Is Holiness Harsh? (Leviticus 20)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Leviticus 20:1–20:27
Is Holiness Harsh?
(One Lord: No One Like You)
April 29th, 2018
I. The Sentence Imposed
Listen to the following description I found on the website of a certain state's judicial branch:
A Defendant who has received a sentence of incarceration for a term of one year or more in the...State Prison or to the custody of the...Department of Corrections, has a right to apply to the Sentence Review Division for a review of his/her district court sentence. The Division has adopted Rules that clarify and expedite its application and review process. The sentence imposed by the district court is presumed correct. However, upon its review, the Division may order a different sentence to be imposed if it is clearly inadequate or clearly excessive...or may affirm the sentence imposed by the district court.
Now, I believe only judges can serve on the “sentence review” board described in that blurb. But...what if YOU were asked to serve in that capacity? Would it be a little intimidating, deciding what was fair, what was just, in terms of consequences for this or that crime?
The very existence of this kind of “sentence review division” reminds us of a sad reality: that some judges fail to administer justice effectively. Some are far too lenient, while, probably more common, some are far too harsh. Some judges believe it is their job to make an example of this or that offender, and therefore, 'throw the [proverbial] book' at him or her.
But what about God? The Bible tells us that God is “the judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). This God, our God, a holy God, surely his judgments are just, right? Surely the sentence He hands down is fair, is equitable, right?
Turn over, if you will, to Leviticus 20. This morning, as we work through this chapter, I think you will see how many people today would disagree with our claims about God, and the fairness of his judgments. They would be more likely to use the word “harsh”, and not “holy”, when it comes to the God of Israel. Let's dig into this chapter and see why.
II. The Passage: "His Blood is Upon Him" (20:1-27)
As we have done in past weeks, we are not going to read every word of this chapter, but we will cover every main idea. And when it comes to main ideas, I believe there are three critical themes in Leviticus 20. You can see them there on your outline. First, we want to think about the consequences described in this chapter, second, the commands given in this chapter, and third, the consecration God emphasizes in Leviticus 20.
1. The Consequences
So let's begin thinking about this idea of consequences by looking together at 20:1-5...
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.  I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name.  And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death,  then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.
Now, you may remember that two chapters ago, we heard a similar, but shorter warning:
You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:21)
But that isn't the only repeated command in this chapter. In fact, every command in this chapter has already been given in either chapter 18 or chapter 19. So why the repetition? Well, verses 1-5 reveal the same pattern we find throughout this chapter. The purpose of this chapter is not to restate the command, but to reveal the consequence..the consequence for the one who violates the command.
So for example, in this opening section about giving one's children over to the false god Molech, we see three distinct consequences. First, God says in verses 3 and 5 that he will “set [his] face against” both the sinner, and those who tolerate (those who look the other way regarding) the sin. Second, God declares, again in verses 3 and 5, that he will “cut off” both the sinner, and those who tolerate his sin; that is, he will “cut them off from among their people”. Third, we read in verse 2 that if “the people of the land” respond rightly, they will put this kind of sinner to death. He will die by stoning.
Now, if you simply scan over the rest of this chapter, you will see these same consequences listed for the other repeated prohibitions. Being “cut off” is also mentioned in verses 6, 17, and 18. But putting someone to death is commanded in verses 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, and 27. How they are to be killed is not always indicated. As we saw in verse 2, stoning with stones is listed there and in verse 27, and verse 14 prescribes “burning with fire” a man who tries to “shack up” with both a woman and her mother.
Now, one of the obvious questions that arises when thinking about these consequences is “What does it mean to be 'cut off'?” Well, that isn't entirely clear. Notice in verse 17 that “If a man takes [that is, cohabits with, 'shacks up' with] his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people.”
Some scholars think “cut off” means banishment. Some think it means a loss of status and access to the altar, and thus, no atonement. Some think it points to loss in the age to come. Other believe, when the sin is not found out and punished by the community, “cut off” means a premature death by the hand of God himself. Whatever it means, this warning was meant to sober a sinner, and turn him or her away from giving in to these specific temptations.
Of course, as we saw, the threat of capital punishment is even more common in this passage.
And the list of capital crimes in Israel is far broader than what we find in our culture today. But we might ask, “Why so severe?” Well Deuteronomy 19:19, 20 partly answer that question:
...So you shall purge the evil from your midst.  And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.
2. The Commands
This idea of severity should move us from thinking about the consequences to the commands of Leviticus 20. For example, we need to be clear about just what 20:2 is prohibiting. What did it mean to give a child to Molech? Well a simple word search of the name “Molech” takes us to II Kings 23:10. We read in that verse about just one of King Josiah's reforms in Judah...
And he defiled [i.e. destroyed] Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.
That disgusting historical reference explains what is meant in Deuteronomy 18, when Moses summarizes some of what is found here in Leviticus 20:
“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations.  There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer  or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead...”
What do you think? Is the death penalty too severe, too harsh for someone who burns their child in the fire, as an offering to a false god? Most people, even today, would affirm that sentence, that punishment, for such a wicked and unconscionable act.
But what about necromancy (v. 6)? That's trying to communicate with the dead in order to divine the future. Does that, in your estimation, merit the death penalty? What about being executed for cursing your parents? What about the incestuous relationships condemned in verses 10-21? What about the other sexual sins listed there: homosexual acts and bestiality? Do all of these things merit a death sentence? What would that unnamed state's “Sentence Review” board say about these consequences? Is our holy God a harsh God?
I think it's important to see how the commands in chp. 20 (from chps. 18, 19) are connected to the Ten Commandments. Did you notice that? Did you notice how the child sacrifices mentioned in verses 2-5 are connected to necromancy by the word “whoring”? That is a word that indicates unfaithfulness to one's covenant partner; specifically in this case, unfaithfulness to Yahweh, the God of their fathers, the God who redeemed them, their covenant God.
So these practices are violations of the very first commandment of the Ten: “You shall have not other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Of course, these offerings to Molech also involved murder (commandment #6). But that vile act was first an expression of idolatrous worship.
And then in 20:9 we move on to a violation of commandment #5 ('honor your parents'), and commandment #7 concerning adultery is listed here in verse 10.
Now, there were other commandments of the Ten Commandments that could be punishable by death, but we should ask, why are these commands and consequences the ones listed in Leviticus 20? And why are the consequences so severe?
Well, I think all of these commands drive us back to Genesis 1 and 2. Even the mention of animals in verse 25 might add to this idea that the creation account stands behind this chapter. Think about it: God alone is God, the one who existed “in the beginning”, the one through whom all things were made. Yes, He made the animals. But we are told in Genesis 1:27 that God made human beings in his image. And He made them “male and female”.
It because of this duality that human beings are able to fulfill the very first command God gave to the human family: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it...” (Genesis 1:28). And in Genesis 2:22-24, we read about the original marriage, which would serve as the pattern for every marriage to come.
So in Genesis 1 and 2, we read about the Creator's stunning masterpiece of creation, about man's right relationship with the animals, about the duality of human beings, those made in His image; about the command to reproduce and populate the earth, and about marriage as God's mechanism for the formation of families, stable families through which the mandate to multiply could be carried out. And in all of this, God alone deserved the glory and adoration.
That, brothers and sisters, is the glorious and pure purpose of this original creation. It is what ought to be. It was in God's estimation, “very good” (1:27).
So stop for a moment and consider how the violations described in Leviticus 20 poison the purity of what God intended. Do you understand? We are repulsed by the idea of child sacrifice, and so we should be. Why? Because human life is precious. But don't these chapters, Genesis 1 and 2, give us a much fuller picture of human “life”, something bigger and broader and deeper than any one person? Don't we discover in those chapters the source of life? The mechanisms of life? The nurture of life? The sustaining of life? The mosaic of life? The flourishing of life? The purpose of life?
Shouldn't all of it be precious to us? Shouldn't the destruction of, the defiling of, the dismissing of, the dismantling of God's design also repulse us? So then, why not the death penalty?
Brothers and sisters, friends, regardless of what any human government says or does with the death penalty, God's penalty for all sin is death...for every sin is a destruction of, a defiling of, a distortion of, a dismissing of, a dismantling of God's good design. Romans 1:18-32 makes this same point. It begins with creation and our rejection of the Creator. Then moves on to idolatry, then to homosexuality, and then into this final paragraph, Romans 1:29–32...
They [human beings] were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Do you grasp the utter sinfulness of sin, and the sublime sacredness of the sacred? The more you do, the more you will understand both the severity and the necessity of God's judgments.
3. The Consecration
Now there are several verses from Leviticus 20 that we have not touched on: verses 7 and 8, as well as verses 22-26. These verses reveal the third critical theme of this chapter: the consecration. Verses 7 and 8 summarize this idea beautifully:
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.  Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
What is the right response to the revelation of both God's good design and sin's poisonous path? It is separation. Separation from a wayward world, and separation for it's Creator. Do you remember how Peter quoted from Leviticus in I Peter 1:16, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
But did you see how God both calls and provides in Leviticus 20:7, 8? The same verb begins and ends this passage: (v. 7) “consecrate [or sanctify] yourselves”, and “I am the LORD who [consecrates, or] sanctifies you.” Now why is that important? It's important because holiness is not just God's will. Wonderfully, it's ultimately His work.
III. Your Blood is Upon Him
That idea is just one of the many threads in this chapter leading us to Christ.
You see, the severity of sin's ultimate consequences are reflected in the severity of sin's ultimate cure. Though we in our rebellion destroy, defile, distort, dismiss, and dismantle the Creator's design, remarkably, it was the Creator himself who took the most severe sentence of all. It was Jesus who was “put to death” (I Pet. 3:18), who was “cut off” (Is. 53:8).
In Leviticus 20, verses 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, and 27 we find another repeated phrase, “his blood is upon him”. That simply means, as one translation puts it, “his guilt is his own”. That's bad news for sinners like us, isn't it? But the Good News, the gospel points me and you to the cross, and God declares, “Your blood is upon Him”; that is, “your guilt is now his”.
If Leviticus 20 proves one thing about modern readers like us, it's that we have a very poor estimation of sin's true sinfulness. But in grace, God addressed this need. We take sin lightly, therefore Jesus' burden was heavy. We judge amiss, therefore, He was judged in our place. Creation suffers because of our corruption, therefore, the Son suffered for creatures, as a creature, in order to secure a new creation. Is there any love like this love?
And because He died for us, because He rose again and defeated death, we are sanctified, we are set apart “in Him” forever. And out of that glorious reality, and only from that reality, we find the power to live that 'set apart kind of life'. In Jesus, we find the true rest of which the Promised Land (v. 24) is only a shadow. The promise of “flowing...milk and honey” was and is fulfilled in the living water, and the bread of life that only Jesus can give you.
Is holiness harsh? No. Sin is harsh. It's fruit is incredibly bitter, far worse than we grasp. Why? Because God is incredibly good, far better than we can understand, and that sacredness demands a severe sentence for sin. Brothers and sisters, friends, only through God's word and God's Spirit can we see and accept the true ugliness of our sin. And as we do, my God help us to flee to Jesus Christ in faith.