Leviticus 11-16 states the degree of God’s purity by pointing out how easily Israelites could become ceremonially defiled. Israel’s worship leaders were warned to, “Keep the Israelites from their uncleanness, so that they do not die by defiling My tabernacle that is among them” (Lev 15:31). A means of atonement was therefore necessary for full participation in worship.
Leviticus 11 emphasizes God’s holiness by stating that Israelites could become defiled even through contact with animal life. Here various wildlife (e.g., land animals, aquatic animals, birds, flying insects, dead animals, and swarming animals), were categorized in relation to their cleanliness/uncleanness for ancient Israel. God’s holiness was further displayed in the fact that His people were defiled through even the natural processes of life (Leviticus 12-15). An Israelite’s involvement in marital relations, and the general hygiene of their skin, affected their ceremonial cleanliness. In light of the superlative degree of God’s holiness described in Leviticus 11-15, it is no wonder that a general atonement was necessary for those drawing near to God in worship. That was the purpose of the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16.
Leviticus 11-16 provides a window for understanding the New Testament.
(1) Jesus, Peter, and Paul proposed that laws regarding food cleanliness were to be set aside lest they separate Jewish and Gentile believers. Jesus chastised the Jewish leadership because they maintained many of the commands regarding external cleanliness, including food laws, but lacked love for God and people (Matt 15:1-20//Mark 7:1-23). Jesus declared all food clean, saying that a person is made unclean by what comes out of his heart and mouth, not what goes into his stomach (Mark 7:17-23). To instruct Peter that He was opening the doors of salvation to the Gentiles, the Lord gave Peter a vision of unclean animals and told Peter to eat of them (Acts 10:9-16). The Lord then told Peter to go with the delegation from Cornelius’s house and Peter there declared that God was calling Gentiles to Himself apart from observance of food laws (Acts 10:17-43). Peter went to Jerusalem and reported all the Lord had done, proclaiming that the presence of the Spirit, and not external cleanliness, distinguished the followers of Jesus (Acts 11:1-18). Yet, food laws were so pervasive in the Jewish mindset that even Peter began to follow them again when he came to Antioch—and Paul rebuked him publicly (Gal 2:11-14). Paul repeatedly warned the Jews and Gentiles in his audiences that they should abstain from following food laws if those food laws caused divisions in their churches (Rom 14:1-23; Eph 2:11-22; Col 2:16-19; 1 Tim 4:1-5).
(2) In Phil 3:5, Paul noted that he was circumcised when he was eight days old, in accord with Lev 12:3. Moses commanded that when a Jewish boy was born, he was to be circumcised at eight days old. This command codified the covenant of circumcision the Lord made with Abraham when He commanded the patriarch to circumcise Ishmael and all the males of his household (Gen 17:1-16). Paul noted that, though like many Jews he once thought circumcision to be necessary for salvation (Rom 2:25-29; Gal 2:1-10; 5:1-12; 6:11-16), the Lord opened his eyes to the superior righteousness of Christ (Phil 3:1-9).
(3) Jesus healed lepers by declaring them clean, instantly, apart from the required priestly procedures in Leviticus 13-14 that would signify that a leper had been cleansed. When Jesus healed lepers (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16; 17:11-19), He urgently commanded them to go to the priests and show their new, clean status.
(4) In Hebrews 9, the author argued that Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself fulfilled what the Day of Atonement anticipated. The Day of Atonement was the annual covering of Israel’s sins, for which the high priest and his servants followed specific protocol. First, the high priest dressed in holy garments (Lev 16:3-4). Second, he offered a young bull as a sin offering for himself and his family, sprinkling its blood on the mercy seat and the altar (Lev 16:6, 11-14, 18). Next, he brought two goats as the sin offering for Israel (Lev 16:7-10)—one to be sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat and the altar (Lev 16:15-19), and the other released into the wilderness as a symbolic representation of Israel’s forgiveness (Lev 16:20-22). Fourth, he disrobed of the holy garments and bathed himself (Lev 16:23-24a). Likewise, the man who took the goat into the wilderness was required to wash his clothes and bathe before returning to the camp (Lev 16:26). Finally, the high priest offered his ram and the ram of Israel as burnt offerings to the Lord (Lev 16:24b-25). An additional servant assisted in the process of taking the remains of the bull and goat, which had been used as sin offerings, outside the camp and burning them there. He too needed to wash his clothes and bathe before re-entering the camp (Lev 16:27-28). While the high priest and a few servants worked on this day, it was to be a Sabbath day of consecration for the people (Lev 16:29-34). The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus entered the tabernacle of heaven with His own blood so that He would appear in God’s presence to atone for the sins of His followers once and for all.