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Reviews | The Beauty of Holiness

The Beauty of Holiness

Michael Ashton

Paperback or e-book (ePub)

184 pages

The Beauty of Holiness

The Testimony review (from April 2008)

Lessons from the Law for today (1)

THE BOOK OF Leviticus does not readily spring to mind as a source of exhortation and comfort, and yet Brother Michael Ashton’s book The Beauty of Holiness manages to bring out of this ostensibly severe scripture both of these qualities. Other brethren have expounded Leviticus from different standpoints [1] and made valuable contributions to our appreciation of the book. In a fairly short 184-page volume containing twenty-three chapters the author has distilled the essence of this book about the holiness of God and how we can approach Him.

The substance of the book appeared first of all as monthly instalments in the Christadelphian magazine, and these were much appreciated by the reviewer at the time. The book has both a subject and a Scripture index, and a boxed summary at the end of most of the chapters. In his Preface the author writes, “Leviticus … in common with all of the law … is a schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ and to provide a firm foundation for faith … The theme of holiness in the Book of Leviticus emphasises the differences between God and man … Yet God wishes to dwell amongst His people so that they will be sanctified”.

The holy God

The first chapter shows that the laws in this book were given to Israel in Mount Sinai in the first month of the second year after the people were delivered from Egypt. It is from Leviticus that we get the much quoted words, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (19:18; cf. Matthew 19:19, etc.). The author states, “Love of the Holy God, and love of one’s neighbour as a consequence of love for God, become the twin pillars on which the whole of God’s law is based, making it ‘the royal law’ as James describes it (James 2:8)” (page 6).

Noting that there are just three historical events in Leviticus, all related to the subject of holiness, in the next chapter the author considers the various words used for holiness in the book. Not surprisingly, the main word for ‘holy’, along with its associated terms, occurs 152 times. The main point made in this chapter, however, is the difference between the Almighty, Who is holy, and man, who is unclean and unholy. The message of Leviticus is that God wants men and women to be holy like Him, and points forward by implication and by type to “that holy thing” (Luke 1:35) through whom alone true holiness is possible.

Israel sinned grievously by making the golden calf, yet God wanted them to make a sanctuary “that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). He did not want to be distant from them because of their sin, but to be in their midst, in the heart of their campage The pillar of cloud over the tabernacle was a constant evidence of God’s presence, and running throughout the Law there is that constant reminder, “I am the LORD your God”. Brother Michael draws out the clear exhortation that, though we have no visible tokens as Israel did, God is with us too, in our midst.

The role of the priests in teaching the people and offering many of their sacrifices is next considered. Brother Ashton says this about the two priests Nadab and Abihu: “The failure of Nadab and Abihu was also prophetic … The intrinsic weakness and certain failure of the Levitical priesthood was therefore evident right from the beginning, and the thoughtful Israelite would doubtless ask what he was to do if fellowship with God was dependent on sacrifice and mediation, when it was so apparent that the mediators were fatally flawed!” (page 24).

Lessons from the offerings

The chapter entitled “Sacrifice and offering” (chapter 5) begins the detailed consideration of the various offerings. It notes differences in the pattern of offerings made by the priests and those made by the people, and then gives these comments about the order in which sacrifices were to be offered:

“If more than one sacrifice was involved, no deviation was permitted from the following order:

  1. Sin offering
  2. Trespass offering
  3. Burnt offering [Cereal and drink offering]
  4. Peace offering [Cereal and drink offering]

“The reason for this rigid order is apparent once we acknowledge man’s needs when he approaches before God. Man’s greatest problem is sin; and God’s greatest gift is the gift of salvation through the sacrifice of His Son. Our sins need covering … Forgiveness of sins, wonderful though it is, is only the first step in a process of binding man back to God. ‘He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins’ (1 John 1:9) only when we confess them … This is acknowledged in the trespass offering … Even confessing his sin and trying to mend his future ways were only early steps on the Israelite’s road back to God. His Father looked for him to dedicate and commit all his future life to God’s will, and this was marked by bringing a burnt offering … Then, and only then, could a sacrifice be made for a peace offering … man cannot share fellowship with God when he remains deep in sin” (pages 28,29).

Some good comments follow on the cereal and drink offerings.

The next chapter, “Thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (chapter 6), is one of the best in the whole book. The author points out that there were no offerings for sins such as “‘adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like’ (Galatians 5:19-21)” (page 37). The Law made no provision for the habitual or deliberate sinner. David’s sin over Bathsheba and Uriah needed forgiveness from God, hence his prayer in Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (verse 1). Something better than the Law could offer was being sought for here.

The detail of the sin offering is instructive, however, and Brother Michael points out that different offerings were required from different classes of people. This chapter has a useful summary table at the end that brings out the main teaching of the sin offering.

“Forgive us our trespasses” comes next. The author says, “Certainly, to commit a trespass is to commit a sin; but while all trespasses are sin, not all sins are trespasses. When a trespass is committed, there is always another party involved, or some damage occurs” (page 43). Only a ram could be offered for trespasses, and the reasons and implications of this are discussed. In the repayment of loss or damage, twenty per cent had to be added by the trespasser. Trespasses against God are considered, but importantly the lesson of forgiveness, not found in Leviticus, is bought out by the author: “The loving and merciful example of our Heavenly Father and of His Son should encourage today’s disciples to act graciously towards those who trespass against them” (pages 49-50).

The chapter about the burnt offering is called “Present your bodies a living sacrifice” (chapter 8) and is another excellent chapter. Noah expressed his gratitude for his salvation by presenting burnt offerings. The burnt offering was completely consumed, was without blemish and the body parts had to be carefully washed, all suggesting the offering of a whole life to the Almighty. Hebrews 4:12 shows that the cleansing and penetrating qualities of the Word of God enable believers to make their lives a burnt offering. Pre-eminently, Christ’s life is the pattern of the burnt offering, to be crowned in the resurrection by the total consumption of sin’s flesh and inheritance of incorruptibility and immortality.

The peace offerings, dealt with in chapter 9, were fellowship offerings, part of which could be eaten by the officiating priest. Hebrews 13:15 seems to suggest that they were connected with praise and thanksgiving. In Leviticus 23:19 they are associated with the feast of Pentecost. Male and female animals, and also leavened and unleavened bread, are also allowed with these offerings. In Christ, God’s salvation is held out to all nations, and the peace offerings are a shadow of these good things to be fulfilled in Christ.

Chapter 10, “My meat is to do His will”, is about the meat (cereal) offerings and drink offerings. The similarity and differences with the sin offering made by the very poorest Israelites is discussed interestingly, and also the relationship with the jealousy offering and the shewbread. Salt was also added to these offerings, and the symbolism of this in the New Testament is brought out in a nice exhortation.

The work of the priests

The consecration of Aaron and his sons is described in Leviticus 8 and 9. It took one week and was a process that is full of instruction and exhortation for us. Through God’s good guidance, Moses acted as a priest before Aaron was finally prepared, pointing forward to the better priesthood of our Lord. Chapter 10 of Leviticus records the presumptuous sin of Nadab and Abihu, for which they paid with the loss of their lives. “Strange fire” (verse 1) is not explained in Scripture, and Brother Michael offers a list of six possible errors before God committed by these two men.

Before the inaugural week was finished, another mistake was made, by Aaron’s other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. The history of Israel showed many other descendants of Aaron who committed errors, and this all pointed to the need for the incorruptible priesthood of Jesus our Saviour.

Dietary laws, issues from the body and leprosy

Chapter 13 of Brother Michael’s book is about clean and unclean meats. He sets out four suggestions as to the meaning of the clean and unclean creatures, and quotes Leviticus 20:24-26, making the comment:

“This key to understanding the emphasis on clean and unclean meats – that it is primarily to do with differences between people and not with any real or perceived differences between animals – is repeated in the New Testament when Peter receives instruction from God about the acceptability of Gentile converts. The vision he saw of a great sheet containing animals that the law of Moses defined as both clean and unclean was understood by Peter to teach him not to ‘call any man [whom God had cleansed] common or unclean’ (Acts 10: 28)” (page 92).

The author goes on to say:

“The overall theme of Leviticus 11–15, therefore, is man’s inherent sinfulness, and how he needs to put himself right with God Who is utterly holy. The information in these chapters confirms that holiness must be an everyday pursuit; it is not limited to occasions of formal worship, or when priests are present to minister on a person’s behalf … This could not be expressed more forcefully than by impressing on the people of Israel the need to think about God’s holiness every time they partook of food” (pages 93-94).

Leviticus 15 is about bodily discharges, with particular emphasis on sexual discharges, both normal and abnormal, and the reasons for the different laws for males and females. Brother Ashton writes in chapter 14 of his book, “Each aspect of the law relating to defilement in chapters 12 and 15 emphasises the hereditary nature of man’s susceptibility to sin” (page 102). In the summary box at the end of this chapter he notes, “A mother was unclean twice as long after giving birth to a girl, than if she bore a boy, because baby girls are potential mothers who can give birth to another sinful generation”. The chapter itself ends with a lovely consideration of the woman with an issue of blood who was healed by the Lord. She understood that only through the birth of God’s child (1 Timothy 2:15) could she be saved and have fellowship with the Father.

We conclude this first part of our review with comments on the chapter “Leprosy and sin” (chapter 15). This disease could be found in people, garments and buildings, and the features of the disease in Leviticus 12 and 13 paint “a very graphic picture, not only of the disease, but of the fundamental problem of sin” (page 107). This is another splendid chapter, full of exhortation, concluding with an appreciation of the healing work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Aaronic priests could only observe, record and monitor the progress of the disease, but “could not effect any cure whatsoever” (page 114). Jesus cleansed lepers with a touch, because he identified completely with those he came to save. He touches us, and if we are pliable to his teaching he can cleanse our hearts and minds, because he first was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities … yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

(To be concluded)

JOHN NICHOLLS

(Originally published in the April 2008 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 46-48), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

[1] R. Roberts, The Law of Moses, The Christadelphian; W. F. Barling, Law and Grace, The Christadelphian; H. Page Mansfield, Leviticus, in the Christadelphian Expositor series, Logos Publications; J. Martin, The Schoolmaster, Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 2005.

The Testimony review (from May 2008)

Lessons from the Law for today (2)

CONTINUING our review of Brother Michael Ashton’s book The Beauty of Holiness (for details see April 2008, page 46), we come to the Day of Atonement, dealt with in chapter 16 of his book. This was the most important date in Israel’s religious calendar. In Leviticus 16:1,2 the instructions to Moses are prefaced by reference to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, which may suggest that part of their sin was to enter the most holy place.

Only on this day could the high priest enter the most holy place, and, as the writer to the Hebrews says, this underlined the inadequacy of the Law to reconcile men to God (9:8,9). This day was the tenth day of the seventh month, a day of cleansing the nation that they might rest from their sins (Leviticus 16:30,31). It pointed forward to the permanent rest that remains for God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, in the Kingdom. On this day the people were to “afflict [their] souls” (verse 29), showing repentance for their sins, underlining the principle throughout Scripture that sins must be repented of and forsaken before there can be forgiveness.

Various offerings were made, including two goats as a sin offering for the people, one of which was released (the scapegoat, or dismissal offering). Aaron could once again wear his robes, and the joy of the Feast of Tabernacles could follow.

The separation of the nation and the priests

Chapter 17, “Separate from the nations”, is about the holy laws that governed Israel. Their sacrifices could not be offered to “devils” (false gods), nor were they to eat blood. Sexual relations could not be entered into with close relatives, nor were they to partake in perverse relationships like homosexuality or bestiality. Child sacrifice was roundly condemned. The continuing belief in gods and devils in New Testament times is also discussed in this chapter.

In his next chapter Brother Michael classifies the crimes described in Leviticus 19 into three categories: those against God (verses 3-10); those against neighbours (verses 11-18); and those where Israel might be tempted to compromise with the surrounding nations (verses 19-37). Leviticus 20 describes sins so serious that they incurred the penalty of death. They are all carefully considered by the author.

Leviticus 21 and 22 concern the responsibilities and qualifications of priests, and Brother Michael calls his chapter 19, “To whom much is given”. The separation required of the priests was more stringent than for the ordinary people. The details are listed on page 140. For the high priest it was even greater. He was not allowed to mourn even for his close family, because he symbolised the great high priest to come over whom death no more has dominion. He and his family were to live exemplary lives. Brother Michael suggests that the vocabulary of Leviticus 22 is found in Paul’s writings to the Corinthians about marriage out of the Truth (1 Corinthians 7:14), and he draws lessons for us.

The religious calendar

Leviticus 23 covers the annual religious calendar, and the various religious “convocations” (assemblies) are considered by the author in his chapter 20. Sabbaths held every seventh day were, as Jesus taught, to be a time of rejoicing, for they pointed to the rest of the Kingdom age, when the burdens of sin and death will begin to be lifted in the glorious rule of the Son of David. The Passover, celebrating the deliverance from Egypt, also pointed forward to the Lord as the Passover Lamb, and as the firstfruits sheaf of barley that was waved.

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), when the two loaves were waved before the Lord, looked forward to the preaching to Jews and Gentiles that ensued when Peter preached in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and also to the harvest of firstfruits when Christ returns and raises the dead. The Feast of Tabernacles, after the solemn Day of Atonement, points to the great millennial harvest when the dead are raised at the end of the thousand years and God is all in all as Jesus delivers up the Kingdom to his Father. The author brings out practical exhortation for us at the end of his twentieth chapter.

Leviticus 24 seems at first sight not to fit into the general sequence of chapters dealing with the religious calendar, but Brother Ashton explains why. It deals with the daily devotions of individual Israelites, those days when there was no “holy convocation”, but when God still wished His people to remember Him and His ways. Every day in the tabernacle, the lightstand had to be replenished with oil and the wicks trimmed. It was to be attended to “continually”. The psalmist brings the lesson home to us: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (119:105).

The shewbread was also to be there “continually” and eaten each sabbath in the holy place by the officiating priests. The two rows of loaves spoke of Jews and Gentiles offering faithful service to our God, culminating in fellowship with God on the seventh day. The incident when the Pharisees criticised Jesus’ disciples for eating corn on the sabbath, and the Lord’s reference to David and his men eating the shewbread, is commented on by the author.

Then the incident of the blasphemer (24:10-16) is dealt with, very well in the reviewer’s opinion, and the chapter ends with a brief mention of the more excellent way in Christ for us in this age, who are not a nation but rather individuals called out of all nations for God’s Name.

The subject of the religious calendar is resumed in the penultimate chapter of Brother Michael’s book, entitled “Liberty and Jubilee”. These years were not religious in the sense that there were holy convocations, but they were merciful provisions made by Israel’s merciful God, who expected His people to behave in the way that He does towards His people. Sabbath years and Jubilee years are uniquely associated with the God of Israel. They make no business sense, but make every sense if it is accepted that “the land is Mine” (25:23). They are a glimpse of what will come to pass under Christ when the love of money will no longer be the preoccupation of many.

Final thoughts

The last chapter of the book deals with the last two chapters of Leviticus and is called “Perfecting holiness”. Blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience, as in Deuteronomy 28, but not so many, occupy chapter 26. Only through Christ can holiness be perfected, and amongst the people of Israel only the remnant of them will achieve that status. As day by day we strive to follow the example of our Saviour, we can derive much exhortation from Leviticus, for we are not different from the people of those days, although the age we live in has many external differences.

The seemingly curious end to Leviticus in chapter 27 is dealt with by the author, albeit briefly, to round off his book. The closing words of the author are (commenting on the matter of devoting things to God and on the fate of Jephthah’s daughter):

“Here is the climax of holiness; all the regulations in Leviticus build up to this great truth. The law recognised that the pursuit of holiness was dogged by man’s mortality; he was always being dragged down by submitting to earthly lusts. True and complete devotion to God will only be possible for sinful man when he is freed from sin. If he cannot remain with God for ever, as Christ did, he must die to sin in order that he might live to God: ‘No flesh should glory in (God’s) presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:29,30)”.

In conclusion, the book is of value as an introduction to Leviticus to facilitate deeper study, and as a source of exhortation. Those who have not read the other Christadelphian books about the Law (see Part 1 of this review) might be encouraged to do so after reading this book. It is warmly commended to all who strive in the task of “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

JOHN NICHOLLS

(Originally published in the May 2008 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 97-99), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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