NT Wright made a statement on Justin Brierley’s new podcast recently, Ask NT Wright Anything, that is worth repeating. He says that people read John 3:16 (“That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….”) this way: “that God so hated the world that he killed his only son.”
People, especially today, view God as an angry bully. They interpret the story of Jesus, Wright says, “as if God was looking for someone on whom to take out his vengeance, and His son got in the way – so that somehow makes it right”. But it doesn’t seem right to many people who interpret the story in this way. We recoil from a view of God, the cosmic bully.
Of course, many people who moralize about God are simply refusing to acknowledge God as God. They sit in judgment of God, or at least “the God of the Bible” that they as they perceive Him. At many who hold this view don’t even believe God exists. But, I don’t think that Wright is only talking about a skeptical view of God, though skeptics certainly make interpretation errors. Even believers wrestle with a muddled view of the story.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, … and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance
These are some of the most terrifying words in the New Testament:
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)
For anyone but the hardest core Calvinist, these words are enough to make one shudder. No one wants to fall away. But we often do what we know we shouldn’t. The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. Though we may be born again, the old man lurks incessantly beneath the service and around every corner. The struggle is real.
Most people, however, (me included) tend to read these words out of context. As an isolated statement, we might be strongly tempted to believe these words speak to sin, especially those nagging, habitual, ingrained sins that we have a hard time overcoming. We feel as if, one day, we will sin one too many times and will have fallen away – completely lost and irredeemable!
But the context speaks to something different than the direction our mind is prone to go.
The statement in Hebrews 6 quoted above is prefaced with the following introduction:
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God ….” (Hebrews 6:1)
What is the “elementary doctrine of Christ”? What are these “dead works” from which we must repent? This is the key to keep from “falling away”.
Sacrifice began with Cain and Abel. Able gave an acceptable sacrifice, giving to God from the best of what he had. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and Cain became jealous of Abel’s favor with God and took his life.
The sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel were outward expressions of their hearts toward God. Abel offered to God a sacrifice from among the best that he had; Can did not. Cain’s reaction of taking Abel’s life was also an expression of his heart, being self-absorbed and jealous and unable to countenance the favor Abel obtained from God. This only shows, however, there is more to the offering of a sacrifice than meets the eye.
Christians read the OT through the lens of the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” On the road to Emmaus, Jesus came along side two disciples after He had risen from the dead and interpreted the Scriptures for them, showing them “all the things concerning himself”.
Jesus tells us that the OT is a precursor to the NT. The OT laid the groundwork for the NT and prepared the way for the revelation of Jesus. A Christian can’t read the OT divorced from the NT. It makes little sense by itself.
When it comes to sacrifice, the entirety of the OT points to the ultimate sacrifice that was to come – the sacrifice of God who became man and gave Himself up for us. God turned everything on its head in that culminating moment, and we learn (looking back) that this was the plan all along. God intended from the beginning to do this, and He prepared the stage for it through His working with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, stubborn and rebellious though they were.
They were exactly like us. But that means there is hope for us!
And that is the problem. God can be nothing other than who He is. He is (in Himself) the standard to which all things are compared. If we want to have a relationship with God, it must be on God’s own terms because God is who is He is.
God did create us in His own image, but that doesn’t mean that we are exactly like Him. He gave us agency, the ability to choose, including the ability to choose to reject Him and go our own ways.
If God is the standard of goodness, a choice to embrace anything other than the goodness of God is evil. Evil doesn’t exist without good. Good is the benchmark against which anything other than good is measured, and anything other than good is evil.
In giving us this choice, God gave us the gift of love, because love can’t exist without choice. If we have no choice but to reflect God’s character, we would not be able to know and reciprocate love, because love is a choice. Hold that thought.
When we think of the sacrifices in the OT, we think of the animal sacrifices that became the central activity in the Temple. Why did God require them? What was the purpose of the system of ritual sacrifices that God instructed?
The surrounding nations and religious activity from time immemorial to the present day included sacrifices to appease angry gods and gain favor with them. Was this simply more of the same?
Actually, no. This was a paradigm shift. For one thing the surrounding nations engaged in child sacrifice, but God forbid the practice by the Israelites. When the Israelites engaged in the practice anyway, God judged them for it. Instead, God instructed them to sacrifice animals.
In doing this, God began to condition His people for something other than what the rest of their known world did. God began to lead them in a different direction. The switch from child sacrifice to sacrifice of animals was only one step in the process, and it wasn’t the destination, but only part of the journey.
The sacrificial system God gave His people pointed beyond it to something else. When God gave the instruction to Moses in regard to the sacrificial system, He explained, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
The sacrifices were intended to provide the atonement for the sins of the people. God provided an “out” – a way for a sinful people to be restored to relationship with God. It is a necessary corollary to the ability to choose evil instead of God, but the animal sacrifices weren’t mean to be a permanent fix.
After many generations of failure to walk in the ways that God established for His people, continually returning to the gods of their neighbors and the evils that God warned them to leave behind, God began to send them prophets. At the height of their failings and continual wandering after the evils God warned them against, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah:
“11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
Likewise, God spoke through the prophet Hosea:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
It wasn’t the sacrifices that God wanted; it was relationship. The sacrifices God instructed His people to make were not the permanent fix, as stated above. It was only a temporal means to a more permanent end. The permanent fix was not to come from man, but from God.
As stated in Hebrews, the sacrificial system was only an illustration. The sacrificial system was merely a temporal, external regulation pointing to an eternal, internal reality that was to be revealed in Christ.
“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
This is why, when Jesus was dying on the cross, as His death approached, He said, “It is finished!” In that moment Jesus fulfilled the law and all that the law demanded. Just as Jesus told His followers when He was alive, He became the ransom for us all. His sacrifice was once for all; it was the perfect sacrifice; it was the sacrifice that bought us eternal life. It was the ultimate sacrifice that God planned from the beginning.
When God made us in His image, giving us agency, He allowed us the gift of love, which we could not have obtained any other way. But it came with a huge risk – the risk that we could and would reject God. In fact, God knew we would reject Him and go our own way. But he provided a way out.
Just as God provided a way out for Abraham when Abraham dutifully went to sacrifice his so, Isaac, in the tradition all the surrounding nations, God provided a way out for all of us. For Abraham, God provided a goat to be sacrificed instead of his son. For Israel, God provided for animals to be sacrificed instead of their children.
But all of this was only a stop gap, a bridge to a different, new and ultimate reality in which God intended to provide the ultimate sacrifice, one for all. This is was a sacrifice to be made by God Himself, taking on the form of a man, and being found in human form, He proceeded to be obedient to the plan, even to the point of sacrificing Himself in death for our sake.
In doing this, God also showed us the way we should reflect His love:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….”
 John 5:39-47 (“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”)
 Luke 24:27 (“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”)
 God told Moses, “I am who I am”. (Exodus 3:14)
 Jeremiah 32:35-36 (“They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.‘Now therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence.’’”)
The Hebrew word, ese (etymology unknown), means covenant-loyalty. This term is used generally of loyalty to a friendship or agreement. Preeminently, it conveys the idea of God’s perfect loyalty to His own covenant. God desires His covenant to be reflected back by us; He desires His love for us to be reflected back by our love for Him.