“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16)
This is the way the English Standard Version translates Deuteronomy 30:16, the verse of the day today in a Bible I use. I highlight the phrase that jumped out at me today, the one I have been contemplating since I read it this morning.
When I went looking for some deeper meaning, I found the other translations take it in a slightly different direction:
“For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws….” (NIV)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments….” (NASB)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments….” (NKJV)
Only one the English Standard Version instructs us to obey the commandments of God “by loving the Lord….”. Most of the time I believe we think about loving God by obeying His commands – not obeying God’s commands by loving Him. It’s a subtle difference, but it piqued my curiosity further.
I also discovered that the Hebrew word for love in this verse is “aheb”, which means (not surprisingly) “to love”. But it dawned me as I looked at the other verses in which that word is used that it seems to mean to love with affection. Abraham loved Isaac (Gen. 22:2); Isaac loved Rebekah (Gen. 24:67); Isaac loved Esau (Gen. 25:28)(more than Jacob); Rebekah loved Jacob(Gen. 25:28) (more than Esau); Isaac loved the “savory meat” that Esau provided (Gen. 27:4); and Jacob loved Rachel (more than Rachel’s sisters that his father-in-law insist he marry first) (Gen. 28:18).
Clearly, all of these uses of the word for love used in the commandment in Deuteronomy to love God imply a kind of personal affection, even to the exclusion of affection for other things (or people). Thus, we are commanded to have affection for God and to walk in His ways and keep His commandments: or, as the ESV translates, to obey God’s commands by loving Him (with affection).
The real light bulb moment today, though, wasn’t in the breaking down of this verse, but in its juxtaposition with my daily Bible reading, which is taking me currently through Numbers (after having left the detailed instructions about the Tent of Meeting in Leviticus). So many rules for the priestly duties of the Levites in connection with the Tent of Meeting and Ark of the Testimony and the altar where endless sacrifices were to be offered up have me wanting to get through these passages quickly!
And they have me asking, why? I know… they foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Lev. 9:22; Heb. 9:22) The writer of Hebrews tells us Christ has appeared, now, as the ultimate high priest, entering once for all into the holy places, securing for us eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-13) All the sacrifices commanded by God in Leviticus, Numbers and so on were just copies of heavenly things: “For Christ has entered, not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24)
All the many sacrifices offered by the Levites at God’s commands as God’s chosen people wandered in the wilderness, carrying with them the Tent of Meeting and all of its accouterments, were just copies of the one sacrifice, “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26)
As I read through these passages in the Old Testament, I find myself asking, “Why?” as if I were one of them, not knowing anything about the plans of God that were devised before the foundation of the world. What were they thinking as they did these things?
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)
I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”
The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.
I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?
Do I protest too much?
I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.
Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.
When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?
As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.
It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong, as he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.
Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.
Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. We think like that, don’t we? Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?
Of course, that is pride talking.
Would Able have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? We don’t know. We can’t really say.
Did Abel just get lucky? Did he happen just to offer a better sacrifice. Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but I doubt his assumptions were very good.
Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. I kind of doubt it, though. If Cain had known what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, I don’t think he would have taken his anger out on Abel. Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better.
Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope, and he warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.
If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. Our own perspective on our circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.
If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.
If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.
We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!
Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.
Where else would we turn anyway?
In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh foe us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.
This world also isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an able.
Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.
People discussed and debated who was Jesus during his life, and people continue to ask the question today: who was Jesus? It’s really pretty remarkable that people are still asking that question today if you think about it. Jesus didn’t write anything. He didn’t create a lasting work of art. He didn’t conquer anyone.
Yet, people are still talking about Jesus today. Jesus is worshiped by some as God. He is revered my every major religion as a prophet or wise, spiritual man. He is even respected by the irreligious as a moral and good man. Though he didn’t pen a single word as far as we know, more books have been written about him than any man who lived.
So, it makes sense to ask: who was Jesus? It’s not an irrelevant question, even today, so many years after is life and very public and widely attested death.
The Internet skeptics who question whether the man, Jesus, ever lived are simply living in denial. Not even most atheists doubt that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was crucified on a cross, was an actual man who lived in the first century. A more serious and compelling question is: who was Jesus?
So, let me get right to the point. The following statement from Paul, the once hater and persecutor of Christians who became a follower, highlights why this question is still relevant today:
“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. …. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.” Romans 3:25-26
How we respond to this statement is a litmus test of sorts. It raises the ultimate question – who was Jesus – in a way that gets right to the heart of the matter. We can’t read that statement, if we truly understand it, without worshiping and loving such a God or recoiling in horror, indignation and revulsion.
One of the most biting critiques of the Bible and the story of Jesus is that God killed him. God demanded a sacrifice, and Jesus was it. If God is God, He orchestrated the death of Jesus to sate His own demands for justice, homage and retribution.
People like Richard Dawkins make this accusation of “the Christian God”. They say that even if God exists, they would never follow such a vindictive, spiteful God like that.
Lay aside the propriety of created beings standing in moral judgment of the Creator of the universe. If the Creator of the universe was a spiteful, vindictive mean-spirited Being, what could we do about it? And what would our moral indignation have to do with anything?
But of course, the Richard Dawkins types don’t believe in God. What they do believe is at the heart of this blog piece. They believe that Jesus was a just a man. He wasn’t divine. He was no different than you and me.
If Jesus was just a man, the Christian view that Jesus was sacrificed and killed to satisfy God’s sense of justice – or vindictiveness, or spite or evil desire to inflict pain – is something that seems despicably bad. As moral beings, we can see that such a thing would be wrong. It’s twisted. We know better. It doesn’t feel right.
But the fundamental question isn’t: why did God kill Jesus (or have him killed)? The fundamental question is: who was Jesus? We have to answer this question before we can make any sense of the latter question.
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.