Unintentional Sins: A Meditation on Leviticus 4

02 Dec

The first three chapters of the book of Leviticus contain the words of the Lord to Moses, giving instructions on how His people were to worship Him. Specifically, when anyone brought an offering to the Lord, the Lord explained how it ought to be done. And while the sacrifices described in Leviticus have been replaced by the “once and for all sacrifice” of Jesus Christ on the cross (see Hebrews 10.8-14), there are some basic principles of worship that even New Covenant believers can learn from these chapters of Leviticus.

The proper way of worship, as laid out in the sacrifices of Leviticus, is costly, personal, and confessional. The sacrifice itself was costly, and it was in accordance to the financial situation of the worshipper, but the key is that it was costly. But more than that, worship was personal. The worshipper did not just hand off the sheep or goat or bird to the priest for the priest to do the dirty work. No, the worshipper himself had to lay his hands upon the animal, confessing his sins. And then the worshipper had to slaughter the animal himself! One can only imagine that the worshipper left the moment of worship covered in the blood of the animal whose life was given in atonement of his sins.

Contrast that picture of worship with modern worship, where worshippers arrive in air conditioned cars and sit in climate controlled buildings on padded pews. The entire concept of “costly sacrifice” is foreign to most worship in a North American church. For the most part, worshippers are observers, watching the professional priests do all of the work. There is little confession and involvement on the part of the worshipper. Surely, there is much to learn about worship from the book of Leviticus.

With the fourth chapter of Leviticus, a new element is added: “unintentional sins.” The entire chapter is devoted to what anyone should do when they “sin unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done” (Leviticus 4.4 ESV). This chapter does not address willful or defiant sins, but the actions taken in ignorance of the Law. Four different groups of people are identified: the anointed priest (4.3-12), the whole congregation of Israel (4.13-21), a leader (4.22-26), and a common person (4.27-35). The procedure is the same for all four categories: the worshipper is to take an animal, confess his sins over the animal, and slaughter the animal before the Lord. The priest is to take the blood and place it on various places in the Tabernacle.

But there are key differences between the four categories. For instance, the value of the animal is different. The anointed priest (most likely the High Priest) was to bring a bull, as were the elders on behalf of the whole congregation. However, the leader was to bring a male goat while a common person was to either bring a female goat or lamb. If the common person could not afford the goat or lamb, two doves or a grain offering could be substituted (see Leviticus 5.7-13). Another key difference is the place where the blood was to be sprinkled. For the anointed priest and the whole congregation, the blood was to be sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies and also placed on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting. However, for the leader or the common person, the blood was to be put on the horns of the bronze altar which was outside the tent of meeting.

What can New Covenant believers learn about the heart of worship from the fourth chapter of Leviticus?

First, we learn that unintentional sins are still sins. While we know that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” when it comes to matters of faith and ethics and morality, good intentions seem to trump all. For most people, as long as we “mean well” and do not break any known moral law, then we should not be held guilty for breaking some little known law of God. But what this chapter explains to us is that our sin separates us from a holy God, whether we know His law or not. In fact, as Paul explained in his letter to the Romans, when we refuse to acknowledge God as God, the thinking of mankind becomes darkened and foolish (see Romans 1.21-22). We become more and more ignorant of God’s laws, but more and more liable for God’s wrath. Even so, we all stand before God without excuse.

For those who think that the God of the Old Testament was full of wrath and empty of grace, we should not miss the mercy offered in this chapter. God offered mercy to those who did something commanded by the Lord not to be done. Though committed in ignorance, when they become aware of their guilt, the Lord offered a way to receive atonement for their unintentional sin. He did not cast out the unintentional sinner as He did the defiant sinner (see Numbers 15.30-31), but He mercifully provided a means for atonement.

Secondly, we learn that the sins of a leader impact the whole community. The sin of the anointed priest brought guilt upon the people (Leviticus 4.3). Leadership matters. Those who are teachers or leaders must not take their position lightly, which is why the apostle James wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3.1). Those who are placed in positions of spiritual leadership, who watch over the souls of others, must given an accounting to God for their stewardship (see Hebrews 13.17). And even their unintentional sins impact the people under their care.

This principle is often stated as “to whom much is given, much is required.” The blood of this offering was to be sprinkled on various places in and around the Tabernacle, depending upon the level of access the worshipper had to the tent of meeting. Since the high priest had access to the Holy Place, the blood of his sacrifice was to be sprinkled in the Holy Place. But since the leader and common person only had access to the bronze altar outside of the Tabernacle, the blood of his sacrifice was to be placed on the horns of the altar outside of the tent of meeting. Those with a greater trust required a higher level of confession and cleansing. As Paul wrote, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4.1-2).

A third principle about worship is also seen in this chapter. In the words of Gary Demarest,

This offering is fundamentally concerned with the purification of the place of worship so that God can be present there among His people. In the deepest sense, the burnt, cereal, and peace offerings all deal with the problem of sin as it disrupts the relationships between persons and God, and between persons themselves. This offering is concerned with the question of the pollution of the place of worship caused by sinful people who frequent it. Sin makes God’s sanctuary unclean, and a holy God cannot dwell in an unclean place. (Gary Demarest, “Leviticus,” Mastering the Old Testament, 1990, 58).

New Covenant believers rightly cringe at the idea of God dwelling in a building (see 1 Kings 8.27), but ought not to forget the image of the church of God as described by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2.19-22 NIV)

The church is a “building” where God “dwells” by His spirit. Paul echoes this same sentiment in 1 Corinthians 3, where he wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3.16-17). While Paul applied this same truth to individuals in 1 Corinthians 6.19-20, the “you” in chapter 3 is plural, indicating that he applied it to the whole congregation. In other words, the church is God’s temple where His Spirit “dwells,” and if anyone destroys that dwelling, the Lord will destroy that person. The parallels with Leviticus 4 is quite clear: those who destroy the dwelling of the Lord by their sinful actions and behaviors stand in need of atonement and forgiveness.

Demarest takes that idea a step further, implying that Leviticus 4 (and Ephesians 2 and 1 Corinthians 3) teaches us that God cannot and will not dwell in a Tabernacle that is stained by the sinfulness of its priests, its leaders, the community, or even the common people. Confession and repentance is not just a matter of “good spiritual practice,” but is the difference between a Spirit filled church and a church void of God’s presence.

Worship, and confession, then becomes essential to the life and health of a congregation of God’s people. Again, we see a major element of worship, as prescribed by God, missing from modern worship. Rarely do we feel the urgency of confession and repentance. Rarely do we fear the Lord removing His presence from our church because of our unintentional, and yet un-confessed, sin.


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Posted by on December 2, 2010 in Uncategorized


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