The Heart of Worship: A Meditation on Leviticus 1-3

03 Nov

In our introduction to the Book of Leviticus, we discussed both the importance of and challenges to studying the second book of the Law. The challenges are obvious to a new covenant believer. Since the old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8.13) and by grace through faith we have been released from the Law (Romans 7.6), the challenge is to understand how the Law remains “holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7.12). Most of Leviticus deals with burnt offerings that were not able to take away sin. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus was the once and for all sacrifice for sins. Where sin has been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (see Hebrews 10.10-18). If this be the case, then what is the value of studying the sacrificial system that has been fulfilled in Christ? While the Bible tells us that the Law is profitable for teaching, correction, and training in righteousness (see 2 Timothy 3.16), we struggle to find its value for those who live by faith in Christ.

However, if we can read Leviticus through the eyes of worship, then perhaps it can be of value to us. Essentially, this book contains God’s instructions to Moses about how the people of God should approach the Lord in worship. And while the means of being made right with God has changed in Christ, perhaps there are some essential elements of worship that remain the same. Is there something we can learn about the heart of worship by reading Leviticus?

Leviticus 1-3

The first three chapters of the book deal with how the people are to bring their voluntary offerings before the Lord. These three offerings, the burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace offerings, were spontaneous and voluntary offerings brought before the Lord. They are not connect with any special feast day and not even connected to a specific sin. And while Christ was the once and for all offering for sin, there is much to be learned about the heart of worship in these three offerings.

The first offering was the burnt offering. In this offering, the entire animal was burned on the fires of the altar. The worshipper was to bring a male without defect from his or her herd. He was to lay his hands upon the head of the animal, and then the worshipper was to slaughter the animal before the Lord. The priest would then sprinkle the blood upon the altar. The animal to be sacrificed was either to be a bull, a goat, or a bird based upon the financial ability of the worshipper. If he could afford a bull, then he was to bring a bull. But if the worshipper was poor, and could only afford a pigeon, then that would be acceptable to the Lord.

The second offering was the grain offering. This offering was a combination of flour, oil, and incense. The priest would take a portion of the grain and toss it on the altar fires. This was called the “memorial portion” (Leviticus 2.2). The rest of the grain offering was to be given to the priests for them to eat in the courtyard of the Tabernacle (see Leviticus 6.16). Unfortunately, we are not told the purpose or reason behind the grain offering. The burnt offering was a sacrifice for sins on behalf of the worshipper to make atonement for him (see Leviticus 1.4), but there is no stated purpose for the grain offering. However, there may be a key given to us in the reference to the “offering of first fruits” (see Leviticus 2.12-14). It seems that the grain offering may have been a celebration or thanksgiving offering for God’s providential care for them. It was a reminder that the Lord was the provider of all that they had.

The third offering was the peace offering, also called the fellowship offering. This was another burnt offering, but different from the first offering. In this offering, only the fat and kidney and liver was burned on the altar fires. The rest was to be consumed by either the worshiper or the priest. The priests were to be given the breast and the right thigh of the animal (see Leviticus 7.30-31), but the rest of the animal was to be consumed as part of a fellowship meal by the worshipper, most likely with family and friends. Leviticus 7 describes the peace offering in more detail, describing the reasons for offering this sacrifice as an act of special thanksgiving, a time to make a special vow to the Lord, or just as a spontaneous celebration of God’s goodness. The animal could either be a bull, lamb, or goat.

Two items of special interest should be mentioned. First, if the animal was either a lamb or goat, it could be either male or female. Second, the Israelites were commanded to not eat any of the fat or any of the blood as a “lasting ordinance” (Leviticus 3.17). Unfortunately, the Lord did not tell Moses why the fat was to be burned on the fire and not consumed by the worshipper, which has led to speculations by commentators on whether it was because this was seen as the choicest part of the animal or because the Lord was protecting the worshipper from high cholesterol.

The New Covenant Value of Leviticus 1-3

I have been attending a Christian church since I was born, and I have yet to see anyone bring a bull to church, or even a grain offering unless we count the traditional Baptist pot luck dinner. So, is there anything of value for us today? If we look only at the sacrifice itself, then perhaps not. But, if we look beyond the animal sacrifice to the heart of worship commanded by the King of Kings, then there is much for us to learn.

Worship Was Personal

Notice that the offering was a personal act on the part of the worshipper. The worshipper brought an animal from his own herd, and then laid his hands upon the animal before the sacrifice. The worshipper did not hand off the animal to the priest at the courtyard gates and sit in a pew and watch as the animal was slaughtered. No, the worshipper himself slaughtered the animal at the altar. I can only imagine how moving it must have been to lay my hands upon the head of a goat from my herd, confessing my sins to the Lord, and then picking up a knife knowing that this animal’s life was going to pay the price for my sins. The blood of the animal was given for the atonement of sins (see Leviticus 17.11), and the worshipper would experience that blood first hand in a messy, gruesome, horrible fashion. Remission of sin came through the shedding of blood, and the personal act of worship reminded the worshipper of that in real time.

Contrast that with much of today’s worship in local churches. The worshippers sit in padded pews far away from the stage, their hands never touching any article of worship. Much of our worship is observation, watching from afar as someone else performs the acts of worship. The burnt offering would never allow such impersonal worship. In the old covenant, when you left the altar, you were most likely covered in blood and your heart was pierced in anguish with the death of animal for the atonement of your sins. In today’s church, we leave unscathed and untouched by our own sins.

Worship Was Costly

We should also notice that worship was costly. The worshipper was to bring either a bull, a goat, or a bird depending upon their ability to pay. Obviously, the Lord was including a sacrifice for sins for both the rich and the poor, but more than that, the Lord designed a system where the sacrifice was costly for all persons involved. A wealthy person could not bring a dove, for it would have been an insignificant offering. It would have been unfathomable for an old covenant worshipper to bring an offering before the Lord that cost them nothing. As David once said, “I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24.24)

Contrast that with our worship today. In what way does worship cost the worshipper? We worship in air conditioned buildings and sit in comfortable chairs. We arrange our service times so they don’t interrupt our eating schedule. We provide child care so that we don’t have to listen to crying babies. We have worked very hard to make worship as “pain free” as possible. The only real sacrifice of worship left might be the financial offering, but most worshippers only offer the pocket change left over in their wallets after a week of fun and comfort. Where is the cost of worship? In what way do we bring the finest from our herds to offer before the Lord?

Worship Was Confessional

We should also notice that worship was confessional, at least in regards to the burnt offering. The very act of appearing before the priest at the tabernacle and laying one’s hands upon the head of the bull or goat was a confession of sin. The worshipper was there because there was sin to be atoned for. The essence of worship was a sinner appearing before the Lord to ask for and seek forgiveness.

Contrast that with today’s worship, where most worshippers appear to “get something out of it.” We select music that will appeal to the worshipper, and we preach sermons that will inspire and encourage the worshipper. Where is the confession? Where are the blood stained hands of the worshipper?

Worship Was Pleasing To God

Which brings up a related point: worship was pleasing to God. In all three offerings, the portion burnt on the offering was “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (see Leviticus 1.17, 2.9, and 3.5). In other words, the point of the offering was not to please the worshipper but to please the one being worshipped.

Contrast that with today’s worship, where the focus of worship is the worshipper. Unless we “get something out of worship” or unless worship is “meaningful to me,” we are very likely to stop attending the corporate worship services. If we advertise our worship as only something that would be pleasing to the Lord but costly and uncomfortable to the worshipper, I wonder what would happen to our attendance? And just in case we are tempted to think that only old covenant worship was to be pleasing to the Lord, remember what the writer of Hebrews wrote,

15Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13.15-16)

The pleasure of God is the heart of worship. The ultimate evaluation of our worship is the pleasure of God, not the pleasure of the worshipper.

Worship Was Communal

We should also notice that at times, worship was communal. While the burnt offering was a personal ceremony before the worshipper and the Lord, the fellowship offering was a communal affair. The worshipper involved his or her family or neighbors in a time of worship and thanksgiving for the provisions of God. In fact, many of the feast days and holy days of the old covenant were meant to be family celebrations, dinner parties if you will, built around the offering itself. It is as if the Lord wanted us to “exalt His name together” (see Psalm 34.3).

Worship Was Voluntary

One final element of worship brought out in these first three sacrifices is that worship is voluntary. The rest of Leviticus will highlight the appointed feast days where worship was mandatory. God prescribed certain activities for certain feast days, and participation was mandatory for His people. But the offerings described in the first three chapters of Leviticus were all voluntary and spontaneous. A worshipper brought forth the burnt offering as a voluntary act of worship for the atonement of sins. A worshipper brought forth the grain offering as a voluntary act of worship in thanksgiving for God’s provisions. A worshipper brought forth the peace (fellowship) offering as a voluntary act of worship in community. In other words, the worshippers of Leviticus 1-3 did not “have” to go to church; they voluntarily brought an offering before the Lord. The spontaneous heart of the worshipper was pleasing to God.


So while much of Leviticus is obsolete, the heart of the worshipper transcends the old covenant and lives on in the new covenant. Even today, worship is to be personal, costly, confessional, pleasing to God, communal, and voluntary. What’s not to love about Leviticus?


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Posted by on November 3, 2010 in Sermons - Leviticus


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