14. How to Spell 'Holy' (Leviticus 19:1-37)
Leviticus chapter 19 provides us with an exposition on the practice of holiness. The holiness of God is thus revealed in relationship to the redemption of Israel out of Egypt. Consequently, it is not until after the exodus that God calls upon His people to live holy lives. The Mosaic Covenant is established so that Israel would be a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). While there are hints at how holiness is to be practiced by the people of God earlier in the Pentateuch, it is in the 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus that holiness is defined in great detail.
Leviticus 19 is a crucial chapter for Christians (as well as the ancient Israelites) for a variety of reasons. First, it is important because of the distorted perceptions of holiness. Holiness is a term which is used more than it is understood. It is one thing for holiness not to be understood; it is even worse that it is misunderstood. There are many misconceptions in Christian circles as to what holiness really is. In the King James Version of the Bible, the terms “holy” and “holiness” do not occur until the Book of Exodus.
Second, Leviticus 19 is vitally important because of the desperate need for the practice of holiness. As badly as holiness is misunderstood by Christians, it is practiced even more pathetically. Holy living is something which is not characteristic of the last days (cf. 2 Tim. 3), and it surely is not characteristic of Christianity in our own days as well.
Third, many sincere Christians have gone astray seeking an unholy holiness. Many Christians who have been sidetracked into one of the cults have pursued a false conception of holiness. People generally do not join a cult in order to forsake holiness, but to attain it.
Fourth, Leviticus 19 is important to us because of the prominence of its teaching in the New Testament. Both our Lord (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27) and the apostles (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:16) make a great deal of the two great commandments which are given here: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2b). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18b).
We must approach this chapter with these things in mind, because there are several factors which might incline us to hastily conclude that this chapter is irrelevant to 20th century Christians. In the first place there are some commands given here which are difficult to understand, even as they relate to the Israelite. Secondly, there are some commands which are clearly inapplicable to New Testament saints. Thirdly, this chapter appears not to have any real structure, and thus to deal with a wide variety of areas of the Israelites’ lives in a kind of miscellaneous category.109
The chapter does, however, have a clear structure, which is indicated by the recurring phrase (in one form or another), “I am the LORD.” Wenham110 outlines the structure in this way:
Honor parents and sabbath
Sacrifices and food
Justice in court
Love your neighbor
No mixed breeding
No pagan practices
No sacred prostitution
Respect the old
Love the alien
Our approach to this chapter will be to briefly overview the entire chapter, noting the characteristics of the commands contained here. Then we will concentrate on the two primary commands of the chapter, which are both reiterated and reinforced in the New Testament (19:2, 18). Finally, we will consider some of the distortions and abuses of holiness in ancient Israel, in Israel in New Testament times, and in the subsequent history of church.
Characteristics of the Commandments
We do not have the time to consider the commandments of chapter 19 in detail, but we do need to pause long enough to get a sense of some of the characteristics of these commands.
(1) First, the chapter contains commands which are old and those which are new. The ten commandments, which have been previously laid down by God, are reiterated here.111 In verses 3 and 4, for example, the commandments to honor mother and father, to keep the sabbath, and to keep from idols are a repetition of some of the ten commandments. In verses 5-8 of Leviticus 19, we have a repetition of the ceremonial law pertaining to the peace offering, as prescribed earlier in the Book of Leviticus. There is also the “new” revelation pertaining to not harvesting the corners of the fields (19:9-11). This is appropriate here because the Israelites are now looking forward to entrance into the promised land.
The principle of progressive revelation can thus be seen to be at work in Leviticus chapter 19. Previous commands are repeated, but often in a way that gives a deeper insight into their application. New commands are also given in the light of changing circumstances.
(2) Second, the chapter contains commandments which vary in their relevance and application to New Testament Christians. Some of the commandments contained in this chapter appear112 to have no relevance to the contemporary Christian at all. For example, since we do not have slavery, the commandment pertaining to the punishment of a man who sleeps with a slave girl seems not to apply to contemporary American Christians. So, too with the command prohibiting the eating of the fruit of trees which the Israelites plant, until the fifth year (vv. 23-25). Again, the prohibition of mixing cattle, crops, or kinds of material (v. 19) do not seem to apply.
On the other hand, there are many commandments contained in chapter 19 which directly apply to the contemporary Christian. The commands to reverence mother and father (v. 3), to avoid idols (v. 4), and not to steal, deal falsely, or lie (v. 11) are all applicable to us.
Finally, there are commands which may not directly apply, but the principle can be applied in a slightly different practice that is prescribed. While we do not farm, and thus the command not to harvest the corners of the field does not apply directly, there is the underlying principle of showing compassion for the poor, and of making provision for their needs. Thus, many churches (ours included) will offer work (for pay) to those in need and who are willing to work. Keeping just weights and balances doesn’t directly apply, but we should apply the principle of a fair price for a fair product. Thus, we should not attempt to sell a car or a product for more than it is worth.
Observing that the commands of chapter 19 have different levels of applicability to the contemporary Christian is of great benefit to the student of the Old Testament scriptures, for it suggests a vitally important principle of interpretations when dealing with the Old Testament: WHEN INTERPRETING THE OLD TESTAMENT, DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT ACCEPT, REJECT, OR REVISE THE TEACHING OF THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT?
Years ago, one of my Old Testament teachers in seminary suggested this guideline, and it has been of great value. In Leviticus chapter 19 we find commands which fit into each of these categories. Some are carried directly over into the New Testament; others are modified in practice, but based upon the same principle; and others seem to be totally unnecessary. It is by a careful comparison of the Old Testament texts to the teaching of the New Testament that these decisions can be reached.
The Two Primary Commands
Our passage contains two primary commands (Lev. 19:2, 18), both of which are taken up in the New Testament. It is essential that we understand these commands if we are to fathom the force of this text. We can do this by focusing our attention on two matters: (1) the necessity of holiness, and (2) the nature of holiness.
The Necessity of Holiness
The necessity of holiness is found in the first primary commandment: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Note the following factors relative to this command.
(1) The necessity of holiness is seen by the fact that the entire nation of Israelites is commanded to be holy. Thus, holiness is not an option, but an imperative.
(2) The command also provides a motivation for holiness. Certainly, the fact that God commands His people to be holy should serve to motivate them, but this is not my point here. In the King James Version of the Bible the terms “holy” and “holiness” do not occur until the Book of Exodus. The holiness of God is manifested in the deliverance of His people from Egypt, and by the manifestation of His glory from Mt. Sinai. Thus, the people should have been motivated to live a life of holiness, based on their gratitude for the redemption God had accomplished.
(3) There is also a provision for the holiness which God required of His people. The law which was given as a part of the Mosaic Covenant was God’s standard of holiness, and obedience to this law was the means to holiness. God did not command His people to be holy without telling them how to be holy.
(4) Finally, God Himself provided the pattern for holiness. God is holy, which is the basis for Israel’s holiness. The holiness of God is thus the pattern for Israel’s holiness. Israel was not only to be holy because God is holy; they were to be holy as (like) God is holy. The actions which God required were those which He had already performed on behalf of His people.
The Nature of Holiness
We have seen that holiness is a necessity for the people of God, but it remains for us to discern the nature of this holiness. Just what was the holiness, which God required, to be like?
(1) Holiness involved obedience to the commandments of God. God did not leave His people in the dark as to what holiness consisted of. The bottom line was that holiness consisted of obedience to the laws of God, obedience to His commandments.
(2) Holiness involved sacrifice, in that it is costly. Holiness entails sacrifice. Of course, holiness required sacrifices—those outlined in the early chapters of Leviticus. But more than this, every act of obedience to the commandments of God was a sacrificial act. Obedience to God’s commandments was costly. Not cutting the corners of one’s fields cut into one’s “profit margin,” as did selling with honest weights and measures. Abstaining from eating the fruit from one’s trees for five years and observing the sabbath days was also costly. Holiness was a sacrifice.
(3) Holiness was more than a matter of observing religious rituals—it was intensely practical piety, involving a wide variety of actions as a part of one’s everyday life. True, holiness involved those special ceremonies and special holy days and going to that special place, the tabernacle, where rites were performed by a special priestly class. But chapter 19 describes a very practical, everyday, kind of holiness, of honoring parents, of honesty and kindness and compassion and justice.
(4) Holiness is the imitation of God. In the ultimate sense, living a holy life is the imitation of God, who alone is holy. Thus, when our Lord came to the earth and lived “under the law,” fully keeping the law, He manifested the holiness of God to men.
(5) Holiness was here to be revealed positively, rather than negatively. If you and I were honest, I believe that we would have to admit that we think of the holiness of God in rather negative terms. God’s holiness, for example, is thought of in terms of His hatred of sin and of His judgment of sinners. This, of course, is one dimension of God’s holiness, but it is not the dimension in focus in Leviticus 19. God’s holiness was manifested by His compassion on the Israelites when they were afflicted in Egypt, and when He delivered them from their bondage. So, too, holiness is to be manifested by the people of God by their kindness, grace, and compassion on others, especially the needy and the afflicted.
If the negative aspects of God’s holiness were in view here we should be reading of God’s command to slay all of the Canaanites, including their children, but this is not the focus of the holiness which is here required.
The positive and negative dimensions of God’s holiness can be seen in the two comings of Christ. In His first coming (His incarnation, ministry on earth, death, burial, and resurrection), our Lord did not come to judge men, but to grant them forgiveness (cf. John 3:17). Thus, He could tell the woman caught in the act of adultery to go and sin no more (John 8:11). In His second (and still future) coming our Lord will overthrow His enemies and judge the wicked. It will be a bloody occasion from the reports in the Book of Revelation. Yet in both comings the holiness of God is revealed in the person and work of Christ. Thus, holiness has both negative and positive manifestations. We, unfortunately, have focused more on the former than the latter.
(6) Finally (and, most emphatically in Leviticus 19), holiness is practiced by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (v. 18). There are, as I have suggested, two primary commands in chapter 19: (1) the command to be holy, and (2) to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. There is a direct relationship between these two commands as I understand the chapter. The holiness of God is demonstrated by His people as they love their neighbor. The term “neighbor,” as others have pointed out,113 has a wide range of meaning in this chapter:
- One’s neighbor is one’s fellow-countryman (v. 11, 17)
- One’s neighbor is alien, foreigner (v. 10, 32-33, 34)
- One’s neighbor is those who are weak and vulnerable (v. 10, 14)
- One’s neighbor is one’s enemy (v. 17-18)
It is not that holiness is manifested only by one’s loving one’s neighbor, but it is here emphasized that holiness must include an active love for one’s neighbor. Thus, just as God’s holiness is seen in His love for Israel in the Old Testament, and for the world in its weakness and need in the New, so God’s people must demonstrate God’s holiness as they show love for their neighbors, especially those in need.
Holiness in the New Testament
As I pointed out at the beginning of this message, the New Testament takes up both commands found in Leviticus 19. Our Lord, referring to the command of Leviticus 19:2, said, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). While the term “perfect” is exchanged for the word “holy,” the text He is referring to is obviously our text. Incidentally, the term “perfect” is not a bad definition of “holy,” either.
Other commands from Leviticus 19 are also taken up by our Lord as well. The second primary command of Leviticus 19 required that God’s people love their neighbor as themselves. In the context of chapter 19 it becomes clear that the Israelites’ enemies were included in the broad category of “neighbor.” So, too, loving one’s enemy is taught by our Lord in Matthew 5:48: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
In Leviticus 19:17 the people of God were taught: “You shall not hate your fellow-countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.” So also, in the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-17 the individual who has been wronged must seek to bring reconciliation (and thus to restore love and harmony) with his neighbor.
The Lord Jesus taught that the command to love one’s neighbor as himself summarized half of the law (cf. Matt. 22:39-40). With this Paul agreed (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). The apostle Peter also referred to Leviticus 19:2 as the foundation for his call to holy living: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance,114 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).
Perversions of Holiness
It should stand to reason that Satan would want to deceive men with regard to the true nature of holiness. The scriptures, along with the history of the church, have recorded a number of ways in which holiness has been distorted. Consider the following misconceptions and distortions.
(1) Stained Glass Holiness. Stained glass holiness is the view that restricts holiness to the realm of the ceremonial. It is “Sunday go to meeting holiness.” Ceremonial holiness thinks of holiness only in terms of special days, of special “holy” places, and of special “holy” activities. It tends to divorce righteousness in everyday living from religious activities and ceremonies.
This error occurred very early in the history of Israel, and has persisted through the centuries. It is condemned by the prophets of Israel. For example, the prophet Amos wrote,
“Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor And exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, Yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, You who distress the righteous and accept bribes, And turn aside the poor in the gate. … I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:11-12, 21-24).
The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day fell into the same error. They were meticulous about ceremonial holiness, and yet they did not love their neighbors. They did not preserve justice and they did not protect the widows and orphans. They had the appearance of ceremonial righteousness, but they lacked practical holiness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation” (Matt. 23:14).
A classic illustration of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees can be seen in the events surrounding the cross of Christ. The scribes and Pharisees rejected the Holy One of Israel as one who was unholy, deserving of death. They instigated His death and pressured the Roman authorities to crucify Him. And yet they were meticulous to preserve holiness in the ceremonial details: “The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
It is little wonder that our Lord said to the people concerning the holiness of these “ceremonial saints”: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). We, too, need to beware of this false holiness, which is meticulous about religious rituals—public prayers, teaching, worship—but do little or nothing in the realm of a practical demonstration of loving our neighbors.
(2) Positional Holiness. Positional holiness is that holiness which is supposed to accompany a certain office or position. For example, the Jews of Jesus’ day would have assumed that a priest (and especially the high priest) was holy. Today, some people assume that because a person is an elder, or a preacher, or a priest, he is holy. This is not necessarily the case at all. In fact, we should be reminded that such positions are strategic targets for Satan’s agents:
But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of sight. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:12-15; cf. also 2 Pet. 2).
The scribes and Pharisees did not even recognize the “Holy One of Israel,” but rather rejected and crucified Him. They assumed, though, that they had to be holy, because of their positions. It is obvious that positions of power and prestige were utmost in the minds of these unholy men:
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi” (Matt. 23:1-7).
In spite of the fact that these men held positions of power and honor, they did not do the things of which the Law spoke. Jesus thus affirmed the teaching of Leviticus, that the practice of holiness involved loving one’s neighbor and doing what the Law commanded. The scribes and Pharisees sat in “the chair of Moses” but they did not do the deeds of the Law. They were not holy.
The disciples of our Lord fell into the trap of equating position and office with piety (holiness). I think this is one of the reasons why they were so concerned with who would be the greatest in the kingdom (Mark 9:33-35). It also helps to explain why the mother of James and John wanted her sons to sit on the right and left hand of the Lord (Matt. 20:20-21).
Before we begin to feel a bit too smug on this point, why is it that contemporary Christianity thinks that it is more spiritual for a person to be in “full-time Christian service” than to be “merely a layman”? The same false perception of holiness underlies the inordinate desire for professional ministry, in many cases. Holiness has nothing to do with one’s occupation (unless, of course, it is intrinsically an immoral task), but rather with one’s obedience to the commands of God in daily living.
By both His teaching and His example, Jesus dealt a death blow to this false conception of holiness. He taught His disciples that status was not the goal of the Christian, but rather service: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20:25-27).
His own example speaks louder than anything else. He who had all the position and status and power, He who had all of the visible glory of heaven, set it aside, and took upon Himself human flesh, so that He could suffer and die to save His creatures (Phil. 2:5-8). This act was symbolized by the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), and was to be an example they were to follow.
(3) Equating Holiness With the Miraculous. Here is one of the most subtle and dangerous errors of all—assuming that wherever miracles are performed, God must be present and the person must be holy. There are two tests of a true prophet laid down in the Old Testament, which ought not to be forgotten by the New Testament saint. The first is that of an evidence of divine power:
“‘But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And you may say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:20-22).
Contrary to popular opinion, this text does not teach what some have assumed. It does not teach us that any prophet whose words come true is a true prophet. It teaches that any prophet whose words do not come true is a false prophet. The absence of the miraculous element is proof of a false prophet, but the presence of the miraculous is not necessarily proof of being a true prophet. This is clearly seen in an earlier text:
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him” (Deut. 13:1-4).
Here it is recognized that false prophets will manifest miraculous power. The “acid test” of a true prophet is not the presence of miracles, but his adherence to the Word of God.
The Lord’s words in the New Testament seem to go even farther:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits … So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ Therefore every one who hears these words of Mine and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:15-16a, 20-24).
False prophets will be known by their fruits. Their fruits do not include miracles, which they may well perform (prophesy, exorcisms, miracles), but are the keeping of our Lord’s words, which in the context of the Sermon on the Mount are the heart of the Old Testament Law. These “miracle-workers” are said to practice lawlessness. Those who are wise, Jesus taught, will, unlike the false prophets, hear His words and act on them.
Here is one of the great dangers of all time. Some Christians are remarkably gullible, and will eagerly follow any person who appears to be holy, as demonstrated (they think) by having miraculous power. The fruits by which we are to determine one’s holiness are the fruits of keeping our Lord’s commands, not those of signs and wonders, which Satan is also able to produce (cf. Rev. 13:13). Power is not synonymous with piety. Even Christians, who have miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, may exercise these from carnal motives and for carnal purposes. In his first epistle to the Corinthians the apostle Paul tries to show that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power through gifted people is not proof of their piety. Those who seemed to have the most spectacular gifts (and thus the largest following) were not the most spiritual.
(4) Isolational Holiness. Over the centuries, men have tended to equate holiness with separation. One’s holiness could be measured in terms of the distance between the “saint” and the “sinner.” No wonder the “holy” scribes and Pharisees were shocked by the fact that Jesus spent time with “sinners” rather than with them: “And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?’” (Mark 2:16). Jesus answer was that He came to save sinners. He who was holy was not defiled by being in the presence of sinners. It was His intrinsic holiness and the holiness of His actions which proved Him to be the Holy One of Israel.
Christians down through the centuries have been tempted to be sanctified by physical separation from “sinners,” forgetting that the “world” is only one source of corruption, while the “flesh” and the devil are also sources of contamination and temptation. Thus there have been the cave dwellers, the hermits, and the monks, who have sought spirituality (holiness) by separation. Jesus, however, taught that holiness needed to be manifested and multiplied by penetration, not isolation:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:13-17).
Jesus taught the principle of penetration, which is precisely what He practiced. Holiness was incarnated in Christ, and was evidenced by His fulfillment of the Law. So it must be in His followers. There is a kind of “separation” being practiced by Christians today which has a form of godliness, but which denies God’s power to sanctify in the presence of sinners, who will not see the holiness of God or be saved apart from a demonstration of it in their world.
(5) Holiness by Redefinition. The scribes and Pharisees were ingenious at getting around the Word of God. Thus, they re-defined the Law to conform to their own sinfulness. If holiness was manifested by loving one’s neighbor, they re-defined “neighbor” to be their friends and fellow-countrymen.
When a pagan asked for a statement of Israel’s law in its shortest form, Hillel, the contemporary of Jesus, expressed this as ‘whatever is hateful to you, do not do this unto your countryman,’ and he added that ‘this is the whole law; all else is merely interpretation. There remains an enormous difference between this saying of Hillel and God’s demand, however. Furthermore, in Jesus’ requirement a person’s neighbor is not limited to members of his own people (Luke 10:29-37), and pre-Christian Judaism was never able to ascend to this thought. 115
The hypocrisy of Judaism is seen in Luke chapter 10, where our Lord has summarized the teaching of the Old Testament law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). To this, the Israelite lawyer sought to defend himself by responding, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Here was the rub. To the scribes and Pharisees, their neighbor was their friend, their fellow-Israelite. Our Lord’s response to this, the story of the Good Samaritan, showed that one’s neighbor included those in need, even those of another nation. This interpretation precisely conforms to the teaching of Leviticus 19.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord exposed this error, very early (it would seem) in His ministry:
“You have heard that it was said,116 ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48).
It seems to me that we have tended to this same error, in a variety of ways. One is that we seem to be placing more emphasis on “fellowship” than we are on evangelism. We are spending more time with other Christians in church than we are “in the streets” with the lost. We are spending more money on church buildings, staff, and programs than we are on helping the poor. In essence, our spirituality is more self-centered (self in the sense of Christian-oriented) than sinner-oriented.
There is an even more deadly evil in our age, however, one that has been the dubious distinction of our generation to contrive. While the Jews redefined but one term, “neighbor,” we have redefined the entire command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I say this to our great shame.
Our age is extremely self-centered. Rather than having a heart for others—our “neighbors,” we have become preoccupied with ourselves, with our “self-image.” The new evil of our day is having a “poor self-concept.” This has been cited as the cause for nearly every sin. Thus, we are being told (even from the pulpit), “We cannot love God, nor can we love men, until we first love ourselves.” This concept fits perfectly into the sinful, selfish, self-oriented spirit of our age. It sanctifies many evils. It directly ignores biblical theology and our Lord’s teaching. It flies in the face of the teaching of Leviticus 19. It comes from the pit of hell. God spare us from this kind of redefinition. God enable us to lay down our lives for others, to place the interests of others above ourselves (Phil. 2).
Herein is true holiness, obeying the commands of God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. May God grant us to do this.
109 “However manifold the commandments, which are grouped together rather according to a loose association of ideas than according to any logical arrangement, they are all linked together by the common purpose expressed in ver. 2 in the words, ‘Ye shall be holy, for I am holy, Jehovah your God.’” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 418.
“This chapter covers such a variety of topics that the modern reader finds difficulty in seeing any rhyme or reason in its organization. But once it is recognized that ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ marks the end of a paragraph, its structure becomes much clearer.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 263.
110 Wenham, pp. 263-264.
111 In a footnote, Wenham lists the repetitions of the Decalogue: “Verse 4, cf. Exod. 20:3-6; v. 12, cf. Exod. 20:7; vv. 3, 30, cf. Exod. 20:8-12; v. 16, cf. Exod. 20:13; vv. 20-22, 29, cf. Exod. 20:14; vv. 11, 13, cf. Exod. 20:15; vv. 15-16, cf. Exod. 20:16; vv. 17-18, cf. Exod. 20:17.” Wenham, p. 264, fn. 1.
112 I must express a note of caution here because there is always the danger of calling a commandment “irrelevant” which, in the light of further study and reflection, may prove to be otherwise. For example, I would have been inclined to think that the command, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4), irrelevant, except for the fact that Paul applies the underlying principle of this command to the payment of those who preach (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-14).
113 Wenham writes, “Different words for ‘neighbor’ are used within this section, so that v. 18 forms a literary as well as a theological climax to the whole passage. (1) Fellow citizen—I am the Lord (vv. 11-12); (2) neighbor—I am the Lord (vv. 13-14); (3) Fellow citizen, people, neighbor (vv. 15-16); (4) Brother, fellow citizen, people neighbor—I am the Lord (vv. 17-18). Wenham, p. 267.
114 Notice the similarity of this exhortation from the pen of Peter to that of God in the first five verses of Leviticus chapter 19. Indeed, I am increasingly impressed with the degree to which Peter has borrowed from the terminology and theology of Leviticus in his epistle. Thus, Peter buttressed his call to holy living on the fact that his readers, like the Israelites of old, had been called to be a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). There are many parallels between Peter’s exhortations in his epistle and God’s commands in Leviticus.
115 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 199-200.
116 I have pointed this out elsewhere, but I must reiterate that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaimed and defended the teaching of the Old Testament Law. He did not give another Law, as some suggest. The expression, “You have heard that it was said,” refers to the interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees, not to the actual teaching of the Old Testament. Jesus sought to restore the true teaching of the Old Testament, not to throw it out and replace it. He came, as He said, not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.