Moses instructed Israel that God’s holiness was the foundation of their national identity. From His appearance on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 through the days of Israel’s travels to the Promised Land, God wished for His people to understand holiness as the essence of His nature—and to live accordingly. Leviticus 17-24 teaches that God’s holiness was to shape not only Israel’s religious observances, but also their relationships and community interdependence. Perhaps these chapters answer the question, “How should the holy be holy in everyday life?”
Although the laws detailed here could be categorized into a variety of headings, perhaps one could organize the initial instructions under three “lifestyle” issues: corporate gatherings, sexuality, and social relationships. Leviticus 17 and 20 catalog specific laws about corporate gatherings and ceremonies in ancient Israel. As is the case with many points of the Levitical code, these laws were intended to set Israel apart from other nations. Holiness was also to characterize the sexuality of Israel (Leviticus 18 and 20). Leviticus 19 provides instruction for neighborliness in ancient Israel.
While the thrust of these laws was holiness in the daily living of ancient Israel, here God also reminded Israel to maintain their holiness in worship and sacrifice. Israel’s religious observances were to be governed by the concept of wholeness—as evidenced by the priests, whose holiness was related to their physical condition (Leviticus 21-22). The formal worship ceremonies were to be ordered around specific occasions and Holy Days (Leviticus 23) and centered around the tabernacle (Lev 24:1-9). The case of the man who blasphemed God (Lev 24:10-23) underscores the point that Israel was to maintain the same law for the foreigner and the descendants of Jacob. The Lord of Israel is Holy and the behavior of anyone associated with His people was to reflect Him.
The theme of practical holiness in these chapters—especially the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18)—is picked up later in the storyline of Scripture, shaping norms in the new covenant. For Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, love of neighbor is an essential expression of holy living.
(1) Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37//Mark 12:30//Luke 10:27a; see Deut 6:5), and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39//Mark 12:31//Luke 10:27b). After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet—an act that they would later understand to prefigure the love He would show them in His crucifixion—Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
(2) Paul instructed the Romans that all the commands of the law were summed up in the phrase: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:9). He exhorted the Galatians that they should not use their freedom from the Mosaic law for selfish living, but instead serve each other through love—since, again, “The entire law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).
(3) In order to combat favoritism and greed in his audience, James also quoted Lev 19:18, writing: “If you carry out the royal law prescribed in Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8).
(4) Peter employed Lev 19:2 as the thesis of his first epistle. To those who were enduring difficulty because of their identification with Christ, the apostle wrote: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance but, as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:14-15). He went on to urge his audience: “By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet 1:22).