If you had to pick the most important day of the year, for God's people in the Old Testament that would be the Day of Atonement. Today, the Day of Atonement might bring a big yawn for God's people. Since the sanctuary teaches us important lessons for today, I believe that is also true for the Day of Atonement. Let's plunge into our study of the Bible to take away that yawn and see what we can learn!
The Day of Atonement
Commentary for the November 9, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:1-4, NIV
Our lesson quarterly focuses throughout the quarter on the sanctuary as a model for a purification ritual going on in heaven based on a single verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews.[i] The logical conclusion of such an approach would be that the sanctuary service of the wilderness wanderings was not efficacious for anything. It was merely a symbol. This seems to be the conclusion the author of Hebrews came to also from the passage cited above. But this begs the question, if this is only a symbol of something unseen, why was it necessary to carry on this practice for almost one and a half millennia? Why did perhaps millions of animals have to die if this was only a symbolic gesture and accomplished no real cleansing from sin?
Also, if this had value to present to the world what was going on in heaven, then why did it no longer have value once Christ was crucified? According to Hebrews, Christ is actively involved in what Seventh-day Adventists refer to as the “Antitypical Day of Atonement.” In other words, He functions as a High Priest in heaven in a literal sanctuary, offering sacrifice for sin. Instead of the blood of animals, His blood is offered.[ii] But if the sacrifices of the sanctuary service had value for understanding what was taking place in heaven, why do they not have value for that now?
Some believe that the offering of animal sacrifices came to an end when Christ died on the cross and the curtain of the temple between the Holy Place (pronaos) and the Most Holy Place (naos) was torn in two, thereby eliminating the veil that stood between God and His people. But if the sacrificial system came to an end when the curtain was torn, did the early Christians believe this? Perhaps not, for we find even Paul sponsoring the cost of the animal sacrifice for the purification of someone at the time of his arrest in Jerusalem.[iii] This was most certainly after the curtain in the temple was torn as Luke, Mark and Matthew’s gospels tell us.[iv] Yet, strangely, Paul does not question the idea of continuing with the sacrificial system. The fact that the apostles in Jerusalem suggested that he do this would seem to indicate that they, also, felt that the sacrificial system was not done away with. Could it be that something other than Christ’s death caused the end of the sacrificial system? Was the justification for its end only developed after that other event? What event could have had such a dramatic impact?
If we look for a major event that happened after the death of Christ that may have profoundly affected the early church, we might find such an event in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. It is perhaps interesting that the Gospel of John, which conservative biblical scholars feel was written prior to the destruction of the Temple[v] makes no mention of the curtain being torn. However, the Synoptic Gospels all make mention of the torn curtain. Because of internal references in these gospels, many date them to after the destruction of the Temple.[vi] So why would gospels written after the Temple’s destruction have this passage and the one possibly written prior not have it? Perhaps it was related more to practice than to faith. With the destruction of the temple, change in practice was needed, and a theological justification for that change became necessary.
If we look at the Jewish community, the synagogue system of worship came into its own during the intertestamental period. Perhaps its importance grew as a result of the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes.[vii] In any event, the synagogue system continued parallel to the Temple worship system even during the time of Jesus.[viii] Once the Temple was destroyed, the Jews may have naturally transitioned fully to the synagogues, seeing the time of Antiochus as a precedent for doing so. However, the early Christians may have found it necessary to create a different perspective to justify the transition away from the sacrificial system.
In an increasing number of instances, the Christians found themselves being opposed by the Jews and excluded from the synagogues.[ix] Therefore, they began developing a network of house churches where they could meet and fellowship together. At times those houses were close to the synagogues.[x] No longer attending the synagogues, they also were no longer restrained in their theological development by the rabbis of those synagogues. They could be free to develop a distinct theology not dependent on the Temple and its sacrificial system. Orthodox Jews, even today, in spite of the synagogues they now worship in believe that the Temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system one day re-established.[xi] Since Gentiles (non-Jews) would never be admitted to the Temple[xii] and Christians freely welcomed Gentiles into their fellowship, they also would likely not be allowed to join in its restoration. Perhaps finding themselves barred from participation in the sacrificial system, even before the Temple was destroyed by Rome, Christians had already begun to look for answers, and that search found expression in the Synoptic Gospels. Through the symbolism of a torn curtain in the Temple, they may have found a powerful metaphor for the end of the sacrificial system. Perhaps Paul’s arrest at the Temple served to hurry them along that theological pathway.
Maybe the Epistle to the Hebrews was written as a response to the Jews, who had excluded Christians from the sacrificial system and the synagogues, in effect, telling them that they no longer needed such a system anyway. In fact, their system was better with Christ ministering in a heavenly temple that no Roman army could ever destroy. Then one day, instead of rebuilding the Temple here on earth, each believer would go to the temple in heaven to be with Christ. However, Christians may have paid a high price for this theological posturing.
In maintaining that the sacrificial system was ineffectual, Christianity, in some ways, divorced itself from the precedential history of the Old Testament. Who has not heard those Christians who assert with an air of superiority that they are “New Testament” Christians? Uncomfortable with the blood and violence of the Old Testament, they may have disavowed its validity not just in terms of the sacrifices of the sanctuary but as an ongoing spiritual guide as well. They perhaps feel comfortable reciting Psalm 23 from time to time, but the rest is just too messy to deal with so they cast it all aside. However, Christ never turned His back on the Old Testament. Instead, He relied on the Old Testament to provide textual foundation for His own ministry. In effect He claimed His ministry was biblically based in a time when the only Bible was the Old Testament.[xiii]
Seventh-day Adventists have attempted to follow Christ’s lead in this. They seek to define the New Testament through the lens of the Old. Often seeing the Old Testament as being “typically” symbolic of “antitypical” and at times apocalyptic applications, Adventists make herculean efforts to try to knit the disparate components into a coherent systematic theological whole. While this approach is commendable, one cannot help but ask when things get too literal, is it practical to seek a perfect understanding of a God which by definition is beyond understanding?
For instance, suppose Hebrews was simply written as an apologetic to a xenophobic Jewry, telling them that their theology wasn’t need anyway and therefore there is no real temple in heaven beyond the image conjured up by its writer. Does that change our relationship to Christ? Perhaps it changes nothing. Maybe it is like those who believe that when they die Jesus takes them immediately to heaven as opposed to those who believe they sleep in the graves until Jesus comes for them at the Parousia. Since there will be no sense of passage of time in the grave, possibly both will awake at the Second Coming and believe they were each right, and in the joy of being received into eternal fellowship with Christ, which belief was literally right no longer really matters.
Could it be that we are placing too much of an emphasis on a literal understanding of something that may only be a symbolic construct to illustrate a theological position? Historically, when the church has developed understandings that were too literal, they have been used for persecution, judgment and even pursuing capital punishment when it had the power to do so. Even Christ may not have been received as He should have been because those responsible for orthodoxy had things figured out too closely for their own good and that of the church. Perhaps we should pray not to go to that extreme.
[i] Hebrews 8:5
[ii] Hebrews 9:11-12
[iii] Acts 21:23-26
[iv] Luke 23:45; Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51
[v] “Gospel of John,” www.wikipedia.org
[vi] Cf. the articles on the various gospels in www.wikipedia.org
[vii] 1 Maccabees 1
[viii] Matthew 4:23
[ix] Acts 18:5-7
[xi] “Third Temple,” www.wikipedia.org
[xii] Acts 21:28-31
[xiii] John 5:39
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