The Lord's Day Evening
November 7, 2004
“Keep the Fire Burning: The Burnt Offering”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter six. The last time
we were together in Leviticus–at least, you and I–was back on October 17. Now, Derek was with you looking at that transition, the final offering described in that first section of Leviticus one through six, a passage that began in chapter five and ended in chapter six, verse seven.
And now we are back repeating, going over the ground that has already been covered. As we studied Leviticus 1-5 one of the things that we said was the various offerings that are addressed there are addressed from the standpoint of the one who is bringing those offerings. The commands are given to the people of God, to the children of Israel.
Now, beginning with Leviticus 6:8, for the next number of verses until we're finished with the description of the five great offerings, or sacrifices, the focus will be on the duty of the priests: what their obligations are in relation to each of these offerings and sacrifices. And just as we learned important spiritual principles from the commands that were given to the worshippers of Israel who were to bring the offerings and from the symbolism of the offerings themselves, so also there are important things to learn from God's commands to those who are to mediate these offerings, those who were to be the priests representing God's people and offering up these sacrifices to the Lord.
Perhaps you’ll remember some of the things that we learned when we first studied the burnt offering. This is the foundation of all the offerings, and we’ll remind ourselves of that again tonight as we turn to a passage in Exodus 29 that helps explain something that is said in this passage just in passing. And I've listed a few things in the bulletin as to principles that we learn from Leviticus, chapter one. I want to highlight a couple in particular.
One of the things that we learned is that God obviously cares how He is to be worshiped. He goes into great detail as to specifically what the people of God are to do in their worship of Him; specifically, what they are to bring; how they are to bring it; how it is to be sacrificed; what the role of the priest is to be; and, the significance of each of the parts of the sacrificial worship. God cares greatly how He is worshipped.
And we said that that principle is not just an Old Testament principle, it's a New Testament principle. If we turn to I Corinthians 12-14, a passage in which Paul is addressing the congregation of the church in Corinth, a congregation where the spiritual operations of the Holy Spirit have been manifested in extraordinary ways. There are people there that had the ability to speak in tongues, to prophesy. They’re receiving words of knowledge and communicating these to the congregation. But their worship is a free-for-all, and the Apostle Paul says to them in
I Corinthians 14 that their worship is to be ordered in accordance with God's word. That is the famous passage where Paul says “Let everything be done decently and in order.” And in that passage, he actually specifies how the charismatic worship of Corinth is to be carried out. And it's to be carried out in terms of two principles:
First of all, the actions, even the extraordinary actions of the Spirit are to be in accord with the command of God's word through Paul. Now, that's an amazing thing. Here we have Paul describing things which the third person of the Trinity enables: prophecy, tongues, and words of knowledge; and yet, Paul is perfectly happy to command how many times those things can be done in a given worship service. You remember where he instructs them about the prophets speaking, and he says let two or three at most speak; and if one is speaking and another prophecy comes, let one sit down while the other prophecies, so you don't have more than one person prophesying at once, or more than one person speaking in a tongue at once.
And then he says if there's no one to interpret that tongue, then that person should remain silent, because everything...and here's the second principle in worship that Paul sets down…everything in worship is to be edifying. It's designed to edify one another in Christ as we come together to worship the Lord. So everything in worship is to be in accord with God's word, and everything in worship is to be edifying. And so Paul sets down those principles, showing again that in the New Testament God continues to be concerned about how we worship. That's just one example, of course.
Now, there's another thing we learned in Leviticus 1 when we first looked at the burnt offerings, and that was that the Lord accepts and communes with those who come into His presence through the death of an atoning sacrifice. It's made very clear from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus that our communion with the Lord, as precious as it is– our experience of fellowship with God, our desire to draw near to Him in worship so as to meet with Him, to speak to Him, lifting up the desires of our hearts to Him in prayer, and fellowshipping with Him in praise–those things require an atoning sacrifice, because we are sinful. And we have in and of ourselves not the sufficient righteousness in order to come into the presence of the holy and perfect Heavenly Father. And therefore, He Himself provides the way.
We made much of the fact that, unlike cultures around which came up with sacrifices in order to appease their gods, God Himself sets down the laws of atonement whereby His people may approach Him. In other words, what the Lord requires, the Lord provides. He requires that His people come to Him only by the blood-sprinkled way; only by atonement. But He provides that atonement. He tells the people of God exactly how that is to be done. He sets up a priesthood so that they can do this, so that God takes the initiative in reconciliation and fellowship with His people.
Well, these are but two of the principles that we learned when we studied Leviticus 1. Now tonight we’ll begin in Leviticus 6, and there are two or three things that I want to draw your attention to. Keep your eyes out for these things as we read through the passage together.
First of all, I want you to see the nature of the command, or the instruction, that God gives to the priests. Secondly, I want you to see God's command about what the priests are to wear. And thirdly, I want you to see God's command for the perpetual fire and be asking yourself why does God require that this fire continuously burn? Look for those three things as we hear God's word. And before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and understanding. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the Book of Leviticus. Though so many of its rituals are obscure to us, we have already begun to see that this is a book filled with Christ, and filled with the foretelling of Your grace. We pray, Heavenly Father, that we would read this book seeing Christ in it, and that we would read this book responding to Your overtures of grace in faith, in trust. We pray, Heavenly Father, that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your law. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Hear God's word.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. And the priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. And the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning and he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer up in smoke the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy word. May He add His blessing to it.
In this passage, God tells us something about His law; He tells us something about consecration; something about the importance of godliness, holiness, and communion with the Lord; and most importantly of all, God tells us something about the provision of atonement. And I want to look at each of these three things with you tonight.
I. God's law as instruction.
The first thing I'd like you to see is God's law as instruction. Look at the very first words of Leviticus 6:8:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, command Aaron and his sons,
saying, ‘This is the law….’”
Let me just stop right there. This introductory phrase is a phrase that indicates a new section of the book being presented, and so one reason we break between Leviticus 6:7 and Leviticus 6:8 is the very phraseology that is being used here indicates that Moses is entering into a new section of the book. He uses this language elsewhere to indicate a new portion, or a new section, of the Book of Leviticus.
And in this passage we are told that Aaron and his sons are commanded by Moses. God says to Moses, “‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law….’” and what follows is in fact ritual instruction. What follows is not a condensed civil code or an elaborate penal code, but in fact ritual instruction. And that tells us something about the word law. We observed this before in the Book of Exodus, but when law is spoken of in the first five books of the Bible, it means something broader than what first comes to mind with our English word law. It means instruction. It is household instruction, and we're reminded of that in this very passage. God has a positive, didactic teaching purpose with His law; a purpose that is not always served with the way we use law, and in our own civil codes. So when God speaks of Torah (or law) in the Old Testament, and especially here in the Pentateuch, He means something that has a positive teaching function, and not just a code. In this case we have here something of a manual for sacrificial procedure by the priesthood, but even then God's point is not merely that the details of the ritual instruction be followed, but that we appreciate the truth that that ritual instruction is intended to symbolize to us.
Now, we New Testament Christians are often tempted to view the law only in negative terms, or to view it as simply a code of condemnation. We read passages like Ephesians 2:15, or we look at John 1:17ff, and we tend to think in terms of contrast: the law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ. And of course, there is a proper contrast between law and gospel. That is one of the glorious truths of the New Testament. But when we only view the law in those terms, when we only view the law as negative, we miss something of the beauty of the law given in its original context. And this passage itself illustrates the wider, more positive Hebrew usage of law. It is first and foremost family instruction. And that reminds us, when we use those words as an introduction to our reading of Scripture, when we ask the Lord to allow us to behold wonderful things in His law, we're not speaking of statutory codes only, we're speaking about the whole of His word, which is a word of instruction. So law is used in a very broad sense.
I say that in passing. It's not a main point tonight, but it's a point to be observed as we look at this passage.
II. The command for proper priestly garb.
Now, secondly, I'd like you to look at verses 10 and 11, because here we see the command for proper priestly garb. The priests are both told what they are to wear when they are in the service of the sanctuary, even what they are to wear when they are scraping ashes off the altar of burnt offering and keeping the fire burning, and what they are not to wear when they take those ashes out of the service of the sanctuary and go outside the camp and deposit them in a clean place. Listen again to verses 10 and 11:
“The priest is to put on his linen robe, and she shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.”
Notice three things here. First of all, the priest has a prescribed garb that he is to wear when he is in the service of the sanctuary. The Lord wants him to attire himself in a specific way. The garment of the priest has been described in part in Exodus, and there will be further descriptions of the requirements of this garment. What is going on there?
Well, the garment has both a functional use and a symbolic use. Functionally –and you’ll see in this passage the garment is to be beautiful, and it is to cover the priest entirely. Many priests in neighboring religions ministered before the altar naked or semi-naked, and the Lord makes it very clear He wants none of that from Hebrew priests. He wants them to be completely clothed. You see the language–that he is even to wear undergarments next to his flesh. He is to be entirely clothed. Nothing of the ritual fertility cults of those religions around them is to seep into the religion of Israel. There is to be modesty as the priest is attired.
But ultimately, that clothing symbolizes the necessity of consecration in order to carry on this priestly work. The priest is a representative of the people of God. He represents the communion of the people of God with God. In order to commune with God, we must be holy. In order to commune with God we must be godly. We are made in His image, and the requirement of communion with the living God who made us is that we bear His moral image, that we reflect His holiness. And so, the priest was to reflect holiness even in what he wore.
We’re being reminded here that consecration was necessary for the priest in order to serve God, and these priestly garments symbolize holiness. If you don't believe me, just let me ask you to turn with me to a couple of passages in the Old Testament. First, turn to the passage that we quoted in the Call to Worship this morning, Psalm 29. Psalm 29, and look at verses one and two:
“Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; Worship the Lord …” (now here's where your translations differ) “…worship the Lord …” How? “…in holy array.” [Or holy garments, or in the beauty of holiness, maybe your passage says.]
Now what's the point? The point is at one level that the priests are to come before the Lord only in the array, in the garments, which God has commanded them to come. But behind that commandment for them to come before the Lord in those garments is the symbolic meaning of those garments: that is, that we are to come before the Lord clothed in holiness.
For instance, turn with me to Zechariah, chapter three. This is one of those stories from the Old Testament with which many of us are familiar. It's the story of Joshua, the high priest, standing before the Lord and being accused by Satan. Zechariah, chapter three, verse one:
“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. And he spoke and said to those who were standing before him saying, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ Again he said to him, ‘See I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.’”
So we see Joshua standing before the Lord unable to fulfill his function of priesthood mediation and intercession because he's clothed with filthy garments. But what do those filthy garments symbolize? The iniquity of Israel. How does God remedy the situation? By taking away the iniquity of Israel. What symbolizes that taking away of the iniquity of Israel? The clothing of Joshua in festal garments, in garments appropriate for a priest to come before the Lord. You see, these priestly garments symbolize holiness, and a priest is not fit to serve the purpose, the function, of bringing others close to God while he is in a state of defilement.
Now, there are a number of applications of this, of course. In the New Testament, we're told that we are priests. Turn with me to I Peter, chapter two. In I Peter 2:5, Peter says,
“…you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
And then he goes on to say (look at verse nine):
“…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Now, look at what he says then in verse eleven. In light of the fact that you are priests, you have been made a royal priesthood; therefore…what? Well, here's what he says:
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
In other words, how are you to clothe yourself as a priest of this kingdom? You’re to clothe yourself with godliness. That's how you minister before the Lord. You clothe yourself; you’re consecrated. The believer quests for godliness, and thus comes before the Lord.
Now, this is an Old Testament emphasis. This morning in the passage we sang from Psalm 24 — turn with me to Psalm 24. You sang to the Lord a metrical paraphrase of these words (verse three):
“Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully.”
And then, if you turn back to Psalm 15, there's an even longer description of the answer to this question. Psalm 15:
“O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a reprobate is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; he swears to his own hurt, and does not change; he does not put out his money at interest, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.”
These things indicate the importance of the believer's holiness, his quest for holiness in relation to his communion with God. To put it another way, the believer is to worship God in all of life, in order that his worship when he comes into the assembly of the saints not be hypocritical. Think of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:23,24: “If you’re on the way to the altar to offer your sacrifice, and you remember that your brother has something against you”…, what do you do first? “First, go be reconciled to your brother; then offer your sacrifice.”
What's the point? Well, our lives are to be coordinate with our claimed communion with God in worship. We are not to live as if God is not Lord and pretend to commune with Him as if He were Lord.
Isaiah, chapter one, is the classical Old Testament expression of this truth. Turn with me there. [Verse 10].
“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah. ‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings….’”
Now, why? Why in the….? The Lord commanded these burnt offerings. Why is He saying “I've had enough of these burnt offerings.”? Well, listen. He tells you: [verse 15]
“Even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
The point of this passage, again, is that the whole of our life is to be coordinate with the worship that we lift up to the living God in assembled worship. We’re to worship God in all of life, and we're to worship Him when we gather.
Now, this godliness is not the means of our communion. It is not the ground of our communion with God. In fact, the kind of consecration that is spoken of, of the priests in Leviticus 6 is the response to God's provision of the way of communion. And what is that way of communion? That way of communion is atonement.
III. The command for perpetual fire.
And so, the third thing I want you to see, and the most important thing that I want you to see in Leviticus 6:8-13 is this: this command for perpetual fire. It sets forth the truth of our continuous need for atonement, and for God's gracious, divine provision of atonement. Look at verse nine, and then look at verses 12-13:
“Command Aaron and his sons, saying ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth of the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it.’”
Look at verse 12:
“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning; and he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer up in smoke the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out.”
Five times in this short little passage God commands the priests to make sure that fire perpetually burns. One reason for this, of course, it that Leviticus 9 tells us that God started the fire. God started the fire on His altar. That in and of itself indicates that He has provided the means necessary to commune with Him, and the priests’ job is to keep that fire burning
But what does that mean? Why does the fire on the altar need to continually burn? Well, it's not said specifically here, but Exodus 29 tells you. Look at Exodus 29:38-42.
“Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two one year old lambs each day, continuously. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight; and there shall be on-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering with the lamb. The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with the same grain offering and the same drink offering as in the morning, for a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord. It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak with you there. I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. I will consecrate the ten of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. They shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them. I amt he Lord their God.”
Now, these verses remind us that worship is essentially meeting with God, encountering God on the terms that He proposes, and by the means that He provides. And what is the means that He provides here? The continual sacrifice, which reminds the people of God that they have a continuous need for atonement if they’re going to fellowship with God. If we are going to enjoy the benefit of His favor towards us, there must be atonement. And not only does that continuous sacrifice remind us of our continuous need, it also reminds us of the divine provision of that atonement. God provides the way that His people can enter into His presence and fellowship with Him.
You've heard the story of the little Hebrew boy talking to his father, who is a rabbi. And he says, “Father, we don't’ offer sacrifices in the synagogue. Why don't we offer sacrifices in the synagogue? How are sins forgiven?” And his father explains to him that sins are forgiven by blood sacrifice. And the son says, “But father, there are no blood sacrifices in the synagogue. How then are sins forgiven?” And his father remained silent.
Well, he can't but remain silent. There's no answer to that question that the young lad has raised. There's no sacrifice of blood in the synagogue. Where, then, is atonement?
Atonement is not in the blood of these slaughtered bulls and goats, either, under the Levitical dispensation. It is ultimately in Jesus Christ, and that point is being brought to bear here in Leviticus 6 by way of foreshadowing. Look at what Hebrews 10 says, in speaking about this passage. [Verse 1].
“For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
Then he says, verse 10:
“By this …we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God….”
Jesus fulfills the picture of this burnt offering by offering the sacrifice that provides the basis for eternal communion with the living God. Since the way into the enjoyment of God's presence is atonement, that atonement had to be made perpetually in the Old Testament, both to remind us of our need of it and to point to the provision of it. But because of Christ's real, once for all atoning sacrifice, no offering remains to be made. We have been reconciled. Communion requires atonement. That atonement has been provided by Jesus Christ. And so the basis for our enjoyment of the ultimate goal of redemption, which is communion and fellowship with God, has been provided through Jesus Christ. So the believer comes with confidence before the Lord, not on the basis of a repeated sacrifice, but on the basis of a sacrifice which once for all has made clean all those who trust in Jesus.
Our Lord and our God, even as we contemplate the meaning of the old ritual, help us to rejoice in Jesus Christ, who by His shed blood has given us a clean conscience and a sure basis for faith, and an assurance of grace. And we ask, O God, that we would respond to that glorious, divine, gracious provision of atonement with a longing to be consecrated as servants of the Lord who will offer our own bodies as living sacrifices to Jesus Christ. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand?
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.