RPM, Volume 20, Number 3, January 14 to January 20, 2018

But I Didn't Mean To: The Unintentional Sin Offering

Leviticus 3:1-17

By Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter four, as we continue to work our way through the Book of Leviticus, looking right now at the five great offerings which are described twice in Leviticus 1-7. Tonight we are looking specifically at the offering for purification in the case of unintentional sin–sin that was not high-handed, there were mitigating aspects to this sin.

Perhaps it will help you, though, if we outline this passage a little bit ahead of time. It's a long passage: we'll read all the way into the fifth chapter. It has a number of different categories.

First of all, if you look at verses 1-12, you see the requirement of the offering for purification in the case of unintentional sin, when the person who is the unintentional sinner is the priest. Now, that's a problem. A priest is supposed to help you be purified; what happens when the priest needs purification? Well, verses 1-12 address that circumstance.

Then look at verses 13-21. This is the command for the offering for the purification of unintentional sin in case the whole congregation of Israel sins against the Lord. What if the whole assembly of God's people are somehow corporately involved in sin?

Then, in verses 22-26, here is the command for how to purify the unintentional sin of a leader in Israel, an elder perhaps, a judge, one of the chief leaders of God's people.

If you look at verses 27 all the way down to 35 at the end of the chapter, you have the command for what to do in the case of a common member of the people of Israel. What do you do when one of the common people sins unintentionally? And you'll notice again, like we have already seen in the Book of Leviticus, various different offerings are allowed to be offered by individuals in Israel who are in the circumstance of having to offer a purification sacrifice for their unintentional sin, because the common people are at very different economic levels, and some can afford a lot, and some can hardly afford anything at all. And so different levels of sacrifices are listed.

Finally, if you look at chapter five, verses 1-13, here we have certain circumstances that make a person impure. One circumstance you'll see is the circumstance of failing to tell something you know in the context of a trial that is being held before a judge in Israel. But different from that, and yet in the same list is the circumstance of touching something or someone who is ceremonially unclean, and thus partaking of impurity oneself, and thus being barred from the worship of the Lord and the experience of His communion.

And so we have a long list of circumstances that make a person impure. Those are the five parts of the passage that we'll consider tonight.

Let's hear, then, God's holy word in Leviticus, chapter four, beginning in verse one. Before we read God's word and hear it proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You that You have given us Your law to show us sin. If we had not had Your law, we would have been tempted to think lightly of, to make light of sin. We would not have understood how expansive the possibilities of sin are. We wouldn't have realized how egregious sin is in Your sight. Heavenly Father, thank You for showing us in Your word the provision of sacrifice for sin. Had we seen the depth of sin and not seen a way out, we would have despaired; but from the very beginnings of Your law You set forth a way of salvation, a sacrifice, and ultimately a Savior. We thank You for this. As we see both sin and the Savior tonight in Your law, speak to our hearts. Grant us, O God, not simply to be interested or to be informed, but to be humbled by Your Spirit; to be built up in the Savior; to come to greater appreciation of grace; and to give You all the praise and glory. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word. Hear it.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them, if the anointed priest sins so as to bring guilt on the people, then let him offer to the LORD a bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed. 'He shall bring the bull to the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, and he shall lay his hand on the head of the bull and slay the bull before the LORD. 'Then the anointed priest is to take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary. 'The priest shall also put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense which is before the LORD in the tent of meeting; and all the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.

'He shall remove from it all the fat of the bull of the sin offering: the fat that covers the entrails, and all the fat which is on the entrails, 9and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, which is on the loins, and the lobe of the liver, which he shall remove with the kidneys (just as it is removed from the ox of the sacrifice of peace offerings), and the priest is to offer them up in smoke on the altar of burnt offering. 'But the hide of the bull and all its flesh with its head and its legs and its entrails and its refuse, that is, all the rest of the bull, he is to bring out to a clean place outside the camp where the ashes are poured out, and burn it on wood with fire; where the ashes are poured out it shall be burned. 'Now if the whole congregation of Israel commits error and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they commit any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and they become guilty; when the sin which they have omitted becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting. 'Then the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be slain before the LORD. 'Then the anointed priest is to bring some of the blood of the bull to the tent of meeting; and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil. 'He shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the LORD in the tent of meeting; and all the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting. 'He shall remove all its fat from it and offer it up in smoke on the altar. 'He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. 'Then he is to bring out the bull to a place outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly. 'When a leader sins and unintentionally does any one of all the things which the LORD his God has commanded not to be done, and he becomes guilty, if his sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a male without defect. 'He shall lay his hand on the head of the male goat and slay it in the place where they slay the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering. 'Then the priest is to take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering; and the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering. 'All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven. 'Now if anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and becomes guilty, if his sin which he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without defect, for his sin which he has committed. 'He shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slay the sin offering at the place of the burnt offering. 'The priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering; and all the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar. 'Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. 'But if he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring it, a female without defect. 'He shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slay it for a sin offering in the place where they slay the burnt offering. 'The priest is to take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and all the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar. 'Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin that he has committed, and he will be forgiven.

One of the things that strikes you after reading that passage is not simply the bloodiness of the sacrificial ritual–there would have been blood everywhere–but the principle that you heard repeated five more times, that after atonement there is forgiveness. Atonement/forgiveness; atonement/forgiveness; sacrifice/forgiveness; sacrifice/forgiveness–over and over, the principle that there can only be forgiveness, cleansing of guilt, purification of defilement, with sacrifice. That principle has been reiterated already in this book. It will continue to be reiterated all the way to Leviticus 16, but it is driven home once again in Leviticus 4 and 5. It is not that God's forgiveness of His people must be conditioned in the sense of being constrained; it is not that God's unwilling to forgive His people, and therefore, some sort of conditioning has to be applied to God, some type of constraint has to be brought to bear upon God to get Him to forgive His people, to make Him willing to forgive His people. In other words, sacrifices in Israel functioned very differently than sacrifices in pagan cultures.

In pagan cultures, sacrifices serve to condition or to constrain the pagan deities, to try and get the pagan deities to do what you want them to do: whether it is to forgive sin, or to send fertility, or to save from enemies, or to make power. The sacrifices serve to condition the deity to whom the sacrifices are being offered.

But in the Scripture, notice it is God Himself who appoints the sacrifices on the occasion of all the various needs of forgiveness of sins. Yes, sacrifice is necessary, and that truth is pounded home over and over again. In fact, that's a New Testament principle. Turn with me to the Book of Hebrews and look at chapter nine. The author of Hebrews says that this principle of sacrifice as necessary for forgiveness is not an Old Testament principle; it's a New Testament principle as well. Hebrews, chapter nine; look at verse 22:

"According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

It is not the sacrifice that makes God willing to forgive. He created the sacrifice. He provided the sacrifice in the Old Testament as well as in the New, but the principle of God's justice must be dealt with, and the sacrifice sets forth that principle. And you saw it in Leviticus chapters four and five in two ways.

One is, when sin occurs a representative sacrifice dies. And in the context of that representative sacrifice being offered, all of the remaining parts after the blood has been poured out and the prescribed portion has been offered up on the altar, the rest of the sacrifice is taken outside the camp and is burned. What is that? It is once again an indication of what the offerer of the sacrifice deserved. The offerer of the sacrifice, because of his sin, deserved to be cut off from the people of God, to be taken outside the camp, to be abandoned, to be put aside, to be cast off. And so, in both the picture of the sacrifice and in the picture of the taking of the remnants of the offering outside the camp, the consequences–the due consequences of sin upon sinners is driven home literally in technicolor.

Well, that strikes us as obvious as we flip through these pages, but are there other lessons to be learned? Yes, more than we have time to do justice to tonight. But let me zero in on five things that strike us about this great passage.

I. Even inadvertent, unwitting sin defiles us, thus we need purification.

The first is this: do you notice how this passage teaches us that even inadvertent, unwitting sin defiles us and therefore requires purification? Look at the general setting for this whole section. Look at Leviticus 4:1-2:

"Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them…"

And then you notice that the sentence does something strange–you're waiting for that sentence to be completed, and then it phases off into the situation of the sin of anointed priests. What's going on there? Verses one and two are a heading: verses one and two are telling you, "OK, we're done with the peace offerings; now we're going to talk about the purification offerings in the case of unintentional sins, and here are the categories." And it starts out with the anointed priests, and then it looks at the whole congregation of Israel, and then it looks at the leaders of Israel, and then it looks at individuals, those who are common people in Israel. And then it looks at a whole host of categories where you can find yourself in the situation of needing to be forgiven for unintentional sins. It's a heading.

But doesn't that strike you? That God has an entire class of sacrifices appointed in the book of Leviticus for unintentional sin?! Our intentional sins are enough, surely! But He sees the impurity that is brought about by inadvertent, unwitting sin, and points out to His people that that too needs purification. These are sins that are not high-handed, premeditated sins. There are mitigating factors to these sins, and still they defile the people of God, and so they need purification.

How often in our relationships with one another–friends in high school or in college; husbands to wives and wives to husbands–do we excuse what we have done with one another or to one another by saying, "But I didn't mean to!" And God has a whole sacrificial class for the 'but I didn't mean to's' of life, because they defile us. And you think about it. In marriages how often those "but I didn't mean to's" become serious burrs in a relationship and bring about serious breaches that need desperately to be healed. And here's the Lord giving a whole class of sacrifices not for high-handed, premeditated crime, but even for inadvertent, unwitting sin. All sin defiles us. All sin needs cleansing. And by the way, listen to that language. It's not simply that we need forgiveness; it is that we need cleansing. We have been made impure by sin, and that sin needs to be cleansed.

Have you ever thought about how the book of Hebrews talks about the effect of Jesus' shed blood? Turn back with me to Hebrews and look at Hebrews 13:12. Jesus suffered, we are told in verse 12, that He might sanctify His people. Not just to grant us forgiveness and acceptance, but that He might cleanse us and make us godly and holy; that He might deal with our impurities, that He might sanctify His people. And notice as well, my friends, in that verse, that just like the sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament, Jesus is taken outside the gate to die on our behalf. As the beast was slain and then discarded outside the tent to show the people of God what they deserved, Jesus bore what they deserved. Outside the city walls of Jerusalem in that place of Roman uncleanness, He bore our sin. And so the author of Hebrews says "let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach."

So there's the first thing. Even inadvertent, unwitting sin defiles us, and thus we need purification and God shows us how seriously He takes sin by giving a class of sacrifices for the forgiveness of even unwitting sin.

II. The priest's sin has consequences for the people.

Secondly, notice this: that the priest's sin has consequences for the people. What's going on there? Look at Leviticus, chapter four, again; and this time at verse three: "...if the anointed priest sins so as to bring guilt on the people..." And you're saying, "Wait a minute! I didn't do anything! I had absolutely nothing to do with this!" You can do your Sgt. Schultz routine, "I know nothing," but the priest sins and the people become guilty. What's going on? The priest is the representative of God's people. He is Israel boiled down to one person representing Israel before God. He is the agent that God has appointed to deal ritually with the defilement of Israel and to bring about purification, and if he is defiled how will he serve that purpose for Israel?

Think again of the New Testament commentary on Leviticus in Hebrews; what it says about our Savior. Our Savior, unlike that Old Testament priest, was sinless and undefiled. He did not have to make a sacrifice on His own behalf like this priest. But what's the principle again? Why is Jesus a superior Savior? Because He doesn't need to offer a sacrifice of purification on His behalf. He is our representative; He is a perfect representative in His obedience and in His sacrifice. The priest's sin has consequences for the people because he is the people's representative. We are tied together with the destiny of our priest; that is why the Book of Hebrews celebrates our Great High Priest, Jesus.

III. The peoples' sins have consequences for the whole community.

There's a third thing we learn in this passage, and you see it when you get to both the passage beginning in verse 13 and again in the passage beginning in verse 27. And that is, the people's sin has consequences for the whole community, and so there is a whole class of sacrifice to be offered when the whole congregation of Israel commits error. And again, there is a class of offering that is to be given if anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing the things that the Lord has commanded not to be done.

You see the principle there? There are corporate consequences for the sins of everyone in Israel. You remember the story of Achan in the days of Joshua? One man, one family: consequences for the whole of Israel. Do you think of yourself as accountable to one another in this congregation in that light? Do you realize that you can't just live your life like you want to live your life if you're a part of this local congregation and it not have an impact on all of us? It does. So there's a whole class of sacrifices to be offered in this instance, because the sin of every member of Israel impacts every member of Israel. And that principle is carried out in the New Testament as well. We're accountable to one another. We need one another's commitment to holiness, and we are corporately accountable.

IV. Touching an unclean thing or withholding evidence makes one guilty/defiled.

Fourthly, did you notice in verses 1-13 of Leviticus, chapter five, that touching an unclean thing made you defiled, made you guilty? You remember a story in the New Testament that entails that as a part of its plot line? There's a man on the Jericho road. He's been beaten up. He's been robbed. A priest and a Levite pass; they see him. He is unclean. He has come into contact with unclean men, he is ritually unclean, bloody as he is...perhaps even dead. They don't touch him, because it would have made them ceremonially unclean, they would not have been able to perform their ritual duties in Jerusalem had they done that. Jesus still castigates them and makes the Samaritan the hero of the story. Did you know that? Did you know that those men would indeed have been ceremonially unclean? You see what Jesus is saying. Jesus is making a tremendously important statement about our moral commitments to God, and He's saying in that circumstance that the right thing for those men to have done would have been to have taken upon themselves the ceremonial uncleanness in order to fulfill their moral obligations. Don't be too quick to cast aspersions on them; they faced a real dilemma. They failed. How often do we do the same?

V. Confession and sacrifice — sin must be confessed and cleansed before worship/communion can be enjoyed.

One last thing: did you notice again in the case of the common person who sins unintentionally that when he becomes aware of the sin that he has committed, he is required first to confess and then to sacrifice? Confession and sacrifice: sin must be confessed and cleansed before worship and communion with God can be enjoyed. All of these principles are being spelled out to help us understand the basic realities of communion with God. All sin defiles. All sin. Every last bit of it has to be dealt with. Your Priest, your representative, His life, His behavior, His character, impinges upon you. In the community you are accountable to one another, and your life, your behavior, your actions, your choices have a corporate effect; and confession and sacrifice must be offered before communion can be enjoyed again.

Turn again to the Book of Hebrews, as we close. As Hebrews comments on Leviticus, it tells us this. Look at Hebrews, chapter ten.

"For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."

But, he goes on to say–look at verse 10–

"By this we will have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God...."

That is the reason why the Christian can have assurance. That is the reason why the Christian can have a conscience that has a sense of cleansing from sin. That is why the Christian, in the midst of our worst sins, can confidently go to the Great High Priest, Jesus, and know that if we trust Him, we shall be forgiven and purified, and accepted and cleansed. Let's pray.

Our Lord God, we never grow past the need for forgiveness in the Christian life, for we are never sinlessly perfected in the Christian life. There may be brothers and sisters here tonight struggling inside with great guilt over real sin. They need a Savior whom they know can forgive them, and has offered a sacrifice that cleanses them from sin. O God, lift their eyes up to the Savior. Lord God, there may be some of us here tonight who are flippant about sin. We just don't think it's that big a deal, and You tell us again, Leviticus 4 and 5, that every sin deserves judgment and death, and those who sin deserve to be cut off and cast out. Lord God, as we contemplate our Savior cut off, cast out, crucified, dead and buried, let us see that this is the desert of sin, and never make light of it again. But always and only run to the Savior, embracing Him by faith and finding in Him full and free forgiveness of sins. These things we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker.

©2013 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.