What to Do at New Year

Happy New Year!

This past Sunday at White Fields we continued our series Be Set Free, in the Book of Exodus, seeing the people of Israel now on the other side of the Red Sea after having been set free by God.

Their situation there on the far shore of the Red Sea parallels what it means to be a Christian today: they had been set free from bondage, but that wasn’t the end of their journey, it was only the beginning! God was taking them to the Promised Land. 

As the people of Israel stood on the bank of the Red Sea, they sang a song of thanksgiving and praise, which had 2 aspects:

  1. They sang in response:  They looked back and remembered what God had brought them through and gave thanks for God had done for them.
  2. They sang in faith:  They looked forward to lay ahead and what God had in store for them in the time to come.

This is a great model for us as we come into this new year.

I encourage you to look back and give thanks to God for His faithfulness and mercy that you experienced in 2016 — for the answered prayers, for the abundant grace and for salvation in Jesus. Be like the one former leper in Luke 17:11-19, who returned to Jesus to give thanks, rather than the nine who didn’t.

Once you’ve done that, I encourage you to look forward to this coming year and seek God about what He might want this next year of your life to be like — and then make plans and take steps accordingly, so that those good intentions actually become reality.

What does God want this next year to look like for you?

Start with what you already know is His will and His desire for you: 

  • Walk with Him and serve Him. Seek Him in His Word, in corporate worship and study and in community with other believers.
  • Honor Him in your work and with your finances.
  • Honor Him in your relationships, particularly in your marriages.
  • If you have kids, lead them to Him and in His ways.

Determining to do things which are in line with God’s heart and His desires, then planning and working toward those things is an act of faith and obedience. So let this new year be filled with godly goals and pursuits.

I pray that this coming year would be one in which you experience His work in you and through you in a greater way than ever before!

Carried by a Donkey

999428237

On Sunday mornings at White Fields, I am currently teaching through the Book of Exodus. This past Sunday, we studied Exodus 13 in our study titled “A Cloud by Day and Fire by Night” (audio here).

After bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, God established 2 annual feasts that they were to observe so they would never forget the deliverance He had worked on their behalf: the Feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Here the people of Israel were told that when they come into the Land of Canaan (the Promised Land) they were to sacrifice to God the first-born of both man and beast.

But wait! There are a couple problems with that…  First of all, human sacrifice was forbidden and considered an abomination. Secondly, some animals were considered “unclean” and therefore they could not be sacrificed either.

The solution?  The first-born of the humans and the first-born of the unclean animals both had to be “redeemed,” through an act of substitution. Specifically, it is mentioned that unclean animals were to be redeemed by substituting a clean animal in their place. In the text, an example is given: a donkey, as an unclean animal, could be redeemed by substituting a lamb in its place.

The donkey is a picture of me: pretty stubborn, not very cute, but worst of all: unclean by nature and condemned to death, but I have been redeemed, I have been saved by the substitutionary sacrifice on my behalf of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

But there’s one more part to the story of the donkey:

Hundreds of years after the Passover, Zechariah the Prophet prophesied about the coming King of Zion – AKA the Messiah, that when he entered into Jerusalem, he would come on the back of donkey.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Why a donkey? Many people believe that in contrast to conquering warrior kings who would enter a city on the back of a horse, an animal of war, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the message would be that the Messiah came in peace. Indeed one of the names he is given by the Prophet Isaiah is “Prince of Peace”.

Several hundred years later, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem, and he entered the city on the back of a donkey, declaring Himself to be the Messiah – and he was received as the Messiah by the people.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.
Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-2,8-9)

Now here’s the thing: Just as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an unclean but redeemed creature – he still enters into the cities of this world in the same way: carried by those who are unclean, but redeemed.

Christian, you are that donkey!

The way that Jesus has chosen to enter into the cities, the homes, the workplaces of this world, is by being carried on the backs of us “donkeys”: creatures who are unclean by nature, who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of the lamb on our behalf.

Paul the Apostle reminds us that God loves to use the foolishing things of this world (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-30), and that includes us: “redeemed donkeys”.

The Problem with Facades

In Exodus 34, we read an interesting story: when Moses went to meet with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the 10 Commandments, it caused Moses’ face to glow.

It says that when he came down from the mountain, the people were frightened to see his face glowing. In another place we are told that they couldn’t look upon it, because the glow was so bright.

behind-the-veilBut then an interesting thing happens; if you read the text it says that Moses would first let the people look at his face (or at least see that his face was glowing), then he would cover his face with a veil (supposedly for their sake), and then whenever he would go in before the Lord, he would remove the veil, get “charged up,” then come back, let the people see that his face was glowing again, and then put the veil back over his face.

Now, think about it: If the reason Moses covered his face was for the sake of the people, so as not to blind them by the glow on his face, then why let them look at his face first, and only then cover it up until the next time he went in before the Lord?

There is something implied there which is made explicit in another place in the Bible: in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul tells us that the reason Moses covered his face was because he didn’t want the people to know that the glow was fading away…

In other words, Moses hid behind the veil in order to keep up an appearance before the people, that wasn’t really true. Moses didn’t want people to know that he was just like them. He liked having people look up to him and be in awe of him, so he hid his face, lest everyone see that the glory was fading.

It was a facade.

That’s what a veil is: it’s something you hide behind. It’s a kind of mask that you use to cover up your blemishes, lest people see the real things about you that might change their image of you.

As a pastor, I see this a lot.

There are many examples of this today, in our own culture. Oftentimes people are willing to help other people deal with their “messiness,” but they don’t want anyone to know about the messy things in their lives. People tend to be quick to offer help, but reticent to admitting that they need help, or accepting help when it’s offered. They’d rather keep up a facade that they’ve got their stuff together, that their face glows with the glory of the Lord, even when that’s not the case.

In other words: “Life is messy, and that’s okay – as long as it’s not my mess.” “Community is about serving each other, and that’s great, as long as it’s me serving others and not me being served.”

Veils hinder true fellowship and community. Facades can hinder people from getting help when they need it. If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down. All too often, that’s exactly what happens.

If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down.

Furthermore, when leaders put up a facade, like Moses did, that things are better than they actually are, or that they are more spiritual than they actually are, it creates a culture which encourages people to not be honest about where they are really at. I believe that people deserve to have leaders they can look up to, and that they should expect more from leaders: to be a leader means to be out in front; after all, how can you follow someone, unless they are a few steps ahead of you? However, it should be authentic and not contrived. What Moses did was contrived.

In Genesis 3, we read about the first time people tried to cover up their shame: Adam and Eve had been naked and unashamed until they rebelled against God, but when sin came into the world, they were overcome with a sense of shame, and they tried to hide it by covering themselves with leaves. Leaves are good for a lot of things, but they made terrible coverings. They’re itchy. They’re drafty.

adam_and_eve_hide

Here’s what God did: he said, “I will make a covering for you,” and he made them coverings of animal skins. Do you know how you get animal skins? By killing an animal. In other words: because of their sin, an innocent creature had to die, in order to cover their shame.

Are you picking up what the story is putting down? The only way for us to be covered, is by the death of another. That other, the ultimate covering for our sin and shame, was Jesus – the “lamb of God.”

Any of your attempts to cover yourself will be not only uncomfortable and drafty, they will be insufficient and unhelpful. Facades create unnecessary barriers which hinder fellowship and growth. Embrace the covering of Jesus, and pursue authenticity rather than facades in your relationships and in your spirituality!

3 Ways to Identify Idols in Your Life & What to Do About Them

Recently at White Fields Church, we have been studying through the Book of Exodus in a series called Be Set Free.

This past Sunday we began to study the 10 plagues, and we saw how each of the plagues was a direct confrontation of the various deities of Egypt. For example: the Egyptians worshiped 3 deities associated with the Nile river, so, the first plague, which defiled the water of the river, struck at the heart of the confidence the Egyptians had in these deities who protected the Nile.

The purpose of the plagues was to erode the confidence of the Egyptians in their false gods, and cause them to trust in the Lord God – and just in case you’re wondering: it worked! Exodus 12:38 tells us that when the Hebrews left Egypt in the Exodus, many of the Egyptians joined them.

Primitive vs. Sophisticated Religion

Modern people tend to look down on old pagan cultures as “primitive” because they worshiped many different gods. They had a god or goddess for nearly everything you can imagine: from wealth to beauty, success and money, sex and fertility, weather and security, etc.

On the other hand, we tend to think of ourselves as being much more sophisticated, because we don’t worship a pantheon of deities like the ancients did.

But are we really as sophisticated as we like to think?   Were they really as primitive as we tend to assume? The answer to both questions is simply: NO.

Each of the pagan gods represented something. They worshiped things which they felt were good and desired to have: such as sex, prosperity, power, family, money, beauty and success.

Do we not worship the same things? Pick up a copy of People Magazine. Turn on E! Entertainment network. Browse the trending topics or the Moments section of Twitter. Listen to popular songs and music. If you’re honest, you have to admit that we idolize, i.e. worship, the same basic things that they did then. We’re not more sophisticated than they were – and they weren’t as primitive as we tend to paint them.

The only difference between us and them in this regard is that at least they had the self-awareness and the honesty to call a spade a spade, and admit that they worshiped those things! In that sense, they are actually perhaps more sophisticated than we are.

The Bible actually speaks of “idolatry of the heart” (cf. Ezekiel 14:1-3) – meaning that idols are just statues, but they are things that you worship. John Calvin famously said that “human nature is a perpetual factory of idols;” meaning that we have a propensity to worshiping things, and we will make an idol out of nearly anything.

However, one of the central themes of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is the devastating effects of idolatry on people’s lives. “Idols,” author Timothy Keller says, “are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil.”

Idols are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil. – Timothy Keller

Here are 3 ways we can we identify or recognize the idols in our lives:

1. The feeling of: If I have ______, then my life is worth living. If I don’t have ______, then my life is not worth living.

When the meaning of your life is tied to a particular thing and it has become the central thing in your life, it is the thing which justifies your existence. You believe that as long as you have it, you will be “okay” – and to not have it would mean that your entire reason for being has been lost.

When this describes a relationship, we call it a co-dependant relationship. A better word for this is: idolatry. When something is the central focus of your life, the underlying motivation behind all of your decisions, the best word to describe that relationship is: worship.

2. You are willing to compromise your own long-held values for it

A litmus test of idolatry in your life is when you are willing to compromise your own long-held values for the sake of that thing.

What causes a person who sincerely believes that something is wrong – to do that exact thing?

Take the family man who cheats on his spouse, or the pastor who steals from his church. These are terrible things, and we rightly call this hypocrisy. But what causes a person who on any given day would have told you that it is wrong to cheat on your spouse, or a person who not only preaches, but sincerely believes that stealing is wrong – to do that exact thing?

The answer is: there is something that they want so much more in that given moment, that they are willing to compromise their own values, and hurt other people and themselves in order to get it.

We have sayings in our culture, like: “I would kill for that.” Of course it’s hyperbole, but the message is: there are certain things out there that I want so badly that I would be willing to break my own rules, compromise what I believe is right, and hurt people in order to get them. That is certainly not just hyperbole – that kind of thing happens all the time, and always with devastating consequences.

You may not be there yet, but if you’ve had thoughts about doing something that goes against the very principles that you yourself sincerely believe in – that is a major red flag, that that thing is an idol in your life.

3. You’re looking to it to give you things which only God can give you

Identity. Security. Love. Rest. Hope.

If I have this much money… then I would really be somebody. Then I would be secure. Then I could rest…
If my family looks like this… then I will be secure. Then I will be happy with who I am. Then I can rest. Then I will be loved.

If your looking to any relationship or material thing to give you what only God can give you, that thing is an idol in your life.

An idol is almost always a good thing, but it becomes an idol when you elevate it from a good thing to an ultimate thing.

Idols can be things that you have, but are afraid of losing – or perhaps even more often, they can be things which you’ve never had at all, but desperately want.

What Is the Solution?

The cure for idolatry is to get a vision of God as He truly is.

When you see God for the greatness of who He is, when you understand what He has done for you in Jesus Christ, you realize that everything you ultimately desire and need is found in and through Him.

To see God in this way is to see Him as more desirable and more satisfying than anything else in the world – and when that happens, you will no longer turn to idols, which will always disappoint and the pursuit of which have devastating consequences.

 

Is God’s Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

covenant_gold

According to the late Ray Dillard, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, one of the great themes of the Bible is the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

It is this question and this tension which drives the Old Testament.

There are places where it seems that God says to his people: “It’s conditional. You have to obey me.  I’m a holy God. I can have nothing to do with sin. If you want to be accepted by me, or have a relationship with me, then you have to obey me.”

There are other places where it seems that God is saying: “No matter what you do, I am going to be faithful to you. I will be there, I won’t give up on you, I will save you.”

So which is it?

In a way, you could say that the entire Old Testament is one big plot thickening, in which the big question is: Can we have a relationship with God? And if so: is our relationship with him conditional or unconditional? Is it that we have to fulfill something, or is it that he loves us no matter what?

So what’s the answer?

The answer is actually not found in the Old Testament. It it when we get to the cross of Calvary that the answer is revealed.

The answer is… YES.

It’s not one or the other, it’s both.

The covenant with God is BOTH conditional and unconditional.

In the death of Jesus on the cross you find that you have to take both the conditions of the covenant and the unconditional nature of God’s love seriously at the same time.

Jesus satisfied the conditions of the covenant on our behalf so that God could accept us and love us unconditionally.

 

Advent Meditations: 7 – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

120002506-565x376_1

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. – Matthew 2:10-11

The wise men, the Magi from the east, came to visit the newborn King of the Jews, because they saw his star in the sky and came “to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

They brought him 3 gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh, and what was their significance as gifts for a newborn king?

Both frankincense and myrrh are resins made from dried tree sap – certainly lacking the glamour of gold – but both were rare and expensive in their own right, as the trees which they are made from are found in the Horn of Africa and the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense was an aromatic incense that was burned by the priests in the temple, and is still used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mass.

Myrrh was used as an ointment for treating wounds and one of its main uses was in the burial process – it was a kind of ancient embalming fluid. 

Kind of a weird thing to give to a baby though, don’t you think?  It’s not something you can pick up at Babies R’ Us!   It’s not something you normally bring to a baby shower!  “Oh, look: onesies and a baby bumper for the crib – and oh, a prepaid funeral and embalming.  A casket…    That is practical – and kind of inappropriate…  Thanks…I guess.”

Somehow these Wise Men understood that the reason this King, Jesus, had come, was to be wounded and to lay down his life – that his life would be a sacrifice.

He was born to die, so that we might live.

And just as they brought their gifts to the newborn king to recognize his rule and authority over them – the same is done today. The ways we express that Jesus is king over us is by bringing gifts similar to those which the Magi brought to Jesus.

They brought him Gold — we also express that Jesus is Lord over us by giving to Him of our financial resources.

They brought him Frankincense. In the Old Testament temple, frankincense was a symbol of the prayers and worship offered up to God, which rise up to the Lord and are a sweet-smelling aroma to Him. Another way we recognize the Lordship of Jesus is by praying and singing songs of praise.

And Myrrh: the symbol of death.  We recognize and declare Jesus to be King over us as we take communion and acknowledge what He did for us on the Cross, by dying in our place for our sins.

Be a wise man – or woman – and honor Jesus as your king by giving these gifts yourself this Advent season, and beyond.

When Misinterpreting the Bible Leads to Tragedy

On Saturday, an apartment fire in NYC claimed the lives of 7 children. When you find out why it happened, you realize just how dangerous it can be to misinterpret the Bible…

Recently at White Fields church I have been teaching on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This past Sunday I taught Matthew 5:17-30, where Jesus refutes the misinterpretation of the Law of Moses by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees made 2 basic errors in regard to their interpretations of the Law of Moses. On the one hand, they would add rules to the Law of Moses, to make sure they didn’t accidentally break any of the commandments. On the other hand though, they created a system of loopholes to circumvent the very rules which they themselves added to the Law of Moses. The purpose of this was so that they could claim that they had “technically” kept the Law, while still making sure they had ways to do all the things they felt the need to do.

Modern day Judaism has had to deal with technological innovations, such as electricity and motor vehicles, which has greatly complicated the question of what constitutes “labor” on the Sabbath. In broad terms, they have landed on the definition that the breaking or building of anything constitutes “work”. So, practically, they have determined that it is not permissibly to drive a car, since combustion happens in an engine, nor are they allowed to turn on or off electricity, because it breaks an electrical current.

To circumvent this rule, especially in cold places, modern ultra-orthodox Jews, have tended to turn on a hot plate or an oven the night on Friday afternoon, before the start of the Sabbath, and that way they can heat food and keep their residences warm without technically doing “work”.

During my sermon this past Sunday, I mentioned a news story about an apartment fire in Jerusalem in an orthodox neighborhood, where – because people considered it not forbidden to use a phone on the Sabbath – the fire spread to 2 surrounding buildings before fire fighters were alerted and got to the scene to put it out.

Right after church, someone told me about the tragic events which had happened for very similar reasons the night before in New York City, in which an orthodox Jewish family had left a hot plate on in the kitchen, a common practice for those who adhere to the “Talmudic fence” which Pharisaical Judaism put around the Law of Moses; when the hotplate malfunctioned and caused a fire in the middle of the night in the apartment which left  7 children dead and the mother and oldest child in critical condition.

This is a tragic example of how misinterpreting the Bible can lead to tragedy…

One of the saddest parts of the news report was the final line:

“We believe that being buried in Israel is important because all of your sins are then absolved,” [Rabbi Alon Edri] said.

These Jews, who take the Law and the Prophets (Old Testament) seriously, understand that the fundamental need of the human soul is for our sins to be dealt with and wiped away. The problem is that they have no way of obtaining this, especially since for almost 2000 years now they have had no temple in which to make the sacrifices of atonement prescribed by the Law of Moses. The idea that being buried in Israel will absolve one’s sins is not found in the Bible; it is something they have created to deal with the problem that they deeply feel and see: that they need their sins to be forgiven, yet they have no way of having their sins atoned for. They have done something similar with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on which, according to the Law of Moses, a sacrifice was to be made to atone for the sins of the nation – but instead of doing that, modern Judaism has settled for telling people to make “sacrifices of contrition” (read: feeling really bad about yourself and your sin) in order to make atonement. However, this, according to the Law itself, is not enough, for we know that “life is in the blood” and “there is no atonement of sin apart from the shedding of blood.”

Oh that they might come to see that Jesus came to fulfill all of the Law and the Prophets! That He is the atoning sacrifice which God provided for them.

We pray for this family, for the community and for the mother and daughter still in critical condition, that God would comfort them and that they would come to know the righteousness that God has provided for them apart from the Law, since “by the works of the Law, no one will be justified”.

Infertility and the Will of God

I received this question yesterday:

During a sermon you talked about people having it in their hearts to be parents. But then you said if that doesn’t happen God has another plan. In the Old Testament, whenever a woman was barren, it was a bad reflection on that woman. Please comment on why that isn’t the case now. It seems like in old testament it was intended for all women to be giving birth.

I know that there are many godly women who struggle with infertility and wonder about this very question.

It is important to remember that in the time of the Old Testament, the view that barrenness was a curse was generally held by all cultures and societies, and was not unique to the people of God.
In ancient cultures the measure of a woman’s worth and value was often based on how many children she could produce, since having children was essential for livelihood and security.
However, the Bible’s view is that all people have intrinsic value, being created in the image of God – and one’s value is not determined by what or how much they can produce.
The Bible, including the Old Testament, has a more nuanced view of barrenness than that it was always a bad reflection on the woman. The Bible recognizes that even godly women struggle with infertility. If you look at a list of women in the Bible who struggled with infertility, you find that almost all of them were godly women, such as Hannah at the beginning of 1 Samuel. One commonly mentioned exception to this is Michal, who we studied about last Sunday in 2 Samuel 6, but in her case, we do not know exactly what the reason for her barrenness was: Was it because after she mocked and criticized David he refused to share a bed with her any more? Was it because God didn’t allow her to have children because of her disdain for David’s heart for the Lord? Was it for some totally unrelated reason, yet it is mentioned because of it’s poetic justice in the context of that story? We can’t know for sure.
To the point that God’s intention in the Old Testament seems to be that all women would be able to give birth: infertility and miscarriages are listed in Exodus and Deuteronomy in the same category as sicknesses and afflictions which are part of the result of the Fall – and the broken world we live in. That means that infertility and miscarriages are not God’s design, and therefore we should pray for those who want to have children but struggle with infertility just as we pray for the sick.

Furthermore, God created women to be life-givers, and that is not limited only to childbearing.

On a personal note, good friends of mine, great godly people who loved the Lord and served alongside us, were not able to get pregnant for many years. Finally they came and asked us to pray for them; we had not realized they were wanting to get pregnant but couldn’t. So we prayed for them and less than a year later we welcomed their daughter into the world. It was a glorious thing.
Other friends of mine have wanted to have children, have prayed, and yet they were not able to conceive. Does God sometimes say “No” to our requests? Like we see in 2 Samuel 7 – yes, and in those cases we must trust Him, that there is a reason, even if I know it not – much like David, not knowing for years why God told him no. However, we must ask and seek and knock!

I would encourage anyone struggling with fertility issues to ask for prayer.

The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

This is an article I wrote for a seminary class on Christology and Atonement, which I have found to be particularly relevant in many discussions – especially the part towards the end about “expiation” vs. “propitiation”.
Feel free to leave feedback in the comments section below.

The Christian doctrine of atonement is an attempt to achieve an understanding of the event of the crucifixion of Christ and the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death. Atonement theories deal with the question of how an historical even in a specific place and time – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – can somehow constitute universal saving power in perpetuity, as the New Testament claims that it does (1 Jn 2:2, Heb. 10:10-14). Unarguably, it is from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that we have inherited the framework and terminology of the Christian idea of atonement. A consideration, therefore, of the Old Testament ideas of sacrifice gives insight into and shapes our view of what was accomplished through the crucifixion.

The Christian claim from scripture and tradition is that Christ’s action constituted God’s gift of salvation, and was not merely illustrative of it. Gunton points out that sacrifice is the primary New Testament metaphor regarding the crucifixion. The early church interpreted Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms, which developed out of a context of the temple cult. It is important to remember that the setting in which Jesus and the early Christians lived was one in which the Old Testament sacrifices were still being offered; in fact, these sacrifices were being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New Testament. The antecedents of New Testament ideas of atonement are found in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gives some of the clearest insights into biblical religion and is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of atonement.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement, and the need for atonement exists because humankind is estranged from God by sin, hence the need for reconciliation or ‘at-one-ment’ between humans and God. An important understanding in the Old Testament is the distinction between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. One of the duties of the priest was to distinguish between these (Lev. 10:10). Cleanness in the Old Testament understanding has little to do with hygiene; it has to do with imperfection, a distortion of existence. Examples of what would make someone unclean were things like contact with a dead body, a bodily excretion, and committing acts of sin or lawbreaking – either intentionally or unintentionally. God is the super-holy and should anyone unclean come near God, they are liable to be destroyed. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness, so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.

Leviticus lists five main sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Each of these, besides the grain offering, included the shedding of the blood of animals. Each was a sacrifice in the metaphorical sense, in that they were of significant cost to the person who presented the sacrifice, which drives home the idea that atonement has a high price and sin is never to be taken lightly. The sin offering and the guilt offering were for the purpose of atonement for committed sins. The sin offering was particularly focused on purification, whereas the guilt offering carried more of the metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing.

In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind. This same understanding of substitutional sacrificial death which results in atonement can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ex. 32, where Moses seeks to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot him out of the book which he has written. However, in the Old Testament sacrifices, it is not the death of the animal which is the climax of the rite, but rather what is done with its blood. The blood of the sin offering acts as a spiritual cleanser. Jesus’ blood is also spoken of as that which cleanses from sin, e.g. 1 Jn 1:7. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the sacrificed creature was required to be unblemished, representing perfection, hence the importance in the New Testament that Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 7:26, 9:14, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5); otherwise he would not have been qualified to be an atoning sacrifice.

God says in Leviticus 17:11 of the atoning blood ‘I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.’ From this we learn that although human estrangement from God is because of human shortcomings, God took the initiative to provided the means for atonement. This idea carried into the New Testament view of atonement, in which, once again, God is the one who provides the means for our atonement by sending Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.

Furthermore, the greatest day in the Old Testament calendar was the Day of Atonement, which was so significant that it became simply referred to as ‘the Day’. On this day, special sin offerings were made by the high priest for himself and for the whole nation. One of the elements of the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat ceremony in which the high priest laid his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people, thereby symbolising the transferring of the nation’s sins onto the goat. Herein we have the basis for the understanding of making atonement for a large group of people at one time, rather than only for individuals, as well as the idea of transference of sin and guilt onto an innocent party – both of which are central to the Christian concept of atonement, in which our sins are transferred onto Jesus, and he who knew no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21, Is. 53:6, Jn 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

The importance of Old Testament ideas of sacrifice in the Christian account of atonement are perhaps nowhere more greatly pronounced than in the letter to the Hebrews, which David Ford calls ‘the most fully developed theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament’. The great concern of the letter to the Hebrews is to show that the Old Testament sacrifices were inadequate except as types, which foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. This is proven by the fact that they cannot provide entrance into the holy of holies, nor free the conscience from guilt. Rather than remedies for sin, they are reminders of sin, imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10, 10:3), which has now come in Christ, who was the true and final sacrifice, after which no more sacrifices for atonement are needed (Heb. 10:11-14).

Furthermore, according to Hebrews, Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice, but he is also the fulfilment of the high priest, who enters heaven (the reality of which the holy of holies was merely a representation), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood. (Heb. 9:23-26). Thus, Jesus’ death is not simply seen as having been the result of wicked men rising up against him and overcoming him because he was not able to resist them, but as an intentional sacrifice, which Jesus came to present, in order to make atonement for humankind (Mk 10:45).

However, it is not only the letter to the Hebrews which reflects this understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as being an atoning sacrifice. References to atoning sacrifice, which use the language and imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system are found throughout the New Testament. He is spoken of as the true passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-8) and as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3). Jesus spoke of his blood as the blood of the covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matt. 26:28).

Historically, Christian accounts of atonement have been culturally mediated, deriving from their socio-political contexts, and reflective of prevailing philosophical ideas. In this sense, it is understandable why Christianity, born in a Jewish context, would have drawn so heavily on Old Testament ideas and imagery of sacrifice. In modern times, the idea of a sacrificial cult in which blood has to be shed in order for forgiveness of sins to take place is generally considered crude, primitive and unsophisticated, and it has been suggested that Christians should take on different views of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for example an exemplarist view, in which we learn from Christ the virtue of self-sacrifice, and are moved by his act of self-sacrifice to repentance and faith and are motivated to live a life of holiness. Wellhausen’s moral evolution account has contributed to this line of thinking, in which he claimed to see a critique of cultic practices present in the prophets. However, since most of the prophets were also priests, they were involved with sacrifice and were rather criticising the practice of making offerings in the wrong spirit rather than critiquing the cultic practice of sacrifice itself. Another modern emphasis on sacrifice is that it be understood metaphorically in terms of a ‘gift’. Fiddes points out that this is a slippage form the ancient use of the term which formed the context for early Christian reflection on the death of Christ. Even in Old Testament times, there was precedent, e.g. in the Psalms, to speak of sacrifice in metaphorical terms (‘spiritual sacrifice’), but this was not a substitution of the literal animal sacrifices. In fact, early Christians drew on both the spiritual sacrifices and the literal sacrifices to provide a backdrop and meaning for the death of Jesus.

During the Reformation, one of the theories of atonement which became popular was that of penal substitution; that the law of God demanded punishment from those who breached it and that God, as a strategy of love, effectively propitiated himself in Christ, satisfying the demands of his own justice. The attraction of this theory has been that it does appear to explain how the death of Christ is a final and decisive event, and after his death the anger or truth of God needs not be propitiated again. However, the shortcoming of this theory of atonement is that when we consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, what we find is that atonement is centred around cleansing the unclean person from that which makes them unclean, rather than about dealing with the reaction of God against sin. If we are to claim that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the basis for the Christian understanding of atonement, then we must recognise that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not focused on dealing with God’s reaction to sin, but with removing sin and making the unclean clean. Fiddes contends that when Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was ‘propitiation by his blood’, that the word translated propitiation (‘hilasterion’) should rather be understood as ‘expiation’ (‘to wipe away’), because God is always the subject of the process of atonement, never the object. Although the word ‘hilasterion’ means ‘propitiation’ when it is used in other texts of the period, Fiddes claims that when the New Testament writers use it they are intentionally changing its meaning to mean expiation, which is what the Old Testament atoning sacrifices describe. Certainly the Bible does depict God being angry against sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18). But even though God does feel anger and wrath towards sin, when he acts to make atonement he is not acting to satisfy his anger, but to remove sin. Those who refuse to appropriate this atonement will remain unclean and estranged from God.

It is clear that the writers of the New Testament drew heavily on the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in regard to the significance of the life and death of Jesus. This imagery was not only used by the writer to the Hebrews, but is also found in the writings of Paul, Peter, John and the writers of the Gospels, who give us examples of Jesus speaking in such terms about himself. If then the Old Testament sacrifices are the basis of our Christian account of atonement, we can gain insight into what the crucifixion of Christ did and did not mean when we consider the purposes and effects of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Bibliography:
Beckwith, R.T., ‘Sacrifice and Offering’ , in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 1035-1044
Carter, D., THY303 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2012)
Currid, J., K. Nobuyoshi and J.A. Sklar, ‘Leviticus’, in ESV Study Bible, ed. by L.T. Dennis, W. Grudem, J.I. Packer, C.J. Collins, T.R. Schreiner and J. Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), pp. 211-256
Fiddes, P.S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)
Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)
Goldingay, J., ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in John Goldingay, (ed.) Atonement Today, a Symposium at St. John’s College, Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 3-20
Marshall, I.H., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Morris, L.L., ‘Atonement’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 102-104
Morris, L.L., “Theories of the Atonement”, Monergism <http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/atonementmorris2.html&gt; [28/06/13]
Wenham, G.J., The Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 2003)

Already…But Not Yet

On Sunday mornings at White Fields I have been teaching through 1 Samuel; this past Sunday I taught the second half of chapter 16, in which David has already been anointed king of Israel, but it will be another 15-20 years of hardship before David will sit on the throne of Israel as king.

David is king already, but not yet.

And this phrase, “already, but not yet” sums up so much of the Christian life. In Christ we are justified, glorified, made holy, seated with Christ in the heavenly places – already! But not yet.

Yesterday a great lady woman from church sent me this poem she wrote, inspired by Sunday’s message:

Sometimes life just seems to drag on
And sometimes we grow weary of the wait 
We want it all, we want it now
We shout out in whispered pleas 
Begging for speed, hurry please
But He answers not yet, He asks us to wait
Discouraged and let down we struggle on 
Don’t struggle on 
Don’t falter when you can run 
Don’t struggle when you have won
He has already won
It’s already done
We are waiting for an end that is already won
So hold on
Hold on to His promises 
Hold onto His love 
Hold onto the Hope that it’s already ready
It’s already done
But not yet

– Ryane Salazar