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Power in the Blood

Series: Leviticus

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 25, 2005

Leviticus 17:1-17

Wednesday Evening
May 25, 2005
Leviticus 17:1-16
“Power in the Blood”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter 17. This is a strange chapter. It's a chapter that talks a lot about animal blood, and how the Old Testament people of God were to think of and treat animal blood. You may wonder why the Lord would devote a chapter in an important book about the public worship of God and the private morality of the people of God to the subject of blood.

Well, you already know that from the beginning pages of Scripture, when Cain slew his brother Abel, that Moses recorded that when Cain did this atrocious thing–what happened? That Abel's “righteous blood cried out from the ground.” You remember the strictures that were given to Noah pertaining to blood. Blood throughout the Old Testament is very significant.

This passage will, in fact, summarize for us two reasons why the Israelites’ treatment of animal blood was so important to the Lord, and those two applications themselves will take upon an amplified and elaborated and more significant meaning in the New Testament itself.

Now, I'd like to outline this passage for you. It's shorter than other passages that we've been studying–in fact, it's significantly shorter. Some of the passages that we've read have been 56, 57, 58, 59 verses in a chapter. Only 16 here, but it will still help us to outline the passage before we hear it read.

In verses 1 and 2, you get the typical introduction that we've been hearing over and over from Moses in this Book of Leviticus.

Now let me just say, as you look at those two introductory verses transitioning from the content of Leviticus 16 into the content of Leviticus 17, that Leviticus 17 is something of a transition chapter of the whole of the Book of Leviticus. If you look at Leviticus 1 all the way through Leviticus 16, you will find that the bulk of the content pertains to the public worship of God through the sacrificial system and the cleanliness of the individual which allows that individual to participate in the public worship of God, and most of Leviticus 1 through 16 deal with those topics.

When you get to Leviticus 18, all the way to chapter 27, you’ll notice that most of the focus of those chapters is on the personal, the individual, the private morality of the people of God that is characterized in their holy conduct, so that Leviticus 1-16 deals especially with the public and the worship aspect of the life of the people of God, and Leviticus 18-27 deals especially with the personal and the private morality of the people of God. So, you move from public worship to personal life when you move out of Leviticus 16 and then into Leviticus 17-18 and the end of the book.

So, Leviticus 17 is something of a transition point. It pertains in many ways to what goes before it, but it also is linked to what comes after it.

Then, the second section of Leviticus 17 you’ll find in verses 3-7. (In fact, we're going to see five sections here tonight as we read through Leviticus 17.) The second section you’ll find in verses 3-7. In that section we are told, in no uncertain circumstances, that the people of God in the wilderness are not to slaughter the domestic animals which have been approved by God to be used for sacrifices either inside or outside the camp unless they bring them to the tabernacle for the priests to slaughter, whether they’re going to use them for sacrifices or not.

Now you’re scratching your heads! Why in the world would the Lord give such a command? We’ll learn tonight as we study this passage. That's the second section of Leviticus 17.

The third section you’ll see in verses 8 and 9. Those two verses tell us that there are to be no sacrifices of any kind offered outside the tabernacle. And again, we’ll see why that is as we study the passage tonight.

Then, in Leviticus 17:10-12, we come to the fourth section of the chapter, and in this section Moses commands that no blood is to be eaten by an Israelite or even someone who is sojourning in the land; that blood of animals is not to be part of the diet of Israel. And in this very important section there are two reasons given by Moses (ultimately, from God) as to why the children of Israel are to abstain from the eating or drinking of blood of animals.

And then, finally, in verses 13-16, we're going to see the fifth section of the chapter, and this deals with rules for hunting game. OK, if you can't kill those domestic animals that God has appointed for sacrifices–oxen and goats, and things like that–can you hunt? Can you shoot turkeys? Can you go out and hunt deer? Well, Moses has commands covering that. And again you’re scratching your heads and you’re asking why. Well, we’ll try and do some explanation as to why.

Now I'm going to read the chapter. You can see these five sections, but as we preach through the chapter tonight, I'm going to take sections one, two, three, and five, and then come back to four. And I'm doing that for a specific reason, because from section four we’ll be able to very easily, seamlessly, translate to three important passages in the New Testament which expound on the principle that's set forth there. Let's look to God's word and hear it read before it is proclaimed, and let's pray before we read it.

Lord God, we thank You for Your word. We ask that You would take this strange, strange, passage that seems so remote from our experience, and that You would teach us Your truth and grace from it, and that You would encourage us by it. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word.

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and to his sons, and to all the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded, saying, ‘Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or a lamb, or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people. The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to the Lord, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer up the fat in smoke as a soothing aroma to the Lord. And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.’
“ ‘Then you shall say to them, ‘Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man also shall be cut off from his people.
“ ‘And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood. So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.
“ ‘For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. And when any person eats an animal which dies, or is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or an alien, he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening; then he will become clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his body, then he shall bear his guilt.’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

I. Introduction.

Let's walk through this passage together tonight, and see if we can make it clear and understand its application for us as new covenant Christians. As I said before, in verses 1 and 2 we have the introduction to this chapter. It starts off like so many of the other chapters that we've read so far in the Book of Leviticus; and, as I've already indicated, this chapter is a transition chapter between chapters 1-16 and chapters 18-27. We’re moving from public worship to personal life here, and the topic of the chapter is introduced as part of Israel's code of conduct just like the other chapters that have been introduced in chapter 16 and further back.

II. No sacrificial animal is to be killed outside the tabernacle.

So let's move very quickly, then, to the second section of the chapter in verses 3-7. Here we're given the directive from God through Moses that no sacrificial animal–that is, those domestic animals like an ox or a lamb or a goat, which have been appointed to be used in the sacrificial system–none of those animals is to be killed either outside the camp or inside the camp, except at the tabernacle.

It's a command that says basically that the priests and the tabernacle and the doorway to the tent of meeting is to become the exclusive divine butcher shop for Israel. No meat is to be slaughtered–at least, not the meat of these approved sacrificial animals–no meat is to be slaughtered in the wilderness by the children of Israel that come in the category of oxen, or lamb, or goat, either inside the camp or outside the camp, unless they’re taken to the doorway of the tent of meeting and the priest slaughters them, whether that meat is going to be used for a sacrifice or whether it's going to be used for food. Isn't that interesting? Whether they’re going to use it for a sacrifice or not, this meat is to be slaughtered by the priests at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Why?

Well, it's, I think, fairly obvious. If you have a problem–and it's clear that we do have a problem: take a look at verse 7: “They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot.” If you have the problem in the people of Israel of people sacrificing these animals to demons and other deities in the wilderness, then the only way that you can assure that that is not going on is to control the slaughter of those animals by the priests of Israel, who themselves are devoted only to the worship of the one and true living God. Otherwise, if you simply say ‘If you kill those animals, you can't kill them except to offer sacrifices to the Lord or to use them for meat or something else like that,’ what can happen is the sacrificing can go on to the goat demons in the wilderness, and when the priests or one of the elders of Israel says, ‘Hey, I understand that you slaughtered an oxen last night. Did you slaughter that for your family, or did you slaughter that to worship the Lord?’ they could say, ‘Oh, ah, we slaughtered that to worship the Lord.’ Or, ‘Oh, we slaughtered that for the family.’ And they could go right on with their worship of other deities.

But if you require that any time that those approved animals are slaughtered, for whatever reason, that it has to be done by the priests, they then cannot be used for the worship of other deities without the person who does it being culpable. And this way, if someone says, ‘Oh, well, we didn't slaughter it for sacrifice to other deities, we did it for food for the family,’ bloodguiltiness is still upon that man, because he has violated the law of God.

You see, the whole point of this commandment is to enforce obedience to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” It's a strange command, but it's a very practical and common-sensical command. This command, if enforced and entailed in Israel, would have prevented the sacrifice of authorized animals used in the sacrificial worship of the one true God. It would have prevented the use of those animals in the worship of false gods and demons, as was going on, apparently, at this point. We know, for instance, that there was a goat-worshipping cult in Egypt when Israel came out of Egypt, and later in the Old Testament we will find out that some of the people of God fell into that worship of false gods, and so we see a very practical command given here.

Now, let me pull back and say that this very command assumes a couple of things. First of all, it assumes that the children of Israel, while they are in the wilderness, are not killing much meat of this variety. Now, can you imagine if they were consuming meat the way we consume meat, how busy the priests would have been, day by day slaughtering all the meat that all the women in Israel wanted to cook? This assumes a nomadic condition where Israel was not killing many oxen, many goats, or many sheep as they moved through the wilderness. When we get to the Book of Deuteronomy, guess what–this law changes. Makes perfect sense. If you live up in Dan and you want to have oxen tonight, you've got a long trip to the doorway of the tent of meeting in Jerusalem before you can slaughter the meat! So Deuteronomy changes the law. Why? Because the condition of Israel has changed. They are no longer in the wilderness.

They’re eating more meat than they used to eat when they were in the wilderness, and I simply want to make a passing comment about that. This shows us how God's law, even in the first five books of the Bible, was accommodated to fit the situation of Israel. There have over the course of history been people who wanted to take the laws of Israel recorded in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and sort of plop them down into modern society and build modern society around them. And one of the ways we see that God didn't intend that to happen is that even within Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy you see development and changes in those laws. God's a good law-giver, and when the circumstances of Israel change, He changes the laws themselves. And this is just one of the other examples.

The main thing I want you to see about verses 3-7 is that this divine butcher shop is set up so that Israel will do what? Only worship the one true God. Now what's the application for us? Well, it's obvious, isn't it? It's not that we need to start bringing all our food to Dr. Wymond here to be slaughtered here at the church before we eat it. The application is, as believers we're only to worship the one true God. We are to have no other gods before us. We are to be faithful to worship the God of the Scriptures, and this provision, this law, was designed to help Israel to follow that command.

III. No sacrifices offered outside the tabernacle.

Now look at verses 8 and 9. Here again we see a command made that no sacrifices are to be offered outside of the doorway of the tent of meeting of the tabernacle. All of the sacrifices that are offered have to be offered there. They can't be offered somewhere else. “You shall say to them, ‘Any man from the house of Israel, of from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and odes not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from his people.’”

Again, the law is that sacrifices are only to be offered at God's house. The point of this law is to protect the unity of worship in Israel. There is only one God who is to be worshiped, and that God has only one appointed way that He is to be worshiped, and therefore the people of God are to bring all their sacrifices to the doorway of the tent of meeting. Those are the only authorized sacrifices. They are the only sacrifices which are appointed by God. They are the only sacrifices which are accepted by God, and those who violate this law are to be cut off from the people of God.

Now let me just make one passing comment, because you've seen a phrase over and over in this chapter. Did you notice it again in verse 8? “Or from the aliens who sojourn among them.” Some of your Bibles may say ‘sojourners’; some of your Bibles may say ‘resident aliens.’ Either or those translations, or this one, are perfectly appropriate. A sojourner, or a resident alien, or one who sojourns among you, is a reference to those who are not descended from Abraham but who dwell in the midst of the people of God as they’re moving through the wilderness, or as they settle in the land of Canaan. And isn't it interesting that everybody who is within the sphere of the camp of Israel is required to obey this law? It's quite interesting.

In other words, no pluralism is allowed in Israel with this regard. If sacrifices are going to be offered, they may only be offered to the living God. There's no accommodation to say, ‘If you’re an Egyptian, that's great; you sacrifice to Ra, and no problem. You just take that sacrifice and go outside the camp and sacrifice to Ra.’ Nope! Every sacrifice that's offered must be offered to the Lord, so there is a restriction, then, on the rights of resident aliens.

Now, we're going to see in Leviticus 19 where there are certain privileges granted to resident aliens as well, in Israel; but regards to worship, there is no pluralism. This law, though it implies a certain freedom for resident aliens that can exist, but they, if they offer sacrifices may only offer sacrifices at the doorway of the tent of meeting. This law provides that the people of God are going to be faithful. All within the camp are going to worship only the God of Israel.

And again, the application to us is not that we are to go out and enforce the Christian religion on our particular nation-state; the application to us is that as Christians we are to be faithful to the one true God in the gathering, in the community, in the congregation of the saints. In our churches, we are to be, as it were, an ecclesiastical republic. It is not that we are to impinge our particular theological views upon those of everyone in our particular nation-state, but that within the confines of the church, which is the institutional form of the kingdom of God in the new covenant (whereas the nation-state of Israel was the institutional form of the kingdom of God in the old covenant), within the church we are to be faithful to the one true God, and to Him only.

IV. Rules about hunting game.

Now, in verses 13-16, here are the rules about hunting. Does this mean if you can't kill an animal anywhere but at the doorway to the tent of meeting, does this mean no hunting in Israel? No, it doesn't mean "no hunting." In other words, in verses 13-16 you’re getting a very important announcement from the Israeli game wardens. They’re telling you, ‘Fine. Hunt turkey. Hunt coyote. Hunt hyena. Hunt whatever it is you want outside of oxen, lamb, goats....but if you do kill those animals, those beasts which are allowed in hunting of game, even their blood you are not to eat or drink. You’re to pour that blood out on the ground and bury it. Isn't that interesting? Even the blood of game, wild game that can be hunted and killed anywhere, even that blood cannot be eaten by an Israelite.

Now, if you’re like me, at this point you’re asking, "Why in the world is this?" Well, the answer, my friend, is found in verses 10-12, and let's look there very quickly.

V. No blood to be eaten.

Here in verses 10-12 we're told that no blood is to be eaten by anyone, whether Israelite or resident alien. In other words: all steaks well-done in Israel! Why is this? Well, look at verse11, because the answer, the reasons are provided there. There are two reasons provided: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls.”

The argument is simple: Blood is life; blood is life. Withdraw the blood of an animal, and the life of the animal is gone. So, blood is life, and God has appointed that animal blood–and especially the animal blood of the slaughtered ox, or lamb or goat–He has appointed that blood, that life, to serve as a substitute for the people of God who deserve the punishment of death for their sins; and, out of respect for God's having substituted the life of those animals for our own continuation of life, the Israelite was not to partake of that blood.

It was a way of the Lord's saying, ‘See that animal? The Lord took the life of that animal as a substitute for you, so that you could continue to have life. Now, don't take the blood, don't take the life of that animal lightly. Don't you eat that blood. Don't you drink that blood. God has appointed that animal's life as a substitute for you, to make atonement.’

And it's interesting how that would have promoted a high view of life and of the sanctity of life in Israel, but an appreciation for the role that the blood has as the bearer, as the agent of life in the animals that were offered up on the sacrifices to the living God. So there's the first rationale: blood is life, and therefore by God's appointing the life of those animals in place of the people of God, that they might be in fellowship with Him and go on living, by that reason, respect for that life and respect for that substitutionary sacrifice dictated that no blood whatsoever of an animal was to be eaten by anyone in Israel.

But that's not the only reason. If you look at verse 11, it goes on to say this: “For it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” In other words, God is stressing there that the blood ransoms at the price of life. The animal's blood atones for man's sin. It is thus holy; it is to be treated as such, and so it is not to be consumed. And so with these two arguments, Moses, speaking for the Lord to Israel, explains why Israel perpetually is not to eat blood.

Now, it's interesting that this very theme is picked up in the New Testament in several ways. We've already run overtime, but if you've got about a minute, I want to point you in three directions.

The first place we see this picked up in, interestingly, is in the council of the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 15. You remember there was the debate about whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised, and whether they had to keep the ceremonial law. Well, do you remember what James and the elders decided at the general assembly there in Jerusalem? Well, if you look at Acts 15:20, 29, you’ll see one of the things that James said that Gentile converts should do was — what? Abstain from things strangled (in which the blood would have coagulated), and from blood. Isn't that interesting? Because this principle, you see, doesn't just stretch back to Leviticus, it stretches all the way back to Genesis, chapter four, and Genesis, chapter nine. It's the Lord pointing to that substitutionary sacrifice through the animals, and so we see an application of it there in Acts 15.

Then, of course, there's the great application of Hebrews 9:22 and Hebrews 19:4. In the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews tells us, the blood was given to atone, to ransom from sin, for almost everything, and without the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats there was no forgiveness.

But Hebrews 10:29 goes on to tell us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sin, only the blood of Jesus. And so respect for the animal blood in Leviticus 17 ultimately points to the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ which really forgives sin. That's why we sang Power in the Blood; that's why we sang There is a Fountain Filled with Blood; that's why we sang Redeemed! How I Love to Proclaim It!–“redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.” Ultimately, the blood of Leviticus 17 points forward to, is fulfilled by, the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ.

And of course, thirdly, Jesus Himself emphasizes this in His teaching. Do you remember in John 6, when He's talking to the people in the wilderness, and at one point He says to them–and think, now! Think of this! You are Leviticus-17-keeping Hebrews, and you’re in the wilderness and this Jewish prophet from Nazareth is preaching to you, and suddenly He says to you, “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no part of Me.”

Now what's Jesus saying? He is saying, ‘Unless you appropriate My life by faith, you will die, because My life is the substitute for you, and the source of all life.’ How did He put it? “I am the bread of heaven come down.” I'm the heavenly bread. He gives life in and of Himself. He's using that language of eating and drinking His flesh and His blood in John 6 as a metaphor, as a picture of the description of faith. We receive Christ by faith by eating and drinking, and of course this wouldn't have been lost on any early Christian when they came to the Lord's Table and they heard the presiding elder say, “This cup is My blood of the covenant; drink of it, all of you.”

Isn't that interesting? Think of how a Leviticus-17-keeping Hebrew would have heard that shocking word that now–whereas throughout the whole of history they were to abstain from the blood of the sacrificial animal–now they must live by taking, by receiving, by faith in the blood of Christ.

Let's pray.

Lord God, we praise You for the blood of Jesus, and we ask that You would help us to trust in Him as He is offered in the gospel, because He is our only hope for forgiveness of sins. We ask this 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.