Leviticus is a critical book. It’s common for Christians today to dismiss its continual relevance by simply asserting that every law in the book has been annulled. They may even assert this based erroneously on the fact that the book is called “Leviticus,” mistakenly on the assumption that it has to do solely with the priestly tribe of the “Levites.” This is probably because they’ve never actually read the book.
The book is not really named after the tribe of Levi. Rather, it’s a book of holiness describing all aspects of Israel: the priesthood and the laity. It also includes cross-boundary laws, which are those laws which have traditionally been referred to as the “moral law” which were binding on even non-Israelites before Christ. They remain binding on everyone after Christ. Think: Ninevah laws.
EVEN PAGAN NATIONS WERE UNDER THE COVENANTAL LAW
Ninevah was the capital city of the pagan nation Assyria. Despite the fact that they weren’t Israelites or specially covenanted to God like the Israelites were, God sent Jonah to Nineveh to call them to repent: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).
Even though Nineveh wasn’t required to be circumcised or required to make animal sacrifices, or even required to observe the dietary restrictions placed on the Jews, they were still doing something that violated God’s laws that were binding even on them in those days. We know they were binding because Ninevah’s continual violation of those laws brought down the threat of God’s negative sanctions upon their head. The promise of the arrival of these sanctions was delivered to them by God’s agent, Jonah. There can be no law without a system of sanctions to enforce them.
Here’s the incredible part. Ninevah repented:
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. (Jonah 3:6-8)
What happened after they repented? What were the consequences of their repentance and right-living? Knowing biblical chronology reveals the answer.
Jonah went to Ninevah during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Jeroboam II reigned after the kingdom had split into the northern and southern kingdom, but before Israel in the north was invaded by Assyria. Less than a hundred years after Jeroboam II came to power, Ninevah invaded and conquered the northern Kingdom (2 Kings 18:10).
In other words, because Assyria repented, they were blessed in accordance with the terms of the covenant (Deut. 28:1-14). Their repentance brought great prosperity, but they forgot where their wealth came from (Deut. 8:17, Isaiah 10:13-14) and used their prosperity to invade Israel. God used Assyria to punish Israel (Isaiah 10:5-12), but he then also punished Assyria because they had again violated his laws. Nahum brought the covenant lawsuit against Assyria, but he brought it as a message of hope to the people living in Judah:
Thus says the LORD, “Though they [Assyria] are at full strength and many, they will be cut down and pass away. Though I have afflicted you [Israel], I will afflict you no more. And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart.” (Nahum 1:12-13)
Nahum assured the southern kingdom that the same fate of the northern kingdom would not befall them by the Assyrians. Shortly after, God raised up Babylon to bring judgment upon Assyria. Of course, the earlier prophets had already prophesied the destruction of Judah by Babylon, and that happened later.
A TRAP THAT HAS BEEN SPRUNG
The Book of Leviticus is one which traps two kinds of people, as Gary North has said: it will trap the antinomian who asserts that the entire book is now annulled, and it will also trap the legalist who wants to enforce all of it (“Conclusion,” Boundaries and Dominion, Volume III).
The New Testament does not mention bestiality like Leviticus does, for example. What chapter and verse in the New Testament alone can the Christian appeal to in condemning bestiality? If he condemns it, what chapter and verse can the Christian appeal to in the New Testament which specifies what the appropriate punishment for bestiality is? Otherwise, would a New Testament-only Christian be comfortable saying Lord Jesus is now okay with bestiality, even though he toughened the rules of marriage?
So much for annulling the whole book.
It will also trap the legalist: Judaizers in the New Testament, soon after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, were trying to force Old Covenant dietary laws and other such rudiments upon New Covenant believers by claiming that they remained in force. Before the Temple was forever destroyed in AD 70, this was a serious threat as Paul reveals in his numerous discussions of the matter. Before the temple’s destruction, it was much easier for the Judaizers to persuade the early Christians that animal sacrifices were still required even after Jesus’s resurrection. Because the temple still existed, their argument seemed plausible.
The truth became much more clear as the altar of sacrifice was washed away forever by the flood waters of the Roman army in AD 70. Consequently, this is much less of a threat to Christians today, even though it remains a future expectation within dispensational denominations that, along with a rebuilt temple, there will be a return to animal sacrifices in the end times. Such a view is in complete contradiction with the message of Hebrews. To think that God would require a return to the shadows after resurrecting the Lord of Glory and Lamb of God is wrong-headed, if not blasphemy.
It is up to the discerning Christian to navigate through an Old Testament book like Leviticus and siphon the laws which remain binding from those which have been annulled, even as their underlying principles remain in effect. Jesus is the Word, and the Ten Commandments are literally the Ten Words. Jesus Christ, then, is a manifestation of the Law. And just as he was crucified, died, and resurrected to glory, so has the Law. It’s our task to understand just how the law has been transfigured. It is understandably a difficult task, and it’s for this reason that this particular matter has not yet been settled. It doesn’t help that we have lost 300 years of progress due to our being distracted by false hopes of early release because of good behavior (rapture).
THOSE THAT REMAIN
That being said, in keeping with the theological tradition of the Church, our first investigation should be into which general categories of laws are still binding. Following North’s categories, there are four classifications of biblical, Old Testament laws as seen from a Theonomic viewpoint.
The four categories of laws we find in the Old Testament can be categorized as follows:
- priestly laws
- seed laws
- land laws
- cross-boundary laws
We know only one of these categories remains binding on us today: the cross-boundary laws. That’s because they were binding on nations in general during the Old Covenant, independent of the special (“peculiar”) laws established for Israel, thus the name: cross boundary, meaning inside Israel’s boundary and across it. As stated already, we know this because of the books of Jonah and Nahum. To determine if any of the laws revealed in Leviticus remain binding in the New Covenant era, then we’ll need to be able to classify them as a cross-boundary law.