“He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make an atonement for him.” Leviticus 1:4
Why are some things so difficult to understand? If you don’t understand a culture, how do you begin to understand it and grasp why they do what they do? Can we look at things through our preconceived mindsets? Or do we have to be willing and eager to dig into history, to dig into another’s culture, to really care about what we don’t understand? It’s so easy to just skip over something that’s hard or to skip over something we don’t like the looks or sound of. It’s so easy to stick to the familiar and the comfortable and to gloss over that which we don’t understand. But I don’t want to do that.
And I don’t want to think that I’m going to figure it all out in one fell swoop. It’s not necessarily going to come in one “Aha!” moment. But the more I search, the more I ask to know Your truth, the more I ask for You to reveal Yourself and what You mean in Your word, You will. It’s a prayer You’ll honor. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” James advises, “let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5) But that’s not just talking about some mystical guru mystery revealed experience. James continues, “But let him ask in faith…” Here’s the thing about faith- it always is followed by action. Do I want to know more? Then I better seek the truth by searching Scripture, going to sources who know the culture of things spoken of, praying for clarity of understanding, seeking and searching more, sharing and discussing in community of other believers, and acting upon that which I learn.
So, I’m in Leviticus because I want to understand. I think it’s a travesty to throw out those “traditions” that God established as not worthy of understanding because Christ has risen when Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So here’s a question. How does Jesus fulfill what’s going on in Leviticus with the sacrifices? Maybe if I understand the sacrifices a little better, it will help me to understand more of Jesus’ own sacrifice for me.
Here we are in Leviticus 1. God is establishing the burnt offering with Moses. We are so removed from offerings, how do we understand? How do we look at something that is just abhorrent to our culture and try to begin understanding the beauty and necessity of what God was doing? This was the oldest sacrifice. It was the most common sacrifice. It was all about submission to God’s will. “Olah,” the Hebrew word, means ascension. It’s a night time sacrifice. So what does that mean?
This sacrifice for sin, burning through the night, covered one’s sins even when you were sleeping, even when you were unaware. Hmm. You’d think that while I was sleeping, I’d be free from sin, but just by nature, that’s not the truth. I can even have wrong thoughts while I’m sleeping, in my dreams, or when I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m not just accountable for my deliberate sins. Before a holy, sinless God, I am accountable for every sin I commit without knowing, “in my sleep” so to speak, inadvertently. Thank goodness, Lord, that You even thought of taking care of those sins and making me aware of them.
This was burnt offering. Burning things give off smoke. Smoke rises. It rises as long as the burning continues. The smoke is a metaphor. It represents “constant prayer and connection to God.” Now this burning animal, this offering wasn’t eaten by any person. It was wholly burnt on the alter. It was given completely to God. That represents complete submission to God’s will. It’s wholly used for God. “It expresses a desire to commune with G-d, and expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune with G-d if you are tainted with sins?).”
God understood the means, the economic status of the offerer. That’s why He gave instructions should it be an offering from cattle, sheep, goats, or even birds. Joseph and Mary offered birds. That tells us something of the status of Jesus’ earthly family but their offering was just as acceptable as that of a wealthy person offering cattle. God is not a respecter of persons, but He does care for each of us and knows what we each can handle in our lives. It doesn’t matter if I’m rich or poor, an offering given from a right heart carried a fragrant aroma to God. I suppose it’s like smelling someone’s barbecue in the air, only better, because it’s like someone who deeply wants to join you in the fellowship of that barbecue. It wasn’t just this sickening slaughter. Yes, there was death and sacrifice and blood. That’s hard stuff. But life with everything that leads up to death and separation from a God who loves us is even more sickening, isn’t it? And here God is, inviting us to agree with Him and commune with Him and allow Him to prepare us for a holy relationship with Him. And the smell of that relationship is better than barbecue.
I find it interesting thinking about this offering and it’s smell before You, God. In 2 Corinthians 2:15 Paul tells us, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing…” Well, OK, we’re the offering, offering our lives, our minds, our everything, and it rises to God in Christ as a beautiful aroma. That’ s just like Leviticus. And maybe we think it stops there. But it doesn’t and it didn’t then. Because God is all about relationship and to have relationship, there has to be two way interaction. That’s the beauty in verse 14, which precedes what we just read. Listen. “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.” Did I get that? Our fragrance rises up and His comes down on us! His fragrance changes ours and our fragrance becomes like Him. I guess I stop smelling so much like me, and I start smelling like Christ instead.
That’s exciting! My submission to You, God, my honoring what delights You, my obedience, and faithfulness, and trust sets off this aroma that delights Your nose, so to speak. It makes for a “pleasant atmoshphere.” When Noah came off the ark after the flood abated, he sacrificed. “And the LORD smelled a sweet savor; and the LORD said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake” (Genesis 8:21). Exodus 29:18 says that the burnt offering is “a sweet savor, an offering made by fire unto the LORD.” And then we come to the Messiah, to Christ, who “has loved us, and has given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor” (Ephesians 5:2). God affirmed that publicly when He announced, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) But here’s the thing, an offering was never just an act. An offering is never just an offering. An offering is always a prayer that demonstrates itself in our life and thoughts and actions.
How do I know that an offering is a prayer that is lived out? Well, I can see in Revelation 5:8 where John saw this, “And when He had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints” (Revelation 5:8). And if I read the rest of Revelation, I see that these saints have been taking a stand for Christ amidst really tough times. Paul expresses this idea in Philippians 4:18 when sharing about Epaphroditus’ bringing of gifts from the church. “But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God”. These people prayed for each other, they sought You in prayer, and they acted upon those prayers.
Here’s the point of sacrifices. Humans need food to live. “But man shall not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4) Sometimes, we think we are all the food we need. We rely on ourselves and our intelligence and our abilities and our talents or personalities. We rely on our families or our own coping mechanisms. We think feasting on ourselves is delicious. But feasting on the physical, on ourselves, wasn’t what we were created for. We were created to know God. God is spirit and truth. Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst…I am the Bread of Life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread He will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:35, 48, 51)
But God warns: “And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; . . . I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors” (Leviticus 26:27,31). Christ, the Messiah, is that offering, the Manna that we need. He’s the sweet smelling fragrance of God in a corrupted world. On that aroma, Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 2:16, ” to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance form life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?” I can look at offerings as a terrible slaughter. I can think, “What a thoughtless, cruel thing to kill an animal to save myself.” And I can deny the rescue God has sent for me. I can look at death and despise it so much, it can lead me to my own eternal death. God has a way, yes, You do, Lord. And Your way is the only right way no matter what I think about it.
Or, I can smell the aroma of that terrible sacrifice rising up to You as a substitution for me. See, I should be the one dying for my sins, not that animal that I just placed my sins upon in trust that You would take care of them. And now, Jesus, our Messiah, has stepped in the place of those animals so that He needed to only offer Himself once for all men and women and children of all times. So I place my sins on Jesus who doesn’t and didn’t deserve them, and I watch as He bears the wrath of God upon Himself so that I don’t have to. So when I see this sacrifice, I see a death, but because of that death, I have life in You. Your life that was sacrificed on our behalf, Your life that was 100% fragrant to God and without sin, leads to life! Who is sufficient to do that, to pay that sacrifice, to change me into something fragrant to You? Only Jesus. And like Paul continued in verse 17, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” Yes, we are living sacrifices, walking out the truth of God in all sincerity. (Romans 12:1) Our lives ought to be an ever-going act of spiritual worship walked out on the face of this earth. My life ought to look like Yours, Jesus.
Paul appealed, “by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2) Do I understand, Lord, what You are asking of me? Am I willing to fully submit no matter what You require? Do I really honor You as God in my life? Have I offered myself fully to You in the way that You require or just according to my own standards? “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12) Am I still mad about the dead sacrifice, or am I rejoicing in the life it brings? Are You really at the top of my awareness, or am I just going through the motions?