The Ultimate Sacrifice

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depositphotos Image ID: 31619821
Copyright: DesignPicsInc

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.”[1] 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”.[2]

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.[3]

God did create us in His own image[4], 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.[5] When the Israelites engaged in the practice anyway, God judged them for it.[6] 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.”[7]

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[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10]

This is why, when Jesus was dying on the cross, as His death approached, He said, “It is finished!”[11] 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.[12] 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, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….”[13]

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[1] 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?”)

[2] Luke 24:27 (“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”)

[3] God told Moses, “I am who I am”. (Exodus 3:14)

[4] Genesis 1:27

[5] Leviticus 20:2-5

[6] 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.’’”)

[7] Leviticus 17:11

[8]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.

[9] Hebrews 9:9

[10] Hebrews 9:11-15

[11] John 19:30

[12] Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,and to give his life as a ransom for many.”)

[13] Philippians 2:1-9

Sharper Than Any Two-Edged Sword

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword….

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When I started this blog, I promised some autobiographical accounts, not that anyone is waiting with baited breath for them. True to my word, though, I will oblige.

I just revised one of my first blog posts, One of My First Light Bulb Moments. In that post, I recounted some early revelations about the Bible that marked my spiritual journey while I was still an unbeliever. I recalled my observation of the intricate harmony of the Bible and acknowledgement that the Creator of the world could communicate to us if He desired to, and He could also protect that communication if He wanted to.

I had these thoughts as I read the Bible for the first time in college. There were other thoughts too. The additional thoughts were not as philosophical; they were much more personal and uncomfortable.

In fact, reading the Bible made me feel uncomfortable. It was sharp. It seemed to expose my heart. It seemed to suggest I was at enmity to God. I virtually squirmed as I read it.

Though I read the Bible as part of an academic class on world religions, I approached each world religion as part of my own journey for truth. Not just the world religions class, I approached every class in college as part of my truth journey. I was eager to delve into the meaning of life. I was very much a product of 1960’s and 1970’s culture in that respect.

I did not really recognize the discomfort I was feeling as I read the Bible until I came across the following verse:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) 

There it was: staring me in the face was an explanation for why I felt so uncomfortable. I at once desired to put the Bible down and leave it alone and to press further like a person exploring a cave in the dark with trepidation. God seemed unapproachable to me, and the conviction I felt was painful; yet I could see there was something there.

The Bible, unlike most religious texts, is unique in confronting the sinful, imperfect nature of man in all of the pride, selfishness and pettiness that we so clearly see in other people, of course, but are much less likely to see in ourselves. The Bible uniquely reflects that pride, selfishness and pettiness back at us. It forces us to be honest with ourselves.

It was many months before I learned a lesson that changed my life forever. If we do not turn from the conviction, but allow it to have its way with us, God’s Word brings us to the cross.

At the cross we see God, intentionally divested of His glory, dying as a sacrifice for us, redeeming us from the sin that is in us.  We are not left to be perpetually convicted of our sins; we are shown the way out of our condition that God provides. When we confess our sins and believe, we find the glorious truth of salvation, forgiveness of sin and relationship with our God and Creator.

“[W]hoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned….” (John 5:24)

We must first see ourselves for who we are, as difficult and uncomfortable as that can be. The Living Word does that: it exposes the sin, but it also shows the way to mercy and forgiveness. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. The painful exposure of the sin that resides in us gives way to the healing that we desperately need by the same Word that smites us.

Abraham and the Love of God

The pagans knew their place in the world, the utter separateness between them and the creative force of the world and the fearful sense of a being so much greater than us that might as soon squash us as let us live. That creative force it turns out, however, loves us and desires relationship with us.

abrahamAbraham, by Sufjan Stevens, ends with these words:

    Abraham

  Put off on your son

Take instead the ram

   Until Jesus comes

Abraham lived around 2000 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. (Answersingenesis) Child sacrifice was common practice in that time in that area of the world to appease the gods that people thought existed. It would not have been a foreign concept to Abraham for God to ask him to sacrifice his son. That practice was part of the life and culture of the time in which Abraham lived.

The request, however, would have been particularly difficult for Abraham to honor. God had promised him a son. God promised that Abraham’s child would populate the earth as the stars in the sky. Abraham was already old and past normal child rearing age when God made these promises.

The request by God for Abraham to sacrifice his son would have hit Abraham hard. It would have made no sense. It flew in the face of the promises Abraham thought God made to him. Continue reading “Abraham and the Love of God”

In My Place

Pilots Working in an Aeroplane During a Commercial FlightFew things really bring the story of Christ and what he did for us into sharp focus. We know it intellectually, but it does not really register with the clarity and presence that such a cosmic event should. We get distracted with the mundane elements of life and the fleeting excitements that pull our attention away from God’s ultimate act of love.

I am as guilty as anyone. I find myself registering somewhere in the depths of my soul, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this amazing, unbelievable act of love was (is) as real as anything in my life, actually the most real and profoundly significant reality in my life, and yet I do not live as if that were really true. The fact that it registers so dully with my senses most of the time is something I recognize, but seem powerless (or lacking in will) to summon to the surface of my daily consciousness.

There are times when that eternal Act becomes more present than others. For some people, experiences have etched the reality of that Act more deeply into the consciousness, and it usually comes through pain, tragedy or great mercy and near avoidance of pain and tragedy. I think it can happen on both sides of that divide.

This link is to one of those events, an event that we know all too well. This is a view from a pilot who sat in the cockpit of one of the planes that never reached its intended destination on 9/11.

In My Seat – A Pilot’s Story from Sept. 10th-11th