How to Be Perfect

One Church's Audacious Experiment In Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus


By Daniel M. Harrell

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Influenced by A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, Harrell managed to recruit 20 members of his Boston congregation to join him in a month-long effort at living Levitically. Holiness was the ultimate goal, but so was learning.

People who take the Bible seriously never know what to do with the book of Leviticus. And yet Leviticus is historically considered by Jews, and thus by Jesus, as the pivotal book of the Hebrew Bible. It’s impossible to fully comprehend such key New Testament terms as sacrifice, atonement, or blood without some understanding of Leviticus. The “second greatest commandment,” which Jesus said was “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from Leviticus (19:18).

As a longtime minister and preacher who had successfully skirted Leviticus for most of his life, author Daniel Harrell wanted to come to grips with all that Leviticus teaches — not just loving neighbors, but the parts about animal sacrifice, Sabbath-keeping, skin diseases, homosexuality, and stoning sinners, too. Yet rather than approaching Leviticus with a view toward mitigating its commands, he decided to simply obey them.

The surprising lessons they learned impressed on Harrell both the power of obedience and the necessity of grace. This book traces the adventures of a group of people eager to understand the Bible by living it.


How to be Perfect

Daniel M. Harrell


This project would have never been possible without the eager participation of the nineteen members of Park Street Church, Boston, who were willing to jump into the Levitical world, fully experience it, and honestly chronicle their thoughts. Brian Bassett, Brandy Brooks, Simon Chang, Christine Cos, Ophera Davis, Kim Engle, Kristen Filipic, Ian Frazier, Paul Gardner, Mary Frances Giles, Sokol Haxhinasto, Thomas Keown, Walter Kim,  Ryan Lambert, Lisa Schad, Andrew Summey, Helen Tengkawan, Beena Thomas, and Kristi Vrooman all gave their time, energy, faith, and creativity to make this project come alive and show how "living and active" the Word of God can be (Heb. 4:12). I am deeply grateful for their generous and transparent involvement. In the end, we all wished it could have gone on for longer (albeit without beards and with bacon). A month may be long enough to pursue holiness, but it's hardly long enough to achieve it.

My sincerest thanks go to the congregation of Park Street Church, Boston, for their open ears and perseverance during four months of Leviticus sermons. I trust that the input from the "Levites" made the listening worthwhile. And I pray that hearing made doing a reality for you too. Thanks especially for all of your encouragement and love during twenty-three years of ministry. Your openness to all the ways that Jesus makes his mark on our lives was beautiful to behold.

As for this book, I'm very grateful to Andy Crouch and the Christian Vision Project for publishing an article about this Leviticus challenge in Christianity Today. It generated a good deal of online conversation that was helpful in thinking through the implications of taking on Leviticus as a serious component of Christian discipleship. I also enjoyed finding out that other pastors used the article and our adventure for their own sermon illustrations, and that some even replicated the experience with their own congregations. Holiness is a worthy pursuit!

Much appreciation goes to my friend and colleague (and fellow Levite) Dr. Walter Kim, whose Old Testament proficiency contributed to the theology and approach I took to Leviticus. Thanks also to the other terrific members of the Park Street Church ministerial staff who added their own two shekels here and there. Additionally, I am indebted to the commentators and scholars whose works appear at the end, for their insights as to the meaning and application of Leviticus to ancient and modern life. Of course, all errors and bad theology belong solely to me.

You'd not be reading this were it not for Chris Park of Foundry Media, who saw the Christianity Today article and challenged me to turn it into a book. Her coaching and expertise in bringing this project to fruition were invaluable. Joey Paul, Holly Halverson, and Jennifer Stair at FaithWords showed faith in my words and enthusiastically made them readable. I'm so thankful for their help, editing, and direction—as well as their risk taking!

Thanks too to Kelly Lorenz for taking the photo you see on the jacket. She's a good friend and made the most of the face I gave her to shoot.

I'm devotedly indebted to my wife, Dawn, a stellar theologian and editor in her own right. Her careful reading, suggestions, and perspective gave my feeble writing strong legs. She provided needed encouragement on days when writer's block was heavy, as well as on days when I thought the outcome wasn't worth the pixels on the screen. Her love and support contributed more than I can express.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to thank Moses and ultimately the Lord for the book of Leviticus. "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Ps. 119:105 KJV).


I was tempted to title this book How to Be Perfct and let the intentional misspelling convey the irony regarding the audacity of this project. Try as we might, nobody's perfect. Yet Jesus, quoting the Old Testament book of Leviticus, commands perfection (Matt. 5:48). Talk about audacity! The impossibility of human perfection leads most people to write off Leviticus as a set of idealistic virtues. Nobody can keep it, so why bother trying? The problem is that then you have to write off the Sermon on the Mount too, since so much of that derives from Leviticus.

But what if Leviticus isn't supposed to be idealistic? What if it was meant to do more than show us how much we need God's grace? What if it was written instead to show us how to live life on the other side of grace? After all, the ancient Israelites were already God's chosen people before Leviticus was written. Rather than approaching Leviticus with a view toward mitigating its commands, what if we simply obeyed them for a change?

Obedience gets a bad rap in our day. The sense is that it reduces faith to a list of dos and don'ts and discounts the relational rewards of believing in Jesus. But again, it was Jesus who said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). Obedience is part of the relationship. For Jews, and thus for Jesus, Leviticus is the pivotal book of the Hebrew Bible. It's impossible to fully comprehend such key New Testament terms as sacrifice, atonement, or blood without some understanding of Leviticus. That which Jesus cites as the second greatest commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," comes from Leviticus (19:18). To obey Jesus is to obey Leviticus.

But have you ever read Leviticus? Consider Leviticus 19:23: "And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised" (KJV). What are you supposed to do with that?

As a Christian—as well as a longtime minister and preacher—I wanted to figure out what obeying Leviticus looked like. Not just the passage about loving my neighbor, but the parts about animal sacrifice, Sabbath keeping, skin diseases, homosexuality, stoning sinners, and dealing with mold and mildew. But given the craziness of some of these laws, shouldn't I figure out what they mean before I try to obey them? Unfortunately, Leviticus offers little by way of explanation. The best it does is mostly a divine version of "because I said so." Clearly, the only chance I had of understanding the why would be to try what Leviticus says.

I wanted to preach a sermon series on Leviticus too. As far as I knew, nobody in my congregation had ever heard one. I had one friend tell me that in his former church he had never heard a sermon from the Old Testament. However, I knew that preaching straight from Leviticus would go over like slaughtered sheep. But what if I preached a reality sermon series? What if I preached about the lessons learned from my actual obedience? Moreover, Leviticus was written to a chosen nation of people. It addresses what it means to be a holy community. What if I recruited others to join me in a month of obedience, a pursuit of the kind of holiness Leviticus teaches? My thought was to have some people obey Leviticus with me and then chronicle their experiences online, complete with pictures and videos, which I would use as sermon illustrations. And while we were at it, given the capabilities of social media, I decided we might as well post the adventure online for the World Wide Web to view and invite others outside our congregation to weigh in with their thoughts. And that's what happened.

Needless to say (but crucial to write!), a lot was learned—​about Leviticus, about God, about ourselves. Some of it was assuring and some of it disturbing, yet all of it impressed on us the power of obedience as well as the necessity of grace for that obedience. In the end, we realized that God's involvement in the minutiae of human life is a remarkable reality, even if like God himself, it remains hidden from our eyes.

Chapter One

Be Like God

Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

—Leviticus 19:2

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

—Matthew 5:48

When you've been preaching as long as I have, sermons can start to sound a little redundant. Christ is born every Christmas. Christ is risen every Easter. We're saved by grace most Sundays in between. I preach a lot of sermons about loving your neighbor—and some on loving your enemies. Although I like to light a little Old Testament hellfire and brimstone during the summer (with the steamy weather outside providing reinforcement), mostly I stick to the New Testament. The New Testament seems easier to understand. I typically reserve the Old Testament for Advent and Good Friday, along with some during Lent. A psalm might show up every now and then too. But I find congregations are happy enough hearing the story of Jesus over and over again.

We sometimes forget, however, that Jesus was Jewish; and whenever he preached "the Word of God," he preached the Old Testament exclusively, since it was, after all, the only Testament at the time. The New Testament may seem to be easier to understand, but to fully understand what Jesus meant when he used words like unclean or holy or blood, you have to understand the Old Testament too. Jesus said that obedience to all of God's law can be summed up by keeping the two greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37, 39), both of which originate in the Old Testament. The apostles Paul and James went so far as to say that to "love your neighbor as yourself" counts for loving God too (Gal. 5:14; James 2:8; 1 John 4:20–21). Surprisingly, for such an important commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" shows up just one place in the entire Old Testament. You find it only in the book of Leviticus (19:18).

Mention the book of Leviticus to most people, and if they have ever heard of it, what comes to mind is that arcane tome of Torah devoted primarily to the proper (and gruesome) management of sin through animal sacrifice. Others may recall mind-numbing instructions on how to rightly handle infectious skin disease and mildew, along with a mishmash of seemingly random commandments about not mixing fibers and seeds and not sleeping with your stepmother or sister or nephew—commandments deemed either pointless or plain common sense.

Leviticus is that graveyard where read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans go to die. Skeptics know it as ammunition for homosexual haters or as a target for animal-rights activists. Many Jews regard it as awkward and outmoded. Its unfamiliar terms and references render it irrelevant for modern readers. To slog through all twenty-seven chapters can be unbelievably tedious.

Preaching about Jesus citing Leviticus is one thing. Preaching Leviticus itself is something else.

Practice Makes Perfect?

Having conveniently managed to skirt preaching from Leviticus for my entire pastoral career, I thought it might be a good idea to give it a shot. Any preacher worth his or her salt needs to tackle the difficult portions of the Bible once in a while. Besides, Christians consider the entire Bible to be inspired by God. I ran the idea of a Leviticus sermon series past some of my colleagues. They looked at me as if I were attempting sermon suicide—or worse, homiletical homicide (Leviticus would kill our congregation). Who'd get up on a Sunday to hear a homily on mildew?

I shared the idea with a few members of our downtown congregation. They smiled—until they realized I was serious. Then they asked me when this series was scheduled. I could tell they were making mental notes of the Sundays they'd need to plan their weekend getaways.

I asked my family what they thought. Worry writ large across their faces. Some of my female relatives who had read Leviticus remembered the bizarre assortment of cleansing rituals women had to endure as part of their menstrual cycle. What was going to be the sermon application for them? Go catch and kill a couple of pigeons each month?

Still, Leviticus is in the Bible, and in one of the most significant parts of the Bible at that. Leviticus occupies the center of the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah (Hebrew for "law"). Along with Genesis and Exodus on one side, and Numbers and Deuteronomy on the other, the Torah narrates ancient Israel's story from its inception through Abraham to its arrival in the Promised Land. Leviticus works like a religious road map, detailing a long list of systematic instructions on how the people were to relate to God. This how-to list actually starts in Exodus 25 and runs through Numbers 10. It outlines the entire religious system of ancient Israel and, in doing so, reveals loads about the character of God himself (since the system is God's design).

One adjective appears over and over again throughout Leviticus: holy. "I am the LORD your God," Leviticus reads. "Therefore be holy, because I am holy" (11:44–45). Holiness implies ultimate purity and goodness, as well as absolute integrity and power (which clearly applies to God); but the word more literally means "uncommon" or "sacred"—that is, devoted to God. This was how holiness applied to God's people. The Lord desired that they be totally devoted to him and therefore devoted to purity and goodness.

Leviticus appears during that period in Israel's history when God traveled alongside his people in a mobile home of sorts called the tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. Having God nearby was advantageous. But it was also dangerous. Having God nearby was like living next to a nuclear power plant. You appreciate all the energy and light, but one wrong move and you're doomed. Aware of their own impurity, the people rightly feared God. Yet they needed God too. God was the source of their salvation, healing, and redemption. But how could they approach God on their own without getting blown away by his own perfect holiness?

Leviticus provides the solution. It sets up rituals, or protocols, for stepping into God's presence. You wouldn't just barge into the presence of the queen or the president without following proper protocols (unless you had a death wish). Nor would you waltz into the office of your company's CEO unannounced by his secretary (unless you had an unemployment wish). If this is true of a queen or your boss, how much more with the holy God? Leviticus established proper protocol for approaching God, complete with secretaries called priests. God picked these priests especially from a tribe descended from a son of Jacob (aka Israel) named Levi, which included Moses and his brother Aaron (Lev. 1:7). The priestly tribe was called Levites. This is where Leviticus gets its name. Leviticus means "pertaining to the Levites."

The Levites mediated communication between the holy God and his imperfect people. But unlike an impervious monarch or an inaccessible CEO, God loved his people and wanted to have a personal, two-way relationship with them. The relationship God established is often called a covenant relationship, which worked something like a marriage (an analogy the Bible often uses). God promised to bless his people and asked only for their obedience—which admittedly to some sounds like wedlock in the worst sense. In covenant relationship, however, both obedience and blessing are motivated by love. And unlike human marriages where promises to love are made in God's name, in biblical covenants, God pledges himself ("So help me, me"). God keeps his promise to bless, and then through Jesus' obedience on our behalf, God keeps our side of the covenant too (Phil. 2:8). Thus, the obedience God asks of his people is not an obedience that earns his blessing. Rather, the blessing comes first, sparked by love, and invites obedience as a loving response. And if you don't like the word obedience, go with fidelity or better, devotion. After all, that's what holiness is: total devotion.

For God to invite his people to "be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2), was to invite them into covenant. God set up a covenant with Abraham back in Genesis based solely on Abraham's willingness to believe God's promises of blessing. (Abraham is the representative chosen person and patriarch of all Israel.) This covenant extended to all of Abraham's descendants, the Israelites (named after Abraham's grandson Jacob, whose existence was proof positive of God's promise-keeping. See Genesis 15:1–6 and 21:1–7 for details). However, human nature being what it is, the covenant didn't hold up very well. The Israelites' screwups estranged them from God and enslaved them to the Egyptians. Then, when God valiantly rescued them from Egypt through Moses, the people showed their gratitude by building a golden cow to worship and thank instead. If you know the story of Moses, you know that the only way the covenant could go forward was for God to chisel some serious ground rules in stone. We know these ground-in-stone rules as the Ten Commandments. They were foundational to the entire Levitical system. God chose Israel to be his "treasured possession" and a "holy nation" (Exod. 19:5–6), but he had to show them how to live like the chosen and holy people they already were. He had to teach them what holiness looked like.

The somewhat random nature of Leviticus might be explained in part by the random way holiness gets taught. Imagine a toddler who grabs an electrical cord for the first time. Her parents will respond by telling her, "Don't do that again," adding the electrical cord to a lengthening list of things labeled "Do Not Touch." Whenever God's people did something unholy (wrong or threatening to the covenant relationship), it's as if God hammered on another law to keep them from doing it again. These laws pertained not only to their mistreatment of God, but also to their mistreatment of one another. God chose Israel to be a holy nation, not just holy individuals. Therefore, certain provisions for living together as a peaceable society were necessary—a function that law still serves in our own day. Because our tendency as individuals is to think primarily (and solely) of ourselves, something has to remind us and enforce us to consider the needs of others for the sake of the common good (or in the case of holiness, the uncommonly good). Leviticus does this by putting forth sexual ethics, household ethics, neighborhood ethics, and ethics for business, government, real estate, and law. If you lived in ancient Israel, every aspect of your communal and religious life was covered by Leviticus.

The ancient world of Leviticus differs dramatically from our own. People don't kill animals as a way of saying they're sorry anymore, yet the first seven chapters of Leviticus are about slaughtering animals and other strange ways of righting wrongs, giving thanks, and being faithful. After that come several chapters about the priesthood (which, if followed today, would make any potential clergyperson think twice before applying to seminary). Then come four finicky chapters on cleanness—everything from proper food preparation to proper skin care—which make the Lord sound terribly persnickety (apparently my mom was right; cleanliness is next to godliness). Following that are a couple of chapters devoted to festivals (Leviticus is the party book of the Old Testament), as well as two chapters prohibiting every type of incest and other sexual deviancy (making you wonder what the heck was going on back then). Interspersed throughout are various prohibitions against seeds and threads and a few other wacky laws that have left even the best Bible scholars scratching their heads ever since.

For the most part, Leviticus operates out of an assumed context that is left for us to deduce. For instance, Leviticus never outlines the words a priest likely spoke as he burned the sacrificial offerings. Leviticus never explains why the sacrifices often included meat, grain, and drink—though together these do comprise ingredients for a tasty menu. We do know that meals were of enormous importance in the ancient Near East, but beyond that, the meaning of these Levitical "meals" is never spelled out. No explanations appear with regard to kosher foods, banned skin infections, excess facial hair, or taboo tattoos. Why beef but not pork? Sure, a cow chews its cud (Lev. 11:3), but so what? Why does a facial blemish get you banished from the camp? Why not trim your beard? What's wrong with indelible body art? Leviticus sets laws prohibiting cross-fertilization of crops and wearing fabric blends right beside laws against spreading slander and perverting justice. Because these commands are grouped side by side, they seem to share equal importance. As far as Leviticus itself goes, they are of equal importance. But how are hybrid corn and poly-cotton T-shirts as bad as lying and doing harm to other people? The Lord says, "Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:37). But why? "Because a holy God said so" seems to be the best Leviticus offers by way of rationale.

Perhaps "God said so" is sufficient. But doesn't blind obedience to the legalities of law only turn people into legalists? Legalists follow every letter of the law out of fear of God. Maybe that's not a bad thing, except that in most cases, this fear of God mutates into anger toward God once legalists' obedience isn't rewarded the way they presume it should be (think of the older brother in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son—Luke 15:28). Legalists forget that holiness is a gift of grace that can never be earned or deserved (which is why it's called grace). In the New Testament book of Romans, the apostle (and former legalist) Paul writes,

Now a righteousness [and a holiness] from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (3:21–25, emphasis added)


On Sale
Jan 5, 2011
Page Count
240 pages

Daniel M. Harrell

About the Author

Daniel M. Harrell is senior minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. For 23 years he served as a minister at Park Street Church in downtown Boston. He is the author of Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith as well as numerous articles that have appeared in Leadership Journal, Christianity Today, The Christian Century, and Regeneration Quarterly. He holds a PhD in developmental psychology from Boston College and has lectured at Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Gordon College, and Boston University. He lives somewhat obediently by grace in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter.

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