. Lord, that could have just as well been me who got that news today. And the only reason I didn't get that news today, Lord, is because in Your sovereign plan, that wasn't in Your plan for me to get that news today.’
But what a lesson! What a lesson was taught about the sovereignty of God, when even that ritual of the birds was performed, to remind of that one bird that dies, and one bird that flies away.... That person who is being cleansed... ‘Lord, my cleansing comes from You. All praise to You. I don't deserve Your mercy. All praise to You.’
Well, my friends, you know the second thing (and this is 6b)–the second thing that this ritual tells us is this: It tells us that restoration requires blood atonement. The restoration into the worship of God, into the community of God's people to meet with God–it requires blood atonement. And ultimately, because we Christians have the second part of the book, the last chapter in the story, we know where that points.
Have you ever thought of it? Let's say you’re a leper, and you've been healed, and you've been declared clean by the priest, and you have been welcomed into this ritual in the outside of the camp; and the birds have been slaughtered and freed, respectively, and you've been welcomed back into the fellowship of God's people. And you start thinking to yourself ‘Am I restored by the blood of that bird? Is it the blood of that bird that brought me back into God's presence?’ Wouldn't you be asking that question? Did the blood of that bird bring me back into God's presence?
Well, we've got the second book, don't we? And that book tells us that the blood of bulls and goats (and we might add parenthetically, birds) cannot forgive sin.
Or, you might have wondered ‘Lord, since that dead bird reminds me of the unhealed person on the outside of the camp, and that freed bird reminds me of the cleansing and healing that You've given to me, could it be that I'm restored because Your judgment falls on somebody outside the camp?’
Now, you might think that. You might think ‘Well, maybe, Lord...maybe I'm atoned for by Your judgment on somebody else.’
No. Not on somebody outside the camp in Israel in 1400 BC or 1200 BC Or 1000 BC Or 800 BC, or 600 BC, or 400 BC, or 200 BC....but Someone outside the camp early in the first century, named Jesus. He was declared unclean. He is diseased in the eyes of the just God. “He who knew no sin is made to be sin, that you might be the righteousness of God in Him.”
So there's where this ritual ultimately points. It points to the blood of Jesus that sanctifies, that declares you clean and welcomes you back into the fellowship of God's people and into the presence of the living God. That's where this ritual points.
You see, that's just scratching the surface of Leviticus 14. You see why I say this is rich soil. May God bless your further study of this word.
Lord God, thank You for this word, this truth. Bless it to the nourishment of our hearts and to Your own glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.