Bible Passages: Leviticus 5:15-6:7
5:14 The Lord said to Moses: 15 ‘When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering. 16 They must make restitution for what they have failed to do in regard to the holy things, pay an additional penalty of a fifth of its value and give it all to the priest. The priest will make atonement for them with the ram as a guilt offering, and they will be forgiven. 17 ‘If anyone sins and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though they do not know it, they are guilty and will be held responsible. 18 They are to bring to the priest as a guilt offering a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the wrong they have committed unintentionally, and they will be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; they have been guilty of wrongdoing against the Lord.’ 6:1 The Lord said to Moses: 2 ‘If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbour about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbour, 3 or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit – 4 when they sin in any of these ways and realise their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, 5 or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 6 And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. 7 In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.’
Key OT/NT passages on how this passage fits within the Bible story as a whole
Since the Garden of Eden, humanity’s greatest privilege has been to come close to God and enjoy fellowship with him (Genesis 3:8). But God has been out of reach since Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of his presence (Genesis 3:23-24). God acted to bring people back into his presence. He hinted that there would be a way between him and sinful people (Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-19). He rescued his people from Egypt (Exodus 3, 12-14) and came to live among them in the tabernacle tent – dwelling place – at the heart of their camp (Exodus 40:34-35).
But sinful people could only come close to God through the sacrifices of atonement God provided (Leviticus 1-16). This provision continued into the promised land and Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8). Yet the persistent sin of the people (warned about in Leviticus 26) eventually led to the exile of the Israelites. When they returned to the land and rebuilt the temple God is not described as coming to dwell in it. God’s people were not close to him.
However, the LORD promised that his suffering servant would come as a guilt offering who would take the punishment his people’s sin deserved (Isaiah 53: 1-10). Jesus is the guilt offering who pays the penalty for our wrongdoing with his blood so that we can enter into communion with the Holy God (Hebrews 10: 1-10, 1 Peter 2:22). Those whose sins are forgiven through his sacrifice will one day enjoy the perfect fulfilment of closeness with God in the New Creation (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, Revelation 21).
Note on key themes of the book
The book of Leviticus is the 3rd book in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). Together, these books cover the story of creation through to the entry of God’s Israelite people into the promised land.
Leviticus sits at the narrative heart of this great story. It covers the period of one month around 1500BC during which God’s people lived at the foot of Mount Sinai (see Exodus 40:17 and Numbers 1:1). The 15 chapters leading up to the book (Exodus 25-40) describe the making of the Tabernacle after the LORD rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai. The first 10 chapters after Leviticus describe the arrangements for the Tabernacle before the LORD and his people leave Mount Sinai to head for the promised land (Numbers 1-10).
The book of Leviticus sits between these two journeys and is concerned with answering the question at the heart of the story of the Pentateuch (and the Bible!): how can sinful people come close to, and live with, a Holy God? Or, in the language of Leviticus, how does the Tabernacle where God dwells become the Tent of Meeting between him and his people?
The answer is through the sacrifice God provides (ch1-7), offered by the priests God appoints (ch8-10) and through cleansing from the pollution of impurity and sin (ch11-15). These three come together decisively on the most important day of the Israelite calendar – the day of atonement (ch16). On this day the high priest entered the Holy of Holies through sacrifice. He came into God’s presence to purify God’s place and people so that the people and God could be with one another.
Notes on the immediate context of the passage
This passage describes how an Israelite is to offer a guilt offering, the last of the five sacrifices the LORD provides so that his people can approach him. It follows the burnt offering (Leviticus 1), the grain offering (Leviticus 2), the fellowship offering (Leviticus 3) and the sin offering (Leviticus 4-5:13). It is followed by instructions to the priests on how these five sacrifices are to be conducted (ch6:1-7:38, with ch7:1-10 setting out the priestly regulations for the guilt offering).
Along with the sin offering, the guilt offering was only established by the LORD after he came to dwell in the Tabernacle. While the sin offering focused on the cleansing of the worshipper and the holy place from the pollution of sin, the guilt offering focused on the sacrifice paying the penalty of the worshipper’s sin, removing their debt, taking their punishment and satisfying God. The guilt offering also focuses on sin against the LORD’s holy things and therefore against his holiness and so it deals with the most serious offences. As such, it is the culmination of the sacrificial system which all of ch1-6:7 drives towards.
Structure of the passage
The sacrifices weren’t about ritual, they were about relationship. Sinful people needed to restore their relationship with God so that they could come and stay close to him. The guilt-offering paid the penalty that sinners owed the Holy God for their offences against him. It enabled the people to come close to the Holy God. Jesus’ penalty-paying sacrifice enables us to come and stay close to God too.
1) We’ve offended the Holy God (5:14-16)…
The Israelites had sinned against God by mistreating his property, the holy things (v15). This would have involved failing to give promised provisions to his priests or eating food reserved for sacrifice. This sin wasn’t deliberate but it was careless. By treating his property lightly, they revealed their true attitude towards him – a dismissive disregard. This was a great offence because it was ‘unfaithful to the LORD’ (v15). He was the God who had rescued them from Egypt and they were in a dependent relationship to him. They owed him their loyalty. This was also a great offence because he is ‘Holy’ – set apart from everything and perfect in power and goodness. He deserved their respect. Sin against a Holy God deserved death.
…but there’s a sacrifice that comes from him
Offending a Holy God deserves death. But the offended party– God - generously initiates an alternative payment. (The LORD said – v14). He will accept a ram as a penalty payment instead of the life of the sinner (v15-16). This guilt offering relied on and points to the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins (Colossians 2:13-14). His sacrifice wasn’t just initiated by the offended God, he was given by the offended God (John 3:16). The Holy God pays the penalty for our offences against him.
2) We can’t measure unknown sins (5:17-19)…
The Israelites would also sin against the LORD’s commands without always knowing how they had done so (v17). They might not have remembered what they had done. Or they may have committed the offence because they had been inattentive to the law. Either way, this sin involves real wrongdoing (a point emphasised twice in the passage – v17 + 19) because it again expressed a lack of respect for the Holy God. But how would the Israelites know when they had committed an unknown sin? The implication is that guilty feelings draw it to their attention (the ‘will be held responsible’ at the end of v17 may mean ‘will feel the weight of their wrongdoing’). The feeling we get when we know we’ve done something wrong but can’t quite put our finger on it can be crippling. This is because we can’t measure unknown sin’s impact. The Israelites wouldn’t know how to make up for this sort of sin, and neither do we.
…but there’s a sacrifice that’s immeasurably valuable
The LORD graciously provided the Israelites with a sacrifice of sufficient value to cover the unknown sins they couldn’t measure (v18). The guilt-offering was the sacrifice offered for the most serious sins and a ram without defect cost a lot. In Jesus, God has given us a sacrifice of immeasurable value. Jesus lived a perfect and obedient life and was without any moral defect. His blood is precious and we can be confident that, however far the effects of our unknown sins have gone, his death forgives them (1 Peter 1:18-20).
3) We’re guilty of deliberate sin (6:1-7)…
The third obstacle to the Israelites being close to God was their deliberate sin. (6:1-3). This sin harmed others so part of repentance meant ‘making it up’ by paying back what they had taken with compensation (v4). But their sin was also against God (v1 – unfaithful). This was because it could involve misusing his name when lying under oath, but also because it involved sinning against other Israelites who belonged to him, or simply disrespecting other human beings made in his image. Even though this sin appeared to only affect other people, it also disrespected God. This deliberate sin deserved the payment of a penalty to the offended God (v5).
…but there’s a sacrifice that takes our punishment
The penalty should have been the Israelite’s life but the ram atoned for him (v7). It took his place. Jesus came and took our place, taking the punishment for our iniquity (Isaiah 53:4-10. V10’s offerings for sins literally means ‘guilt offering’.) When we wrong someone we should say sorry and make it up to them (v4), but we should also seek God’s forgiveness and give thanks we can have it because Jesus took our punishment.
Suggestions for any tricky bits/questions?
Isn’t animal sacrifice animal cruelty?
The animals here aren’t treated dismissively. On the contrary, it’s because their life is recognised as valuable that they’re offered in the place of sinful human beings. The blood which represents this life is not to be used for anything else because it represents a precious life (Leviticus 17:11 and surrounding verses) and stands in for a precious life.
Animals should be treated with care and respect. The OT makes this clear (Proverbs 12:10). The questions we must grapple with are: 1) which is more precious – the life of a ram, or the life of a man (or woman)? And 2) have we done something that deserves us losing our life? If you had really done something deserving of death, and you were offered the choice of a ram dying in your place, wouldn’t you take it? Our sin against God is deserving of death, but in love the LORD gave and accepted the blood of animals in the place of his covenant people.
Wait, so could an animal sacrifice really take away sins?
Yes and no!
No, it couldn’t – the New Testament is clear that the sacrifice of animals could not cleanse worshippers of the feeling of guilt or actual guilt. ‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus came as the perfect guilt offering promised in Isaiah 53. He took the place of the sinner as a human being who could truly represent them. The infinite value of his life as God’s obedient Son could cover the penalty for every sin. The animal sacrifice was only a ‘shadow’ hinting at Jesus’ sacrifice, not the reality itself (Hebrews 10:1.)
But yes, it could – because the sacrifice was the God-given shadow of the sacrifice of Jesus! The Lord repeatedly says that the guilt offering will make atonement and that the sinner who brings the ram sacrifice will be forgiven (Leviticus 5:16, 18, 6:7). This is because when the sinning Israelite offered their sacrifice, they did so trusting in God’s promise to forgive their sin. The animal sacrifice was accepted until Jesus came because its value relied on his promised coming. We might accept a cheque we know is going to bounce if we also know we are going to put a vast sum into the cheque-giver’s account. In the same way, God accepted the ‘cheque’ of the animal sacrifice, even though in itself it had no value. He did this because he knew he was going to put the valuable sacrifice of Jesus into the sinning Israelite’s account. The cheque of the animal sacrifice would not bounce because when it was ‘cashed’ the sacrifice of Jesus would pay the debt.
How can unintentional/unknown actions be sin?
The word ‘unintentional’ in this passage means ‘wandering’ sin. It’s sinning against God without premeditation. With one another, we recognise that when we say ‘I didn’t intend to hurt you’ we are nonetheless responsible for hurting someone because the anger, bluntness or selfishness that hurt someone – while unintended – is an expression of our inner attitude. We had too much regard for our self and too little regard for them. The same is true for our sin against God. We might not have thought ‘I will mistreat and disregard God’ but when we do so, the disrespect for God that stands behind our action or inaction is a true expression of our ‘attitude towards him. We are responsible for it.
Is reimbursement and compensation for the wrong we do necessary for forgiveness? (6:1-7)
In these cases, compensating harmed human beings was a part of real repentance towards God. Jesus’ taught something very similar (Matthew 5:23-24). Truly recognising our guilt will involve trying to ‘make it up’ to those we’ve harmed.
However, this act of restitution was not what brought the Israelite sinner forgiveness. It was the offering of a sacrifice to God as the penalty in their place that meant they could be confident of forgiveness. Compensating those we’ve harmed still doesn’t bring forgiveness. We can be confident of God’s forgiveness for sin today only when we rely on Jesus’ death paying the ransom for sin in our place.
This sin here is about Covenant unfaithfulness isn’t it? (Leviticus 5:14, 6:1). I can see how it might apply to Christians today (who have been redeemed from sin just as the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt). But how does it apply to non-Christians?
If we’re Christians, we will only remain in God’s presence by daily relying on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our unfaithful offences against our Holy God.
If we’re not currently Christians, we will only come into God’s presence by relying on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our grievous offences against the Holy God.
Summary of author’s main point
The holy LORD says the Israelites can come close to his presence by offering a substitute to pay for their intentional and unintentional sins against him.
Purpose for original audience
Come confidently to the LORD with the guilt offering! All your sin against the Holy LORD will be forgiven as the ram takes your place and pays your penalty.
Purpose for us today
Believe we come close to the Holy God by relying on Jesus’ penalty-paying death: take sin against God seriously and take comfort it’s forgiven.
Key areas of application to individual Christians:
Take God more seriously: Because God is holy he deserves our utmost respect. Because he is our rescuer he deserves our utter loyalty. We should be punished for our dismissive attitude towards him. But he pays the penalty for us with his own Son. He’s utterly holy and utterly loving. Do we remember that this is who we mean when we say ‘God’?
Take great comfort: Even our unknown, unmeasured sin (like the ways we’ve hurt our children, parents or past partners) are covered by Jesus’ precious penalty-paying sacrifice.
Give great thanks and keep asking for forgiveness: Jesus took the punishment we deserve for our daily offences against God.
Key areas of application to sceptics & explorers:
This God is unique: What other religion conceives of God as utterly holy and offended at sin AND utterly loving and paying the penalty for that offence? The self-portrait of God in the Bible is unique. Investigate the cross where God’s holiness and relational love come together.
Don’t stubbornly try and make up for your bad choices yourself. They haven’t just affected other people, they’ve offended a Holy God. None of us can survive his judgement. Make a choice – will you