In Old Testament times the true followers of God lived according to what was written in the first five books of Moses. The Torah as it was called contained the history and doctrinal distinctive for the nation. Within those five books, Leviticus was the practical roadmap for righteousness. If you wanted to learn how to please God, you went there. It was also the book that gave detailed instructions on how you could be forgiven or your sin. A physical location is established where man can have atonement made for sin. It’s all quite remarkable.
In our day, as New Testament believers in search of what is practical, it’s tempting to read Genesis, scan Exodus, skim Leviticus, ignore Numbers, and pick it up again in Deuteronomy. Unfortunately in doing so we miss out on the Scriptures that shaped the mindset of the Jews Jesus was trying to teach in the gospels.
The audience that Jesus was speaking to actually loved the book of Leviticus. Leviticus was for the faithful Jew what Romans is for the New Testament saint. Leviticus was life. Leviticus was freedom. Leviticus was where you went to find out how you were supposed to make God happy. Leviticus told you what you needed to do in order to get forgiveness, diagnose your rash, overcome guilt, reestablish relationships, reconcile accounts, make restitution, and be made clean in the eyes of God and man.
So in the gospels, when Jesus is telling the Jews that diet and holiness are not linked (Mark 7:15), he is not just unraveling the contents of a book that no one really reads. He is attacking the very heart of their gospel. The good news he brings is the opposite of the good news they were taught by the Pharisees and the good news they spread around the world, inadvertently making proselytes sons of hell twice over (Matthew 23:15).
It’s almost impossible for us to estimate how profound these statements are. As a whole the Jews were likely more religious, fastidious, zealous, and even convinced of the truth then many present-day professing believers are. On top of that, they also had a very formal structure of religious leadership that was brutally oppressive at times, but also comforting in a strange way. It had been there for a long time and was familiar. There was something comforting about the routine, and fact that nothing really changed. The expectations were pretty clear, and the list of rules required no independent thought. Besides, they always had someone else to blame if the interpretation was wrong, and therefore God wouldn’t hold them directly accountable.
Jesus was ruining all that. His message was one that called Jews who were comfortable in their traditional way of doing things, to abandon it and follow him. This was radical. This was heretical. It was also the only hope the people had, and still is.