Leviticus 26—The Basis of Obedience

Leviticus ends with two chapters on human response to the divine revelation contained in this book—obedience (ch. 26) and devotion (ch. 27).

Chapter 26 is a chapter on obedience, with blessings and curses hanging in the balance. The chapter seems relatively straightforward and poses no challenge to structural analysis—a series of “if, then” statements to close out the covenant document (as is common in ancient Near Eastern treaties and legal texts) saying in essence “do this and you’re good; if not, watch out.”

C.H. Mackintosh is representative of some exegetes when he says, “This chapter requires little in way of note or exposition.”[1]

“Little exposition required.” Can this be seriously said of any passage in the Bible? This conclusion short changes readers of Scripture and withholds its riches. If every line of Dante’s Comedy has generated an immense body of commentary and secondary literature, how can it not be the case with the Bible? Nothing here is insipid, trivial, or fortuitous.

Augustine’s exclamation holds true even here in Leviticus 26:

What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing.[2]

A Concentrated Summary of God’s Economy

The chapter begins with three statements:

  1. You shall not make for yourselves idols
  2. You shall keep My Sabbaths
  3. You shall reverence My sanctuary

Many commentators take these to be a simple summary of the most important commandments. Witness Lee sees here an abstract of the main points of the entire Bible. There is a concentration of revelation here that, when unpacked, encompasses the entire divine economy. Amazing depths! Lee is very much in line with patristic interpreters like Augustine in his approach to Scripture—relentless in his search for the single “hypothesis” (Irenaeus’ term) that binds together all the books of the Bible and arranges all the tiles of the text so that people can see the mosaic of Christ and the church. The early church called that hypothesis, God’s economy.

The intrinsic significance of these commandments involves the major points of God’s economy:

  1. The processed Triune God
  2. His work
  3. The result of His work—the church

Witness Lee sums it up like this:

Because neglecting these matters is against God’s economy, we need to be warned to regard them… These three matters—God, God’s work, and the result of God’s work—are covered fully in the sixty-six books of the Bible… The entire Bible is thus an unveiling of these three things. First we have the processed Triune God and His work for our rest, and then, as the result of His work, we have the church as the expression and the enlargement of the consummated Christ.[3]

God’s Economy is the Basis of Our Obedience

In our fallen nature we are “constituted sinners” (Rom. 5:19) and “sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:5). How can we possibly find the resources in our fallen being to obey God? And if the entire covenant is predicated on OUR performance, woe is me! We are ontologically unable. Paul was reduced to wretchedness by the realization that “to will is present with me, but to work out the good is not” (Rom. 7:18). Isaiah sums up Israel’s condition as “a people who disobey and contradict” (Rom. 10:21). If these title characters in the divine drama couldn’t play their parts well, what hope is there for us extras? We have to obey, but we can’t.

Lee has an incredible insight here: the three commands in vv. 1-2 are “the basis for our obedience.” These aren’t just a summary of the most important commandments to obey, they imply how we can even be obedient in the first place. When we go beyond the letter to see the intrinsic significance of these commands, we get a dazzling glimpse of God’s glorious way in His economy to overcome our fallen inability and “constitute us into obedient ones.”[4]

In other words, who God is in His process, what He has done in His work, and the reality of the church as the result of His work, produce in our being a divine ability to obey God and remain under His blessing. Augustine’s prayer, “Grant what You command, and command what You will” is the startling prayer that emerges from this realization and which shocks the moralizing sensibilities of Pelagians everywhere.[5] God grants what He commands by dispensing Christ into our being so that Christ fulfills the law from within us in organic union with us (Rom. 8:3). As Watchman Nee says, “The commandments of Christ can only be fulfilled by Christ Himself.”[6]

Let’s look at each one of these in connection to the New Testament.

1. No idols

We know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding that we might know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:20-21)

The first basis of our obedience is not having any idols. This signifies that God is the only goal we seek and the only object of our ultimate affections. Psalm 73:25 captures the essence of this: “Whom do I have in heaven but You? And besides You there is nothing I desire on earth.”

1 John 5:21 seems to be a strange and non-sequitur ending to John’s first letter. It’s his last verse, how he signs off. Why does he end like this?

Idols here are in contrast to the true God. But if we look closer, “the true God” is not just a generic term for monotheism, as in Judaism. The true God here is the processed Triune God. This is indicated by two phrases—”the Son of God has come,” pointing to incarnation, and “we are in His Son,” pointing to resurrection when the Lord became the Spirit and pointing to our incorporation in Christ through the resurrection. How could we be in Christ, in another person? Only through the Spirit. “In that day [of resurrection] you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

The Spirit includes all the elements of Christ’s historical process plus all the divine attributes comprising the divine nature. If we seek this processed Triune God who has been consummated as the Spirit, we will experience and enjoy all that He is being dispensed into us. Then He Himself will begin to live in us and fulfill His own demands. A one word summary of all this is “grace.” Grace is the processed Triune God in Christ as the Spirit becoming our life and life supply to do everything from within us for our full salvation.

The point here is that idols are in direct opposition to the who of the divine drama.

Idolatry stems from a misunderstanding or rejection of the divine dramatis personae. There can be no clearer example of a lack of theo-dramatic fittingness than behavior that evinces a total ignorance of whose drama it is. Idolatry denies the core of the theo-drama.[7]

In context of 1 John, idols are heretical substitutes and vain replacements for the processed God. These are theological idols and conceptual idols that negate God’s process and our ability to experience His eternal life. At John’s time, some people were saying Jesus hadn’t really taken on flesh (called docetism). Theologians in the 4th century eventually responded to this claim with the elegant aphorism, “that which is not assumed is not healed.”[8] If Jesus hadn’t been fully God AND fully man, then our salvation collapses. Specifically, if He didn’t fully participate in our humanity, then our humanity cannot be healed, which means that our disease of disobedience cannot be healed.

So the first basis of our obedience is seeking the processed Triune God as our life and everything.

2. Keep My Sabbaths

Let no one therefore judge you in respect of the Sabbath, which is a shadow of the things to come, but the body is of Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)

The second factor that produces obedience is keeping the Sabbath. In New Testament terms, this means stopping our own work and resting in the work that the Triune God has done for us. We need to respect, enter into, and enjoy God’s work. In John 5:17, the Lord said, “My Father is working until now, and I also am working.”

The New Testament contains at least 261 aspects of the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit.[9] A representative list includes: choosing, calling, justifying, undoing the works of the devil, taking away the sin of the world, interceding for us continually, administrating the world situation, regenerating, sanctifying, transforming, anointing, glorifying.

If we enter into and enjoy the Triune God’s work for our full salvation, then we certainly will be able to obey God’s word. In fact, Paul links our obedience with God’s inner operation. “Even as you have always obeyed… work out your own salvation… for it is God who operates in you the willing and the working for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Man’s obedience is contingent on God’s operation. God’s operation is His work, and it produces our obedience as an organic outgrowth.

We have a problem though. We are pickled with the principle of the law. It is in our fallen nature to try and work to make ourselves acceptable to God, either before or after salvation.  In John 6, some religiously minded people asked Jesus, “What should we do that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered with, “This is the work of God, that you believe into Him whom He has sent.” This is the work, believe! What kind of work is that?! And in John’s theology, to believe is to receive (John 1:12). Jesus is saying, “You want to do work? How about you work at becoming a good receiver of grace.”

We are all “elder brothers” deep within. A prodigal son comes back to the church life after being away for a long time, and we get angry about the heightened enjoyment God experiences with them and then complain about how long we have been slaving away here without ever neglecting a single command (Luke 15:29). Of course we’d never say this outwardly, but our smugness and inability to rejoice with them proves that the principle of the law has sunk its talons deep into our flesh and has us in a chokehold.

Watchman Nee’s comments on this passage are golden:

When we seek to please God, we are according to the works of the law. Our works are hateful to God—even our “good works.” All of our works are “dead works” and need to be repented of. As soon as we stop giving, we will prove what a Giver He is. As soon as we stop working, we will see what a worker He is. The elder brother and the prodigal son were equally far removed from the joys of the father’s house. The elder brother, though not in the “far country,” was only at home positionally. His theoretical position could never become experiential, as it was in the case of the prodigal, because he refused to forsake his own good works.[10]

Karl Barth echoes him when he says,

The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again just the pride and anxiety of our human hearts. We would rather not live by grace. Something within us energetically rebels against it. We do not wish to receive grace; at best we prefer to give ourselves grace.[11]

Whenever we perceive the discrepancy between what we are and what God’s word calls us to be, there is always the danger that we resort to the work of self-improvement to make up our lack. This is to break the Sabbath. Any shortage in ourselves we perceive should drive us deeper into the enjoyment of and rest in the work of the Triune God. One sign of keeping the New Testament Sabbath is praising the Lord for all that His work includes. Praise is a recognition of another’s work and our enjoyment, appreciation, and benefit because of it.

God’s work in us will constitute us into obedient ones by making us one with the One who was obedient unto death (Phil. 2:8).

3. Reverence My Sanctuary

What agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, even as God said, “I will dwell among them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (2 Cor. 6:16)

The third basis for our obedience is reverencing God’s sanctuary, which in the New Testament is the church. In 2 Corinthians 6:16 Paul quotes Leviticus 26:11-12 to prove that WE are the temple of God.

The church is the goal of all God’s work. To reverence the sanctuary is to regard with the highest esteem the church and the people who constitute the church. The church is not just a group of likeminded people, i.e. people with the same belief system. The church is an incorporation of God with man. I confess I don’t realize enough what the church is, that’s why sometimes it’s easy to be ho-hum about it. We don’t realize what we’re touching.

Practically speaking, to reverence the church is to come to the meetings of the church. Too many Christians have a low view of church, that it is just the waiting room for heaven. Or that as long as they read their Bible and watch some youtube sermons that is enough. A popular pastor in LA recently announced that the newest church they were planting was an app and that church was wherever you used the app to access online content. This kind of individualism is a big reason why so many believers are weak. It’s like a severed hand trying to survive on its own apart from the body. One of the blessings of being built up in the Body of Christ is “five chasing a thousand, and a hundred chasing then thousand” (Lev. 26:8). That’s something you can’t do alone.

If we dive into the church life with the highest reverence and get built up with other believers, we certainly will be strengthened to obey God’s word.

Conclusion

Seeking God in His process and consummation, enjoying and resting in His work, and giving ourselves to the building up of the church—this is a summary of God’s economy. In His economy God dispenses all that He is and Has done into us for our full salvation. This will produce the reality of the church according to God’s standard in His eternal purpose. With such a basis we will be well able to obey God’s word and remain in the jubilee enjoying God’s blessing.

 


 

1. C.H. Mackintosh, Notes on the Pentateuch, 413
2. Augustine, Confessions 12.14.17
3. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Leviticus, 529, 537
4. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Leviticus, 539
5. Augustine, Confessions 10.29.40
6. Watchman Nee, CWWN 27:164-166
7. Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 262
8. Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101
9. Witness Lee, Conclusion of the New Testament
10. Watchman Nee, CWWN, Vol. 46, Ch. 11
11. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 20

3 thoughts on “Leviticus 26—The Basis of Obedience

  1. Thanks for your work and thoughtfulness, Kyle. I have two questions and one comment.

    First, is Witness Lee’s “processed Trinity” roughly equivalent to the West’s “economic Trinity”?

    Second, are we “ontologically unable” to obey? That would imply the complete destruction or disappearance of the image of God and would also imply that the Word’s incarnation—not his atoning death, resurrection, and bodily ascension—are what reconcile God to humankind. Would it not be better to say that we are ethically unable (or just *unable*), though we are still ethically responsible as those who are (ontologically) image-bearers? If we are “ontologically unable,” then one is hard-pressed to say how we are responsible for obedience.

    Third, one aspect of reading things in line with God’s oeconomia is seeing things in their situation within redemptive history and seeing how (in Irenaeus’s language) Jesus Christ “recapitulates” Israel. For example——
    The end of Leviticus is part of (not even the end of; Numbers begins with a wayyiqtol) a covenant-administration document that YHWH gave to theocratic Israel at Sinai. The curses that are threatened in Lev 26 *did* happen to national Israel (cf. the prophetic “when” in Deut 30.1). Israel broke the Sinai covenant to the uttermost and experienced the Exile, and then YHWH remembered the Sinai covenant (Lev 26.45), founded on grace (“whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God”). In order to bring them out of Exile, it was fitting to have a new covenant (Jer 31.31–34; Ezek 11.14–21). Israel was still in Exile when the Word became flesh and dwelt among them (cf. Acts 1.6–9, where Jesus hints to his disciples that the kingdom of Israel is restored at Pentecost). In his earthly ministry, this Jesus recapitulated all of Israel’s history before God. Jesus perfectly obeyed as second Adam and true Israel, serving the Father alone with no gods beside him, and taking upon himself as the substitutionary sacrifice the curse of the law (of Eden, of Sinai) by hanging upon a tree. So when this last-Adam and true-Israel is cut off at the cross, the new covenant is cut. In the grave, Jesus Christ keeps the Sabbath and rests from his work of re-creation. And he rebuilds the temple sanctuary—his body—on the third day when he rises bodily from the tomb (John 2.19–22). ———All that is to say, the redemptive-historical understanding of Lev 26–27 points to Christ first, and then to the Church, who are empowered by the Spirit to forsake idols, keep the Sabbath (which must involve more than just praising God, which should happen every day), and love the brothers and sisters for the sake of Christ.

    —Philip

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    • Yes, Lee uses the term economic Trinity all the time. He essentially means the same thing. The term process refers to the steps through which the Triune God has passed in the economy. It emphasizes the actual historical events in the economy of salvation in Christ’s experience—incarnation through ascension. Lee’s use of process has no connection to “process theology.”

      Yeah that might be a better way to say it. I probably wrote “ontologically unable” because it has a nice ring to it. But no, I don’t think the image of God was destroyed after the fall. I guess I was just trying to capture the thought that post-fall we are unable to obey God. Think: Paul’s diagnosis in Romans 1-3. With “ontological” I was trying to indicate the source of our inability is our own fallen being, something along the lines of total depravity. But until we are regenerated we cannot or at least we do not obey God. After regeneration, I think we are able to obey, but this obedience depends on our experience of grace. I think the passive imperative in Greek captures this dynamic, such as in Rom 12:2, “be transformed”, not transform yourself. I did a post on it a few years back. I think Cranfield’s comment is dead on: “The use of the passive imperative is consonant with the truth that, while this transformation is not the Christians’ own doing but the work of the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless have a real responsibility in the matter—to let themselves be transformed, to respond to the leading and pressure of God’s Spirit.”

      Great third point. I have nothing against that understanding of recapitulation, it just wasn’t my focus in this post.

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  2. Pingback: Modern Idols | conversant faith

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