For hundreds of years Christians have debated the reasons why Jesus' death on the cross saves us. Two weeks ago, I suggested to you that a logical reason arises from the operation of the "rule of law." Alert readers let me know I was not clear about what the rule of law meant, and that this overlooked another logical explanation of Jesus' sacrifice. Both concerns are right on target, and our study this week allows us to explore again what the Bible has to say about both. Let's plunge into our study of the Bible!
Christ, Our Sacrifice
Commentary for the November 16, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Hebrews 13:11-13, NIV
For thousands of years, from the sacrifice offered by Abel until the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D., rivers of blood flowed from thousands and thousands of animals. Why? Because of an event recorded in Genesis, popularly referred to as “The Fall,”[i] the gory stream began to run. That fall brought death to mankind, but it was not enough that mankind began to experience death. By man’s hand, death was visited on the animal creation as well. There is no apparent command in Scripture to be found for what Abel did in slaying a lamb and placing it on an altar for sacrifice. We are left to wonder whether God somehow instructed him in this ritual or if it was Adam’s idea. Was he simply slaying the lamb for clothing as may have been done for his parent’s?[ii] Perhaps placing the lamb on the altar was an acknowledgment that all things, even clothing, come from the Creator.
We see this idea of gratitude when Noah offered sacrifice after the flood.[iii] He and his family had been spared from the catastrophe that had cleansed the whole earth of life. Understandably, he would be thankful after such a salvation. Generations later, we still see an attitude of thankfulness during the time of Abraham. However, a new association appears to have developed.
We are told in the Bible that starting with the generation of Adam and Eve’s grandchildren, people began to call upon the name of the Lord. What is meant by this is not defined in Scripture, but some have understood it to mean prayer. Apparently, whatever it meant, it was not originally associated with the sacrificial altar since that began a generation before with Abel. Only when we get to the time of Abraham do we see the two ideas being linked to one another.[iv] Whereas, before we saw the sacrifice as an expression of thanksgiving, perhaps for a fertile flock or abundant harvest, it now became a means for attracting God’s attention. We can speculate on whether this transition took place due to the ideas introduced through idol worship that the godly line of believers was exposed to in Mesopotamia,[v] but the Bible does not say why this took place. We simply jump in the narrative from one form of worship to the next. Whether this was a diminishing or strengthening of man’s understanding of God can be debated, but it seems to place God at mankind’s beck and call. If a man performs ritual “A” then God is expected to give response “B.”
Perhaps when we consider that men manufactured the images used in idol worship, this concept becomes more understandable. After all if a man can make the image of a god, shouldn’t he also have some power through that image over the god? Also, since the biblical narrative indicates that God was pleased with sacrifices of thanksgiving offered in earlier times, and it would be easier to call upon a well-disposed deity, altars might then have come to be associated with attempting to summon a benevolent action from a god.
Another interesting transition that took place is one from a populist approach to worship where everyone may offer sacrifice on an altar to one involving a patriarchal form of worship where the head of the family is the one who offers sacrifice on the altar. Thus begins a form of hierarchical worship where one favored individual stands between God and the rest of the worshippers. By the time of the sojourn in Egypt, this individual who may still be a patriarch but may simply be an individual in service to a king or equivalent ruler, has come to be known as a priest.[vi] These priests would often receive some sort of an ordination ceremony from whoever was ruling to set them aside for such service. Once this system was instituted, any possibility of an individual directly approaching God was derailed and anyone claiming to have such a direct relationship with God who was not an ordained priest might be determined to be heretical and perhaps even worthy of capital punishment.[vii] In the case of the Israelites, this transition did not occur smoothly. Some objected to this monopoly on God.[viii] The Bible indicates that some forfeited their lives for doing so. Whatever the outcome, they did not prevail.
Perhaps Moses favored the priestly caste system due to his being raised in Pharaoh’s court.[ix] This might account for his astonishment at being spoken to directly by God at the burning bush.[x] In any event, according to the Bible, God called Moses because He felt he had the qualifications necessary to deliver the Israelites. Perhaps it was precisely because he had been educated by the Egyptians that God chose him. The establishment of a priestly caste with special rights for the priests to be sustained from the assets and property obtained from the rest of the people,[xi] as well as the design of the tabernacle with a courtyard, a holy place, and a most holy place are parallels to what the people had experienced in Egypt.[xii]
This priestly system remained much the same until the time of Jesus. Interestingly, Jesus chose to operate outside of that system. While there is record of Joseph and Mary making sacrificial offerings at the temple, there is not record of Jesus doing so. He is also described as referring to the washings required by that system as being “commandments of men” as opposed to being God’s requirements.[xiii] This was echoed by Paul in his epistles.[xiv] Perhaps it is a natural part of a hierarchical form of worship, which restricts direct access to God, to also restrict the many activities of day-to-day living. We see extreme examples of this in some modern cults where the leaders, who claim sole understanding of God’s will demand that their male followers give up even their wives and daughters to them as in the case of Michael Travesser, who left the Seventh-day Adventist church to found a cult in the desert of the Southwestern United States.[xv]
Jesus was a historical turning point for the hierarchical system of worship. Eventually, in 70 A.D., the system of sacrificial worship at the temple came to an end anyway courtesy of the Roman Empire. But several decades before that, Jesus laid the foundations for a relationship with God that would supplant the previous system. In the new system, Jesus, who claimed to be one with God, the Father, became the new high priest, not after the order of Aaron but of that of Melchizedek.[xvi] Unlike, Aaron and his descendants, Melchizedek, like God, had no genealogy, and the book of Hebrews actually equates the original Melchizedek who met Abraham with the Son of God.[xvii] Why is this significant? Because when a priestly caste is not based on birth, it can be freely conferred on anyone. According to the Bible, that is exactly what has happened. As many as choose to follow this Melchizedekian High Priest are also priests of that order.[xviii]
In other words, now anyone who comes to God is a member of the priestly order of Melchizedek with the ability to petition God directly. Also, they are not only priests, but royal priests as the name Melchizedek means “my king is the righteous one.” Jesus is not only high priest, but king of righteousness as well. Eventually, we have come to understand that with everyone having direct access to God, mercy and not sacrifice became the order of the day.[xix] The river of blood from the sacrificial system came to an end. Those who had bled the life out of countless animals finally bled the life from Jesus, and with that, they sealed the fate of the system that had enriched them and gave them power over the people. People were set free to live in direct relationship with their Creator.[xx]
Sadly, there are those who lament the loss of the power of the priesthood and have worked to keep it alive through the centuries. They restrict access to power and control in the churches through nepotism and gender and racial exclusion, but as the Holy Spirit illumines minds to the truth,[xxi] their power is waning. The Holy Spirit is given to each of us.[xxii] The Spirit is not imparted to some priest or other religious leader to dole out to us by dribs and drabs from a homily each week. Religion that is about that kind of power and control met its end on the cross, religion that is about compassion and self-sacrifice instead rose early on the following Sunday from an empty tomb.
[i] Genesis 3
[ii] Genesis 3:21
[iii] Genesis 8:18-20
[iv] Genesis 12:8; Cf. 13:4 & 21:33
[v] Genesis 11:31
[vi] Genesis 41:45; Cf. Exodus 3:1
[vii] Numbers 12:1-2; Cf.
[viii] Numbers 16:1-3
[ix] Exodus 2:10
[x] Exodus 3:1-6
[xi] Genesis 47:22
[xii] “Ancient Egyptian architecture: temple,” www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/art/temple.html
[xiii] Mark 7:6-8
[xiv] Colossians 2:21-23; Cf. Titus 1:14-15
[xv] “Lord Our Righteousness Church,” www.wikipedia.org
[xvi] Hebrews 6:20
[xvii] Hebrews 7:1-3
[xviii] 1 Peter 2:9
[xix] Hosea 6:6
[xx] John 8:36
[xxi] John 16:13
[xxii] Acts 2:38
"Christ, Our Sacrifice"
November 16, 2013
Text: Isaiah 53:2-12; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 9:26-28; Hebrews 9:12; Exodus 12:5; Hebrews 4:15
If you have ever been in an airport when military personnel return home from one of the current wars you see family members with welcome home signs run to greet one another with a long embrace. Homecomings are something all military families live and long for because once their loved one is deployed there is no guarantee they will ever be able to hug them again.
As this nation has celebrated Veterans' Day this week we have been reminded to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line to fight for our freedom. We've also been reminded of those who have lost their lives in combat for our country. For these families the homecoming is devastating. They meet with military representatives charged with carrying the American-flag-draped coffin to the soldier's hometown.
In the United States there are both national and state cemeteries that contain the graves of veterans and their spouses. These cemeteries distinguish themselves from all others with row upon row of white marble or granite headstones which stand erect in lines as if at attention.1
Military headstones and markers are inscribed with the name of the deceased, the years of birth and death, branch of service and may also include an emblem that reflects the soldier's religious belief.2 The National Cemetery Administration gives families pictures of 57 acceptable symbols of belief from which to choose. The 58th, the Muslim 5-point star, is not identified in picture due to copyright issues.3
The small Christian cross carved into the white headstone is picture number 1. It is also the one most frequently requested at the Arlington National Cemetery.4 For Christians the unembellished cross is not only a reminder of a great sacrifice but it also is a symbol of hope.
The Sanctuary service was a constant reminder of sacrifice due to sin: the sinner, the innocent lamb, the outer court, a priest, a knife for the sinner to use to slit the throat of the animal, and blood.
Scripture tells us that all of us have sinned.5 Just imagine what our lives would be like today if we all had to raise lambs to take to church to kill for our sins committed that week?
God saw the need to deal with the sin-problem in another way. God offered an only son as a sacrifice for our sins: an innocent man who had not sinned, a crude wooden cross flanked by sinners, spikes, heartbreak, a sword, blood, death, and then... a resurrection! This week we honor war veterans who fought for our country's freedom.
This week we also reflect upon Christ, our sacrifice, who died because of our sins so we could be free from eternal death. The resurrection of the dead is a promise. What a homecoming that will be!
5. Romans 3:23
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