What’s the deal with Sacrifices?

offeringI had the opportunity to present an assembly at Grace College. Given the lead up to Easter, I was asked to talk about sacrifices. I decided to tackle the distance we feel from a world in which God demands sacrifices by asking what’s changed between then and now that makes them make no sense. The way I answered the question was to distill Israel’s sacrificial system to three purposes: To remind them something, to teach them something and to promise them something. What follows is roughly what I said.

To Remind Them Something

reminder  Sacrifices functioned a bit like scars. Imagine one of your friends always wears long sleeves. Rain, sunshine, hot, cold: long sleeves… It’s a bit peculiar right? But who’s to judge. But it gets hot and you see she’s feeling the heat but rather than pulling her sleeves up, she pulls them down and grips them in her hands. You don’t really know her that well and as you think about it you realise you’ve never actually seen her arms? But you probably never will either nor will you find out why because she’s not going to tell you that down her arms are the scars of a suicide attempt. And every time she or anyone sees them, she remembers with shame what happened and those scars are indelible reminders of that. They’re vivid, unchanging reminders that communicate clearly to everyone who sees them, what she’s done.

In Israel, sacrifices were reminders of what they had done. Actually not just them but everyone. In the account of the Garden of Eden we read how death came as a direct consequence to sin. When Israel did a sin offering, they sacrificed an animal because death came as a result of sin. That’s why blood was sprinkled over the altar: this is what sin produces, it produces death and not only produces death but demands it. Sacrifices reminded Israel that death was the consequence of sin and where there was sin, blood would be spilled.

To Teach Them Something

teachNelson Mandela once said, “Real leaders are people who are willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of their people”. In other words, real leaders are people who are willing to give up everything they value in order to achieve what they value most. If you went to Nelson Mandela today and asked him, “Would you do it all over again, would you sit in prison for years and give up the prime of your life?” He wouldn’t hesitate to respond “Absolutely, I would sacrifice the prime of my life because I treasure freedom and equality, even if it’s not fully achieved today, I would have freedom and equality achieved however costly.”

Now picture it, you grow up on a farm, you’re the shepherd, you look after the sheep and the goats. You make sure they get food, you make sure they get water, you take care of them. When lions and wolves and dragons see your flock as a tasty snack, you fight them – you put your life on the line to defend your animals. Look you basically don’t have a life other than with your animals which become like pets, you know how to tell when they’re grumpy or upset or about to puke in your face – you love them.

Then, one day, your dad comes to you and he says “I need a sheep”.
“what for,” you ask.
“I need to make a sacrifice.”
“heh?” – “for a sin offering,”
“okay,” you say – you’re a switched on sort of lad, “this one keeps getting into fights so he has a few bite marks and his back leg is not great now so you’re welcome to sacrifice him…”
“bite marks? Back leg not great? Mmmm – no that’s not going to do. It has to be unblemished.”

What do you learn about what it takes to be right with God when your dad takes the best of the flock which, apart from being your favourite, if nothing else now means it can’t breed, it can’t provide wool (or milk if it’s a goat) or even meat (it gets burnt up). You realise that sacrifice is costly, that becoming right with God, having a relationship with God is not something you can make the second priority. It is costly to be right with him and you need to be willing to give up everything you value.

To Promise Them Something

engagementringA few of days ago  I received an email from a friend at college with the subject line “… and I said YES!!!”. Now imagine if I read that and looked at the email, if I inferred her excitement from undue use of smiley faces, enormous photos of rings and more exclamation marks than is ever grammatically appropriate and then I said, “I don’t know what she’s so excited about, she’s not married yet.” You would say, “You gigantic clot. She’s engaged. It’s happening. It’s on the horizon, he’s promised her that he is going to marry her and as she now wears that ring, she wears the promise of marriage.”

In the same way, when the Israelites carried out these costly sacrifices they were enacting a promise that they didn’t even fully grasp. A promise that affirmed everything else about sacrifices. A promise that looked back to creation, to Adam and Eve sinning and to death; a promise that said, all that will come to an end. Yes, where there is sin, blood will be spilled. Yes, it will cost everything to be right with God. But, it will cost far more than you ever imagined. The blood spilled as a result of sin will not be that of an animal: Hebrews 10:4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What then does the promise mean?

The Deal

crossHebrews 9:26 “But now, Jesus Christ has appeared once and for all … to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That’s why sacrifices don’t make sense any more, that’s what’s changed between then and now that makes sacrifices no longer make any sense. Christ has already been sacrificed. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin but now for God’s people death has had its day and sin’s consequences were unleashed in full so, for God’s people, they are over. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that being right with God was costly but now, God’s people look back and know it cost Jesus everything and that the price has now been paid: the promise that sacrifices made to God’s people have come true. So Easter becomes the centre-point of history because, as a result of Easter it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

At Easter the sacrificial system was fulfilled. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death was the result of sin, at Easter death was quenched. Sacrifices taught God’s people that a relationship with God was costly, at Easter we see what it cost God to have a relationship with us. Sacrifices promised God’s people that one day the system would change and at Easter it did. So again, Easter becomes the centre-point of history because as a result of Easter, it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

The road to Emmaus and all the things concerning Christ…

emmaus-lThe adventures of leaving theological training to starting in full time church ministry present to me familiar challenges that my three years of training could not solve. And one such challenge is the question of how to preach the gospel from the Old Testament. As Christians we believe that the Old Testament is Gospel literature. And this is warranted by the fact that the Apostles preached about Christ by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Not only did they quote from it but it was the only inspired scripture of the early apostolic church. Such that Paul could say to Timothy that the Scriptures he was taught from childhood (i.e. OT) are profitable for training in Salvation. And there’s plenty more evidence of the fact that the OT is a Gospel literature. But the question that poses a challenge to me whenever I encounter the difficult passages is: How is does this passage teach the Gospel?

My intention is not to answer the question but to explore some of the grounds which we build our foundations on. The fresh and popular approach to interpreting the OT is called Biblical Theology. As a theological discipline, Biblical Theology looks at the Bible as one big story that ultimately points to Christ. The framework is normally “creation-fall-redemption-new creation” (or something along those lines). So the story of the Bible, according to Biblical theology, should be seen through the lens of God’s redemptive plan. And because the redemptive plan of God culminates in the revelation of Christ (as Hebrews 1:1 suggests), then every passage is interpreted with Jesus in view. So, whenever a difficulty arises on terms of understanding a particular passage, the answer is of course Jesus. As a general framework this is helpful, but my question is: does every OT detail point specifically to Christ?

road-to-emmaus1The famous passage that is often used to prove this is at the end of The Gospel of Luke: the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. In one interview, Graeme Goldsworthy (one of the proponents of Biblical Theology) says that when he shows people the unity of the bible he normally starts them off with “Luke 24, where he [Jesus] points out that the whole of the Old Testament is about him” (see here). This is primarily based on the word of Luke: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures”. But I want to challenge this as a foundation to conclude that the whole of the Old Testament is about Jesus.

I might be misrepresenting Goldsworthy’s argument but I do know that what Luke 24 says is not that it all points to Christ (whether that’s true or not). The key to understanding Luke 24 is obviously in its context (the Conversation with Cleopas).  The death of Jesus left people without a hope that he was the chosen messiah who would redeem Israel. So beginning with Moses (the first five books) and the rest of the Bible, Jesus proved to them that the OT did speak about the death and suffering of the Messiah; meaning that Jesus pointed out specific places in the OT that pointed to him. So, Jesus is not saying that the whole OT is all about him, but that there are things written about his death and suffering as Messiah in the OT; and that the people should not loose heart as if his death was a defeat in God’s plan. The scriptures from Moses to the prophets speak about the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

So I think that the phrases “everything written about Me” (24:44) and “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27) refer to specific OT passages that speak distinctively about Jesus. However, this does not disprove the fact that the OT is a grand narrative about God’s salvation. But it dispels the false foundations on which we built some of our frameworks of BT. Therefore Jesus on the road to Emmaus was not giving a lesson in how every bit of the OT points to him. Rather, to restate the point, he was showing them how specific passages in OT testified about how the promised Messiah would suffer and be raised to bring salvation.

The question of how the OT is Gospel literature still remains a challenge. But from the perspective of Luke 24 we can at least conclude that Luke was not teaching that our interpretation of the OT is a simple formula of “what does this teach us about Christ”. And obviously we can’t draw general conclusions about the framework of BT. But Luke does not teach an “all points to Jesus” framework.
This needs to be qualified but I’ll leave room for comments…

Lying Jews (and the art of biblical narrative)

I like logic because it makes sense. It has to. A is not not A. In other words if you tell me “A is not A”, you’re lying. The problem is, deceit actually can make sense but still be wrong. “A is B” could be true or false depending on what A and B are. But I’ll stop boring you with the alphabet an get into the complicated stuff.

Story #1: And then Dave said something fabulous, “Genesis sounds like a fable to me.”
Story #2: And then Dave said, “Genesis is merely mimetic myth”
Story #3: And Dave was an ocean of ideas saying, “Genesis is a metaphor”.

Now, Dave has never said any of those things to me exactly. However, I do believe that he believes them and I don’t think it would deceitful to put those words into his mouth. My thinking at this point is that we need to keep this in mind as we read Hebrew narrative (because obviously that’s what I’m blogging about, not logical stuff as the introduction may have implied). While in our context it seems dodgy to put words into someone’s mouth in a direct speech kind of way, we would certainly be willing to do it in reported speech: “Dave told me that didn’t believe Genesis was literal” could summarise an enormous conversation (Paul probably didn’t do a 2 minute sermon in Acts 17). Hebrew authors, it seems, have a propensity towards the prodigious use of direct speech but rarely reported speech and it seems clear that they were willing to summarise conversations into little speech bubble type reports which they recorded in direct speech.

In my stories I made Dave say stuff according to the rest of my story “fabulous” and “fable”, “merely mimetic myth” and the metaphor thing. I used what was true and wrote it into my story and I don’t think I was being deceitful.

The example that came to mind (beacuse I’ve been working on Jesus & the Gospels for the last week) was the centurion’s confession on seeing Jesus die. This is my conclusion:

When Luke has the centurion saying, “surely this was a Righteous man” it is for a reason. When Mark has the centurion saying, “surely this was the Son of God” it is for a reason.

Neither are deceitful and neither are wrong. Both authors are using what was said to do something artistic – something evangelicals know nothing about.

Update [Sept 3rd 2012]:  I recently read this article on patheos which talks about Thucydides writing about having to make up speech that fits the flow of history as he perceives it. It’s an interesting read down a similar sort of line.