Leviticus 20: You Shall be Holyby Ed de la Cour on February 9, 2014
What is that great and unassailable wall, that intransigent blockade prohibiting us from entering into the presence of God? It is His holiness. We cannot enter into the holy presence of God because our souls have been soured, our souls have been eaten up by our sin. God knows the truth about you and me. We are wicked, selfish, stubborn, stiff-necked people who will not bend nor will we willingly bow to God. Holiness is true to its nature. It cannot and will not abide in the presence of unrepentant evil. So we are stuck before this impenetrable wall.
Sometimes modern American worship songs seek to make the problem seem smaller and less serious than it really is by introducing a friendly and chummy informality into our worship. The holiness of God and our sinful nature become small things that are not at all a problem. In one way, this is informality can sometimes be helpful, because, if Jesus cannot be my Friend, then there is no way for me ever to gain access into the presence of God. On the other hand, churches specializing in more formal worship, with all of their stuffy and ritualistic language, fail to deal with the reality of a personal relationship at all, in favor of what men think are the pleasing aroma of obeying sacraments and rituals. None of this is very helpful to us because we know exactly who we are and we know our weaknesses and failings.
The text before us contains a compacted summary of the call of God on the lives of God’s people, Israel. We are told to obey God’s laws for this express reason in verse 22: “so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out.” There’s a curious thought, but before we answer the obvious questions the verse raises, we need to set the stage.
Truly, the Bible is right when it declares in Isaiah 55:8, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.” We bring a huge amount of pridefulness to our reading of the Bible and our understanding of the things of God, just as we do when we consider the ways of ancient man. Our assumptions are that we are so much smarter than they. Yet, modern engineers cannot figure out how the pyramids were constructed, nor can we understand how such primitive people were able to draft the creeds of the early church. So, when we read the Bible, we decide that if we don’t understand God, God is the One who needs to change His ways, not us.
Friends, we need to receive large doses of humility before we can enjoy a successful relationship with God. Since the Bible tells us to humble ourselves before the Lord, we come to worship with the simple recognition that if we disagree with God, we are the ones who are going to change our attitudes and actions. What seems reasonable to us, what seems right in our minds, is not a sure indicator of righteousness in God’s mind. The mind of the worldly man, the person who lives in the flesh, does not possess spiritual wisdom due to not having a relationship with God. Whether that person is a college president or a welder or a physicist is irrelevant. In 1 Corinthians 2: 14, Paul wrote: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” How smart you are has nothing to do with understanding spiritual truth. If we fail to understand God, it is because we are not holy and we are not filled with the Holy Spirit.
When we find the Word of God overbearing and rude, or when we think we have found a loophole in God’s law – trust me – we are the ones in the wrong, not God. If you have joined us in reading the Bible through cover to cover this year, you will find many instances where you will heartily disagree with God. What will you do in those instances? How will you process the seeming incongruities you find? Can you humble yourself before the Lord and allow yourself to be taught by Him? Or will you insist you are right and the God who created heaven and earth is wrong?
When I recently mentioned how hard it is to read Leviticus, one of my friends responded right away by saying, “Doesn’t it make you glad for the cross?” He was saying that since Jesus perfectly obeyed the righteous demands of the Law, we no longer have to obey, and we are freed from bondage to legalism. In that, he is correct. Still, as I read this book, I came away thinking that Leviticus is still a good word from God and that God must have a purpose for it, even for Christians who are not bound to the Law. One of the purposes of God in Leviticus is to demonstrate the absolute holiness and perfection of God. We can never come close to satisfying God’s Law because we are not even close to being holy. Here is a lesson learned: don’t throw away your spiritual heritage just so you can feel set free from holiness. Remember that the same Savior who paid the penalty for all our sins on the Cross also inspired Hebrews 12: 14, “Be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
As a Christian, you want to have fellowship with God. You want to enjoy His Word. You want to find yourself growing in grace. Those are activities of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and they are impossible experiences to enjoy for the person who has no interest in holiness.
If your heart’s desire is to live in the gutter and still to enjoy fellowship with heaven, you will surely be disappointed. Let us be in agreement about this: we belong to God. In our text, in verse 24, the Lord speaks plainly, saying: “I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.” God established ownership over us when Jesus spent His life’s blood to purchase and to ransom us on that cross. If it is your desire to be like everyone else, you cannot be set apart for God, nor can God own you. That is why, a bit later in Joshua 24: 15, Israel is called to choose between one style of life and the other. “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.” As you are making that choice and coming to that decision, it is only fair to point out that the Amorites were among the peoples who were vomited out of the land in which Israel was living. In fact, even the memory of the Amorites was extinguished by God’s judgment of that nation of people.
We are looking only at a few paragraphs of this book today, but throughout Leviticus, we can see list after list of heinous acts, of wicked sins that God forbade His people to commit. In our text, in verse 23, God refers to “the customs of the nations.” Those are the traditions, the customs, the religious mores, the ways and cultural mannerisms of the tribes and nations that once inhabited the land promised to Israel. The nations viewed those activities as being quite normal, very appropriate, and good. They could not understand why anyone would consider them to be immoral or wicked. They took what passed for opinion polls in the ancient world and determined the vast majority of their people also believed there was nothing wrong with their behaviors. So, being their own final arbiter of right and wrong, they voted to live life as they pleased. If you were a godly person living among them, you would be made to feel like the outsider, as though you were missing out on the fun, and even that you were offending the people with whom you were living.
Please turn back now to Leviticus 18: 24 – 28. Here we can gain an understanding of what God meant by “the land vomiting out the people who lived there.” <.v.> Prior to the verses we just read, God gave a whole catalog of commands concerning a wide variety of sexual behaviors common to the peoples of the land of Canaan. We won’t read the whole list today, but you will read it on your own. These were not unusual activities in the ancient world, but were common behaviors, activities in which most of the adults in Canaan engaged frequently. Some of these behaviors seem morally corrosive and wicked to us, but others don’t necessarily appear to be all that bad. Our own culture has gotten used to some of these, others are seen as clearly wrong even today, and some of them we don’t find any problem with at all. Yet – and this is important – in the sight of a Holy God, every single one of these acts is equally repugnant, equally wicked, and equally evil. Taken together, these and other sins that are listed elsewhere were behaviors in which all the peoples of that region engaged regularly. Taken together, these are the sins of the Amorites, the sins of the Canaanites that were committed against a holy God, even though I’m certain they thought these to be harmless and even fun.
We must remember the Bible is written from God’s point of view, not man’s viewpoint. God declared that the sin of the people grew to such a great extant and level of wickedness, and it took hold of their national life so thoroughly, even the land became defiled. The land itself reacted to the presence of those wayward and debased people and, as a consequence, “the land vomited out its inhabitants.” This is God’s judgment on them.
The fact that we are not horrified by these activities in our own country, the fact that we are not very upset, heartbroken and angered about the presence of these sins shows that you and I have been morally and ethically desensitized. Even if these behaviors seem good, or seem to be not all that bad to us, they are still wicked, immoral, and evil in the eyes of Holy God. Billy Graham is quoted as saying if God does not judge America, He will need to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.
This week as I was reading in Luke 5, I was struck by the response of Peter when Jesus caused a huge catch of fish. Peter recognized his own sinfulness in the presence of Jesus. He fell to his knees and cried out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” He told God to flee, to run away from him, because even Peter knew that holiness and wickedness cannot peacefully coexist. He told God to flee, but Peter didn’t run away. Peter didn’t jump overboard. Peter did not run from God. He humbled himself before Jesus and Jesus drew near to him and invited him to become a man who catches men.
When God calls a person or a people, He calls them to walk away from and even to flee from wickedness. He calls them to holiness. God set Israel apart from the world and the peoples of the world to serve Him. The rest of the nations serve whatever gods they choose, but God’s people are called to serve the Lord and to serve Him alone. God called Israel and gave them a vision of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” That land would be the perfect place for them to live and to find hope and healing in this broken world. In order to live there, in order to live in relationship with God, His people would need to agree not to defile themselves as the people of the surrounding nations had done.
In the heart of God, it does not matter that we are living several thousand years later. What was wicked then is still wicked today. What was righteousness then is still righteousness today. God’s Word in verse 26 is the theme of this book, but is also to be the theme of our lives: “You are to be holy to Me because I the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own.” What has Jesus done for us if not to set us apart for God’s use? 1 Peter 2: 9 is a New Testament text, not old covenant, not something we can simply ignore. It is our truth and it is the standard to which God holds us. That Word is our promise from God, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” Friends, we belong to God; we are His people. God’s people are a holy people by definition.
Yes, Jesus died to perfectly fulfill the Law of God, a law we could never fully obey in our own strength. For some Christians, this truth becomes a license to behave however they wanted. We are not advocating a salvation of works, or a slavish observance of the law. But we also cannot stand by and watch the flippant, devil-may-care response of today’s flesh-focused Christian. Holiness is not an option reserved for the spiritually strange and overly committed. Holiness is the calling of every follower of Jesus. Holiness is the constant, conscious choosing to seek God first and to follow Him.
Are you engaged in listening to God as you read His Word? If you are listening, then you are hearing the same word I am hearing. We are being called to a holy life.
Edmund C. de la Cour, Jr.
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