Leviticus can be a tougher read, even for those who spend a lot of time in the bible. Filled with exacting tabernacle building blueprints, pages of bloody sacrifice instructions, and a litany of purification rituals, it’s sometimes difficult for God’s people today to truly connect to this book.
The temple sacrificial system and Levitical priesthood were phased out when Jesus Christ gave His life for us as the eternal Passover Lamb and was resurrected to sit down at God’s right hand as our High Priest (Heb. 8-10).
So it can be tempting to ask why we should care about Leviticus today, except as a historical record.
It’s an understandable question, and there are LOTS of good answers. The most obvious answer is that God had it included in the bible for a reason, and we know that all scripture is God-breathed and given to us for instruction (II Tim. 3:16). But let’s go even further than that.
The book of Leviticus tells us about the creation of the Levitical priesthood in the tabernacle (and later temple), under a high priest. This was a precursor and prophetic “shadow” of when God’s firstfruits become eternal kingly priests in His kingdom, with Jesus Christ as our High Priest (Rev. 20; Heb. 4:15).
However, if we pull back even further and look at it in totality, Leviticus is ultimately a book about holiness, sanctification, and sacrifice—being set apart for God’s use. God was showing His newly-established nation how to worship, serve, and obey a holy God. He tells them, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
This study is focused on bringing one aspect of Leviticus to life—the burnt offerings—and putting it into a context that God’s ekklesia today can meditate on and use in our lives. The burnt offering ritual (along with the other offerings listed in Leviticus) helps us understand God’s perspective on proper worship, showing us how God wants us to view and worship Him.
What was the burnt offering?
There are a total of five types of sacrifices outlined in Leviticus. We might assume that they’re all dealing with sin, but in fact only two of the five were specifically for that purpose.
The other three were all “sweet savor” (or “sweet smelling aroma”) sacrifices that were completely voluntary. They include the burnt offering, the grain or meal offering, and the peace offering (or fellowship offering).
Let’s start with the initial command for the burnt offering:
“Let [the person bringing the offering] offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will…then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.
He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar…And the priest shall burn all [parts of the animal] on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord” (Lev 1:3-9)
So we see that this sacrifice was offered freely, was completely burned up, was intended to be accepted by God on the person’s behalf, and that God viewed it as a sweet fragrance. These elements are consistently called out when the burnt offering is mentioned throughout Leviticus and beyond.
So how does this connect to our lives today?
100% commitment: wholly dedicated to God
Paul gives us one of the keys:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren…that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable [rational] service” (Rom. 12:1).
What does Paul mean by a “living sacrifice”? It feels almost like an oxymoron, since the animal being sacrificed was killed.
But (figuratively) so are we.
When we answered God’s calling, committed ourselves to God, repented, and came out of the watery grave of baptism, we were “crucified with Christ”. Paul tells us that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Our sins, our past life, and our carnal nature were put to death (Rom. 6).
“Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…do not let sin reign in your mortal body…and do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present [offer, submit] yourselves to God as being alive from the dead” (Rom. 6:6-13)
The burnt offering was completely consumed by the fire. This is one of the few offerings where the priests didn’t get to eat some of it. It was TOTALLY burned up, entirely dedicated to God. Nothing was held back or kept in reserve.
It’s worth asking: am I offering 100% of myself in complete surrender to my Creator? What am I holding back? Are there areas of my life where I don’t want to let God in? Do I give God just enough of my time to “tick the boxes” on prayer and bible study, then go on with the rest of my life?
It’s critical to remember that the burnt offering was completely voluntary, a “free will” offering. This was not to be compelled by sin or guilt, but rather offered from the heart as a way of worshipping and celebrating our Creator God. Consider Paul’s statement:
“But this I say: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver” (II Cor. 9:6-7)
The context of what Paul says here is more in physical giving to provide for the brethren’s needs, but it can be applied to our lives more broadly. God doesn’t want us to spend time with Him grudgingly, as a chore on our to-do list. He wants us to make a “free will offering” of ourselves, yielding completely to His will.
Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4 when laying out the “greatest commandment.” Just as He told the Israelites thousands of years earlier, He reiterates: “You shall love the Lord your God with ALL your heart, with ALL your soul, with ALL your mind, and with ALL your strength” (Mark. 12:30). Complete dedication. This is what God wanted from Israel from the very beginning! And it’s what He wants from His people today.
Our continual prayers & praise rising up to Him
Another aspect of the burnt offering that we see is that it was a “sweet aroma to the Lord”. This idea of a sweet smelling aroma or sweet savor offering is seen frequently throughout the bible and often associated with the burnt offering.
For instance, when Noah makes a burnt offering sacrifice after getting off the ark (ha, disemb-ark-ing), the Lord smelled the “soothing aroma” and promised never to destroy mankind again (Gen. 8:21). The connection between the burnt offering, “sacrifices of sweet aroma to the God of heaven”, and the people’s prayers or worship is seen in Ezra 6:10.
The word that is translated as “burnt offering” in Leviticus 1 is olah (H5930), which means to ascend or go up to. The smoke and scent of the burnt offering is ascending to God, and represents the prayers, worship, and meditations of His people.
John describes this in His vision of the throne room of God in Revelation, where the angel offers incense with the prayers of the saints upon the altar, and the smoke ascends before God. We’re also told that the twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb with bowls full of incense, “which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 8:3-4, 5:8).
What’s interesting about the word (G2368) used in both of those Revelation verses is that it specifically points to the incense used in a religious ritual, and the act of burning it—like in the temple burnt offerings and worship.
This isn’t a new idea that John just comes up with, though. David cried out to God and asked that his prayer be set before the Father as incense, and the lifting up of his hands be accepted as the evening sacrifice (Ps. 141:2).
When you pray, what do you picture? When you worship, how do you envision that reaching God? Do you picture it rising up to come before God as He sits on His throne? That may sound kind of weird or even feel self-important, but that’s how John describes it in Revelation! Our prayers and worship are that important to Him, that enjoyable and He gives them so much importance that they are before Him continuously.
In addition to our worship, prayers, and meditations (Ps. 104:34), our interactions with like-minded brethren can be a sweet aroma. Paul writes to the Philippians thanking them for the things they sent him, and calling it “a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice well pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). God wants His people to care for each other and look out for each other’s needs—it pleases Him (Ps. 133)!
God uses the same language to show us what does NOT please Him as well. He frequently talks about how He will not smell the sweet aromas of Israel’s sacrifices and assemblies due to their rebellion and chasing after other gods (Lev. 26:31, Amos 5:21, among others). As you read through those passages, it’s clear that, though they were going through the motions of the commanded sacrifices, worship, and prayer, He did not find their worship acceptable.
This should be a warning to us today. It is mind-blowing that our prayers and worship can ascend to God and Jesus Christ—that we can have an audience with the Creator of the universe. Eventually WE will also ascend and come before His throne in the resurrection (Rev. 14:1-5, 20:4).
It’s important that each of us examines our hearts and asks God to show us if we’re just going through the motions…ticking those boxes of prayer and bible study, attending church, etc., but not TRULY engaged in the wholehearted worship of our Father.
Burned with fire: purified & transformed
The burnt offering was…burned with fire. Okay, I know that’s in the name. So what does fire do?
Fire is a catalyst. It purges, purifies, transforms (Ps. 12:6, Num. 31:23). As physical beings who have committed our lives to God, we are undergoing a journey of purification and purging through the fire of tests and trials in this life.
This is what it means to be living sacrifices—a burning away of our previous lives. A purging of the worldly priorities, sinful impulses, and selfish actions we naturally have. A burning up of the person we once were, to reveal what we should be. We are being refined over and over like gold to remove the impurities and leave us pure, holy, and acceptable (Mal. 3:2-3).
And what we do with our lives and our knowledge of God’s way will be tested in a similar manner to see if it is worthwhile and acceptable to God:
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward” (I Cor 3:11-15)
Fire is not only purifying, it’s transformative. In the case of the burnt offering, it was left on the fire overnight and totally burned to ash (Lev. 6:9-11). You couldn’t even recognize what it had originally been. The fire was the transformational agent that changed the sacrifice into a form (smoke/ash) that could ascend to God to be accepted.
We’ve focused on the beginning of Romans 12:1 around being a living sacrifice, but it’s important to connect it to Paul’s next thought:
“I beseech you…that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom 12:1)
That word that’s translated “transformed” (metamorphoo, G3339) is where we get the word “metamorphosis”. As in a kind of fuzzy, gross, lumpy caterpillar transforming into a gorgeous butterfly. It’s completely unrecognizable compared to the thing it once was.
And that’s what we should be as converted, transformed disciples of Christ—completely unrecognizable versus who we once were.
Acceptable in His sight
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight” (Ps. 19:14)
In Leviticus we see that the offering must be without blemish in order to be accepted. A (symbolically) perfect, unspotted life was offered to God in thankfulness, humility, and worship, and that’s what He still wants from His people today.
They couldn’t offer anything imperfect. WE are, of course, incredibly imperfect…but that’s not how God sees us because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, which wiped away the stain and corruption of our sins so we could become perfect and unblemished in His sight (Heb. 10:11-14).
The burnt offerings were done in the tabernacle and later the temple, which symbolized God coming to dwell with His people…His presence there with them. Today, with the gift of God’s holy spirit and enabled by Jesus’s sacrifice, we are each able to come before His throne in heaven, into the Most Holy Place, and offer ourselves to Him (Heb. 4:16).
As living sacrifices, we must be “holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). This isn’t a “New Testament” idea, though. Again, God has been very consistent. Back in Leviticus as He continued laying out His guidelines for sacrifices and worship, He commands Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:1).
God goes on to list commands on specific and seemingly-random topics ranging from sabbath observance and not worshipping idols, to generosity and justice for the poor. But this wasn’t random. Instead, we get a sweeping view of holiness that encompasses obedience to God’s word, rejecting worldly behaviors, how we treat other people, and the condition of our hearts.
Remember that in Romans when Paul talks about being living sacrifices, he says that we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can “prove [test, examine, discern] what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
So, what does God find well-pleasing and acceptable? We can find consistent scriptures about this topic throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
- “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (I Sam. 15:22)
- “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6)
- “For You do not desire sacrifice…You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:16-17)
- “Let my prayers be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141:2)
- “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3)
- “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God…giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16)
- “Be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love…walk as children of light…finding out what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph. 5:1-3, 8-10)
This one is too long to put in a bullet point, but it’s worth reading the whole thing:
“’To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats…Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me…I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates…even though you make many prayers, I will not hear…
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:10-17)
It’s important to note what God does NOT mean there. He isn’t saying that they shouldn’t offer sacrifices and incense or keep sabbaths and holy days. Instead, He’s highlighting that those things without a heart and mind oriented toward God are just empty rituals.
What He finds well-pleasing is knowledge of His word and obedience to it. He finds pleasure in His people exhisbiting mercy, righteousness, and justice—doing good.
After talking about being living sacrifices in Romans 12, a few verses later Paul exhorts them to “Be kindly affectionate to one another…not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality” (Rom. 12:10-13).
He goes on and lists a litany of other actions and attitudes, and then sums up the chapter with, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
Micah perhaps sums it up best: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Being a living sacrifice…our “logical” worship
So what does it mean for me, or you, to be a living sacrifice?
We’ve seen that the burnt offering in the temple provided a picture of how we should be living and worshipping God—giving ourselves completely to Him, bringing our prayers and worship before Him continually, holding nothing back and allowing Him to transform us into a new creation.
I think it’s interesting that, when the disciples received the holy spirit on that first Pentecost after Jesus’s resurrection, it was described as being like tongues of fire over each person’s head (Acts 2). It could have taken many forms (a dove, for instance, like with Jesus; Luke 3:22). But instead it appeared like fire, which we’ve seen is a purging, purifying, transformative catalyst—as the holy spirit is in our own lives.
Peter wrote to the brethren that we are “living stones being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:1-5).
We were invited by our Creator to come before Him in worship, and to be a part of his family. Have you meditated recently on what an insanely incredible honor and blessing that is?! That is why Paul tells us that our “logical” (or reasonable, rational) worship is to offer ourselves to Him as a living sacrifice. It would be *illogical* to do any less!
The bible is clear from start to finish what types of sacrifices God finds pleasing. My heart. My thoughts. My actions and daily life. My WHOLE SELF. God wants to transform us and adopt us into His spiritual family (Rom. 8:15-17). But to make that happen, we have to offer ourselves to Him freely and with complete dedication as a living sacrifice.