No Blood, No Forgiveness.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews 9:22

In Hebrews 9:15-22, we read as the author continues to unpack how Christ enacted the new covenant for us. We are told that Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, meaning that Christ is the medium or the avenue through which God chose to bring this new covenant to humanity. In many ways, the author’s argument here echoes Christ’s own words in John 14:6 when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.”  The author intends for us to understand that Christ is the way God brought salvation and the new covenant to humanity and that Christ is the only way that humanity can return to God.

The author then explains a point that is fundamental to our faith, that being the necessity of Christ’s death. The author is emphatic in communicating to us that Christ had to die in order for us to have salvation. First, we are told that the new covenant is like a last will, and for a will to be enacted, the one who made the will has to die. Without the death of the will-maker, the will has no power or authority. Since Christ is the mediator and guarantor of the new covenant, His death was required for this new covenant/will to come into effect. Without Christ’s blood, the new covenant would have no authority and no power to save.

As the author explains the necessity of Christ’s death, we are presented with one of the most important verses in all of Scripture. In Hebrews 9:22 the author writes,  “According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This verse explains to us everything we need to know about God’s plan to redeem humanity. We see this illustrated throughout the Old Testament–God gave Israel the sacrificial system to allow them a way to be forgiven of their sins. Though this system seems barbaric and grotesque to us, it was designed to show us God’s mercy and grace. The truth of the matter is this: the penalty for sin is death. For us to be forgiven of our sins, something has to die in our place. Something has to die to atone–to cover–the sins that we have committed. In the system of the old covenant, God allowed animals to take our place. The blood of a lamb or a calf could pay our sin-debt. But these sacrifices had to be offered every time we sinned, and they did nothing to fix our sinful hearts or our sinful nature. God, in His infinite love and mercy, sent us the perfect sacrifice. He sent us a sacrifice that could atone for all of our sins for all of time, and He sent us a sacrifice that would actually transform us from the sinful creatures that we are. That sacrifice was His son, Jesus. But, for that atonement to be made, Christ had to die. Without Christ’s death, without His blood, there would be no forgiveness and no pardon. Without His blood, we would still be condemned to death.

In Hebrews 9, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no other avenue to salvation, other than Christ. He came to earth and blazed a trail for us back to God. That trail, however, is covered in His blood. The only way we can return to God is if we submit to Christ and are covered in His blood. His blood purchased our pardon and our salvation, and without His blood, there is no forgiveness or hope.

Artwork: “Crucifixion II” Stephen Oliver, 2011 (in the style of Graham Sutherland).

Blueprint of a Better Covenant.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” Hebrews‬ ‭8:1-2‬ ‭

In Hebrews 8, we see the author’s focus shift toward discussing the new covenant that Christ enacted for us. The author tells us that Christ is qualified to be the high priest of this new covenant because He serves in the true tabernacle in heaven, and not in the earthly tabernacle which is only a “sketch and a shadow” of its heavenly counterpart. The earthly tabernacle serves only to give us a glimpse of what we will see when we are in God’s presence in heaven.

In this same fashion, God’s old covenant with Israel is but a sketch, or a blueprint, of the covenant that He would make with us through Christ. To support this position, the author quotes Jeremiah 31, a passage in which God explains the new covenant’s coming. But before we can understand the new covenant, we must first understand the old covenant that preceded it.

After God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He led them to Mt. Sinai. At Sinai, God gave Israel the Law, and He told them that He had called them to be His people and that He would be their God. Israel would show their commitment to keeping the covenant by keeping God’s commandments. But this proved to be a problem, for Israel could never live up to these terms. They were never able to live according to God’s standard. As soon as they settled in the Promised Land, there arose a generation who did not know the Lord. From there, the situation only became worse. With each generation, Israel strayed further and further from the Lord. By the prophet Jeremiah’s time, God had decided it was time to make a new covenant.

In Jeremiah 31, the passage that the author of Hebrews quotes from, God tells Jeremiah that this new covenant would not be like the previous one, it would be better. God ensured that the new covenant would be better by vowing to fix the old covenant’s major flaw—us. Israel could never keep the law and keep the covenant because of their fallen nature. They were sinful beings, just the same as we are today. They couldn’t keep the law because their sinful nature made them incapable of doing so.

But God would do something different in the new covenant; He would change us. To ensure the success of the new covenant, God would change our human nature. He would give us new hearts upon which He has written His law. He would fill us with His spirit, and He would make us capable of living up to His standard and being His people. When God brings us to Himself through Christ, He makes us new creatures who seek only Him.

Living as the people of God requires us to be incredibly honest about what is in our hearts. We cannot be God’s people if we are still holding on to things from our old lives and from our old, sinful hearts. We must thoroughly examine our hearts, and if we see that we are holding on to sin, we must humbly go before God and ask for His forgiveness. We must pray that He remove that sin from us, and we must ask that He give us the strength we need to live as He calls us to live.

Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.

Hope for Tomorrow.

Christianity, Religion

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”  Lamentations 3:21-24

The Book of Lamentations, as its title indicates, is not a happy book; it is a book of sorrow, sadness, and grief. The author, traditionally believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, composed the text in the immediate wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The book is a funeral dirge for the lost city. As one reads Lamentations, it is easy to picture the author walking through the rubble and destruction of the city, through the ruins of the Temple, all the while weeping for the once-great city who turned away from God and met this tragic fate. 

It is easy to understand why the author would express sadness and sorrow in this situation. As far as the author can see, there was only devastation, destruction, death, and pain. The great City of David leveled. Solomon’s Temple destroyed. Scattered all around were the lifeless bodies of friends and loved ones. Many of the survivors were being shackled together sent off away from their homeland into exile in Babylon. This destruction happened as the result of Judah and Jerusalem’s wandering away from God–the same sinful wandering that Jeremiah spent his career preaching against and telling the people of which to repent. The people did not repent, and they followed after the debased desires of their heart, going happily and unashamedly down the path to destruction, mocking God and Jeremiah all the way. Sadness and sorrow are the natural emotions that one would experience when witnessing such a scene, and we see Jeremiah express these same emotions in the laments he wrote in the aftermath of this destruction.

The Lamentations, however, take a curious turn. In the middle of the book, the author turns from weeping and grief to an unexpected emotion–hope. In chapter 3, as he recounts all the sorrow and devastation and destruction he has witnessed, the author transitions into a message of hope for the future. Though all around Jeremiah is the devastation of God’s wrath, morning has come, and with it a new day. The prophet realized that, though God’s fury and judgment were severe, the people have not been destroyed. Though they are going into exile, God was not done with His people, and if God is still working with this rebellious and stiff-necked people, there was hope for the future. God would remain faithful to the promises He made to Abraham and David. He would remain committed to the people who are incapable of being loyal to Him. Since God was still working through His people, then there would be a future, and there was a reason to be hopeful. It was because of His lovingkindness that they were not utterly destroyed; He was merciful even in His judgment. Even in the worst of circumstances, Jeremiah found reasons to praise God and to be hopeful.

The destruction that Jeremiah witnessed in Jerusalem is only a preview of the destruction which sinful humanity deserves. God does not have to continue to sustain humanity, yet He does out of His love and mercy. As if that display of compassion was not enough, God does more for us. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, and He took our damnation and our destruction upon Himself.  He did this so that we could have a future–not just the hope of one, but the assurance of one–with Him. Christ paid the penalty for our sin so that we might become His people. He gave us a future of hope when we deserved a future of destruction. The words of hope that Jeremiah cried out to God in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem ring even more valid now in the aftermath of Christ’s atoning death outside the walls of Jerusalem: 

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Regardless of what situation we may find ourselves in, we have a future of hope. Christ demonstrated the infinite depth of His love and mercy by taking our sin and our destruction. He is faithful to us even when our faithfulness wanes. He is our portion forever, and He is the only hope we have.

Artwork: “Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Strange Fire.

Christianity, Religion

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.  And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,

By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy,

And before all the people I will be honored.

So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” –Leviticus 10:1-3

Leviticus is one of the most unique books in the canon of Scripture. This book contains God’s detailed instructions about the Law and how it is to be implemented and lived out. Leviticus is comprised mainly of long passages of quotes from God explaining to Moses how the Law is to be followed, how sacrifices are to be offered, and the penalties for disobedience and breaking the Law. Given the content of the book–God’s instruction regarding the Law– Leviticus contains more of God’s direct speech than any other book in the Bible. 

A second unique characteristic of Leviticus is that it represents a break in the narrative that had been unfolding in Genesis and Exodus. Before that narrative could continue, we must first learn about the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the Day of Atonement, and other observances that would make the Israelites unique from all the other nations–we have to understand what Israel had to do to be holy as  God commanded them to be. If we ignore the theology found in Leviticus, we cannot grasp the theology in the rest of the Bible–Christ’s atoning death and the importance of being cleansed from sin cannot be understood without Leviticus.

The only major break in the legal teachings of Leviticus can be found in chapters 8-10, where we find the description of Aaron and his sons being consecrated as the priests of Israel and descriptions of the first offerings they made. Aaron and his descendants would forever make up the priestly class in Israel. Additionally, Aaron and his offspring were from the tribe of Levi, thus giving the book of Leviticus its name, roughly meaning “for the Levites.”

Within this brief bit of narrative in Leviticus, there is a significant scene of God dispensing judgment for improper behavior upon two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Following their consecration as priests and Aaron offering the first sacrifices under the newly enacted sacrificial system, Nadab and Abihu take it upon themselves to offer a sacrifice of their own to God. Up to this point in the book, God had spent a great deal of time–seven chapters, if we use the chapter system as a measuring rod–explaining the proper way in which to offer sacrifices, both for sin and for worship. There were to be no deviations from these rules which God had made quite clear to His people. The fact that these sacrifices that Nadab and Abihu offered were not under the mandated system is plainly pointed out; Moses–the author of Leviticus–refers to them as “strange fire.” Nadab and Abihu–men who were just ordained and consecrated as priests and obligated to know and practice the Law better than anyone else–went out of their way to offer a sacrifice which was not commanded; they offered an illegal sacrifice. This offense resulted in their deaths; fire came from the presence of God and consumed them. If this penalty seems harsh, we must remember that God values–above all else–obedience, and those whom He had called to be the spiritual leaders of His chosen people were expected to be obedient. Straying from His rules, even out of religious zeal and enthusiasm, is unacceptable. In disregarding the Law and offering their own sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu showed disrespect to God and little regard for His commandments. In their actions, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God.

Christ’s atoning death fulfilled the demands of the Law and lifted its burden from our shoulders. However, we are still called to be God’s holy people. There is much in Leviticus which is foreign to us and, in the light of Christ’s actions on the cross, unnecessary for us to adhere to; for instance, we are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices–to do so would be unorthodox, heretical and inappropriate. Yet, throughout the New Testament, we see that we are called to live differently from the world, to imitate Christ, to offer our lives to Christ as living sacrifices; we are called to complete and total obedience to Christ and to God. 

We are the nation of priests that God called out from every nation to draw all peoples to Him. This requires us to be exceedingly mindful of how we conduct ourselves in every way. We must always remember that God is holy, and we must always show Him honor; to do anything short of this is to commit the same sin that Nadab and Abihu were guilty of. We offer God that same “strange fire” when our worship is insincere, when our lives are not in obedience to Him, or when we attempt to usurp the glory which is rightfully His for ourselves. We fool ourselves–just as Nadab and Abihu did–when we think that God will make exceptions for our actions–whatever they may be.

God is a holy God, and He will be honored and glorified. He will not be mocked or taken lightly. Do not offer Him “strange fire;” offer Him what He demands: your genuine and sincere and humble obedience.

Artwork: “Nadab and Abihu Cast into Flames,” etching from Icones Biblicae, c. 1630.