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

Go and Proclaim.

Christianity, Religion

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62

Luke 9 is, quite possibly, one of the most critical chapters of Luke’s gospel account. Within its sixty-two verses, we see some of the most important events of Christ’s ministry chronicled. The chapter begins with Christ commissioning the twelve disciples to go out before Him and prepare the towns through which He would be passing for His arrival and teaching. After this, we read of the account of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter’s confession of Jesus follows this scene as the Messiah, and when we read immediately after this Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John. In many ways, this chapter is a highlight reel of sorts in its depiction of Christ’s miracles and ministry.

This chapter is significant for another reason, beyond that of the scope of its content. Luke 9 is the turning point of Luke’s narrative account of Jesus’ life. Chapters 1-8 dealt with Christ’s birth and ministry in and around Galilee;  Luke 9 is the point of transition to Christ’s journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and His crucifixion. We see this made clear in Luke 9:51, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Christ knew the day–the literal day–of His ascension back into heaven was drawing near, and that it was time to head up to Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He had been sent to earth. He knew it was time to head up to Jerusalem to die for humanity’s redemption. Everything that happens following Luke 9:51 and before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19 occurs on His journey up to Jerusalem. In that ten chapter span, Christ continued teaching and preaching and performing miracles, knowing that the crowds that followed Him in amazement would soon be crying out for His crucifixion. He knew all of this, and He continued to journey toward Jerusalem to His death. 

As Christ and the twelve “were going along the road” (Luke 9:57), crowds would have been following them to see what Christ would do next. People were undoubtedly trying to get close to Jesus to speak to Him, and Luke details the interactions that Jesus had with three anonymous men.

The first man mentioned approached Christ and told Jesus that he would follow Christ wherever he went. Jesus’ response was not one welcoming the man aboard; instead, the answer was intended to make sure the man understood the nature of the commitment he was making. Christ told the man that, unlike the birds and foxes, He–the Son of Man–had nowhere to lay His head. Jesus had no place of His own, nor did he have material wealth. He lived the life of a vagabond, relying on the Father to provide for and meet His needs. If this was the case for Christ, then the follower of Christ wasn’t to expect anything better. The man needed to understand that committing to following Christ was committing to living a life of total reliance and dependence upon God; it was a commitment to living the type of life that Christ Himself modeled. Following Christ does not lead to earthly wealth and comfort. Following Christ causes the follower to live out their trust in God’s dependence; it forces the follower to put their faith and trust into practice. 

The second man Luke mentions did not approach Christ; instead, Christ called the man to “Follow Me.” We are not told anything about this man, about why Christ chose to issue this call to him over others who may have been there. We only know what Luke tells us; that the Incarnate God called on this man to follow Him, and that this man could not commit to this call. The man’s response to Christ’s call reflects a misunderstanding about the importance of the call the man just received. The called-man asks for permission first to go and bury his father. The man’s request shows that he thought that fulfilling this familial obligation was more important than following Christ; that checking off some ritual duty was a better use of his time than heeding Jesus’ call. In its essence, the man’s response was “I will follow you, but not now; not yet.” Christ corrected the man’s skewed thinking. He told the man to “let the dead bury the dead,” to allow the spiritually dead–those who hadn’t just been called by God Himself–to go and attend to this less important duty. As for the man, he must go and preach the kingdom of God. Christ saw the flaw in the man’s thinking and priorities, and He quickly corrected them. The man had no more important duty than that of following Christ–who was on the way to Jerusalem to die–and preaching the kingdom of God.

The third man mentioned repeated the same mistake as the second man. He wanted to follow Christ, but he wanted to do so on his terms–he wanted to begin following after he took care of the business of saying good-bye to his family. Like the second man, this man was attempting to put conditions on his commitment to following Jesus. Once again, Jesus corrected this inappropriate thinking. Christ told the man that he would be of no use to the kingdom of God if he kept looking back at the things of his life before following. Following God must be the sole priority of the follower; they cannot look back at the old things–family included–and follow God at the same time. One cannot say they want to follow God and wish they could do other things as well. God must be the most important thing in the follower’s life.

We are not told what happened to these men. We are not told that they followed Christ, nor are we told that they turned away from Him that day. We are only told what we need to know, and the accounts of these interactions serve to teach us a crucial message about the nature of following Christ: saying that we will follow Christ means nothing if we do not back up that profession with our actions. It is not enough to merely profess Christ with our lips, our hearts and actions and lifestyle must also reflect this commitment. To do otherwise is to repeat the same mistakes as ancient Israel. We would be acting no differently than those in the days of Isaiah, when God said “this people draws near with their words and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Saying we want to follow Christ requires us to do just that—no ifs or buts.

So often we make the same mistakes as the three men depicted in Luke’s gospel. We find ourselves attempting to put conditions on our commitment to following Him. We attempt only to submit parts of our lives to Him, while we try to keep control over other aspects. We allow other things to take priority over being a follower of Christ. We think that following Jesus will be comfortable and don’t understand the nature of submitting to Him. We say we want to follow Jesus, but we keep looking back to other things and long for those things. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we must submit entirely to Him. We must remember that our usefulness to the advancement of His kingdom is dependent upon our entire submission. Then, once we submit and follow, we can do nothing else but go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Artwork: “Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill,” Pieter Claesz, 1628.

Trust.

Christianity, Religion

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;

    let me never be put to shame;

    in your righteousness deliver me!

Incline your ear to me;

    rescue me speedily!

Be a rock of refuge for me,

    a strong fortress to save me!

For you are my rock and my fortress;

    and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;

you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,

    for you are my refuge.

Into your hand I commit my spirit;

    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” Psalm 31:1-5

“But I trust in you, O Lord;

    I say, ‘You are my God.’” Psalm 31:14

David’s psalms are some of the most heart-wrenching writings in all of Scripture, and yet they are also some of the most relatable. When reading his work, the reader never has to wonder what emotion David is trying to communicate; the emotion of the text leaps of the page. David’s psalms of sorrow and anguish hit us in the pit of our stomachs, and his psalms of joy leave us feeling as happy and invigorated as he was when he penned them. Ever the poet, David understood how to express and communicate whatever emotions he was experiencing.

The thirty-first psalm is no exception to this rule; in this psalm, David laid bare his soul and expressed to God–and to later readers–the emotional and spiritual toll he experienced as a result of the numerous trials he went through. 1 Samuel recounts the saga of David and Saul when David had to stay on the run from an ever increasingly paranoid and deranged Saul, who was bent on killing the anointed future king of Israel. Samuel’s account tells the reader of David’s hiding in the caves in the wilderness of Israel, his having to periodically flee Israel, of doing absolutely anything to stay always one step ahead of Saul–the king whom David had sworn to serve and who at one time found such solace from David’s music. Saul would stop at nothing to kill David. Despite this, David had numerous opportunities to kill Saul, and yet he spared Saul’s life every single time. On more than one occasion, David had to flee to the land of the Philistines–Israel’s mortal enemy at the time–because it was safer for David to live in the land of his enemies than to live amongst his people. While Saul lived, David was a vagabond; he lived a life of exile. Those who aided him did so at a high cost; helping David elude Saul warranted death. Saul did everything within his power to ensure that David had no one to turn to for help or protection–or so Saul thought.

It was during this chapter of David’s life that he penned Psalm 31. In this psalm, David cried out to the One who would not forsake him, to the One who had aided and protected him all along the arduous journey. David knew that, had it not been for God’s protection, Saul would have captured him and killed him long ago. God alone had been David’s refuge, his stronghold. David also knew that he had done nothing to merit God’s favor or protection; God had been doing so purely out of love and mercy, and because it was what He desired to do. God had foiled Saul’s plans and intentions every step of the way, and David trusted that God would continue to do so. David understood that God had saved him–ransomed him–for a purpose, and so he knew he must entrust his life and soul to God’s care; he must commit his spirit into God’s hands.

David did not hold back from crying out to God in this psalm. Though he was trusting God’s providence for the outcome of this trial, David was still being crushed under the weight of his ordeal. He was reaching his mental and physical breaking points; his life was nothing but sorrow, distress, and sighing. His body was withering away. Those who knew him avoided him; those who were once his friends looked at him as a danger and threat to their own safety. People had forgotten about him as they would a person after their death. David–the man the people once cheered for and celebrated–was now an object of scorn and rebuke. The man who slew the giant to save his people had now been forsaken by them. In spite of this, he continued to trust in God. The world may attack David and shake him to his very core, but God would remain his rock and refuge.

At times, it is difficult for us to have this same level of trust in God. In times of joy and plenty, it is easy for us to say that we trust in Him, but that confidence does not always readily carry over into the times of sorrow and anguish. In the difficult times, we more closely resemble the disciples in the boat in the midst of the storm when they cried out “Save us, Lord!” (Matthew 8:25). What was Jesus’ response to this plea? “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). There the phrase “little faith” could also be translated “little trust.” Our trust in God is directly related to the faith we put in Him; we will never be able to trust in Him fully if we do not place the entirety of our faith in Him. Our trust in God reflects our faith in Him. If we have great faith in a great God who can do all things, then we can boldly endure the trials of this life, regardless of their impact upon us, just as David did.

God does not count our failures to always trust in Him against us; He loves us and sustains us in spite of this. Furthermore, He knows what these moments of anguish and turmoil feel like, for He experienced them firsthand. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each detail in their gospel accounts Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. The Gospel of Luke says this: 

 “And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,  saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44).

The miracle and the beauty of the Incarnation is that Jesus was fully man and fully God. His deity allowed Him to know exactly what was going to happen and what would befall Him; He understood everything that He was going to endure. His humanity allowed Him to feel the emotions that would accompany such knowledge. He knew the pain and the torture and the cruelty that awaited Him. He knew He would be mocked and ridiculed and scorned. He knew to defeat sin and death and the grave that He must first die. He knew that He would be forsaken by His friends and neighbors. He knew all of this, and He was scared. He asked the Father if it were possible to achieve the salvation required for humanity to be accomplished another way, then to allow it to be so. Yet, He prayed for the Father’s will to be done, not His. His faith was in the Father, and He trusted in the Father, just as his forefather, David had. Christ took the cup that was set before Him, went forward on His mission of salvation, and with His dying breath, quoted the words of His ancestor David:  “And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last,” (Luke 23:46). Christ’s last words, as He hung dying on the cross, forsaken by all humanity, were those that His ancestor David had penned at a time when he too was forsaken by all, except God. In their moments of agony, David and Jesus both trusted God. 

The sin-slayer and the giant-slayer, both scorned and forsaken by men, knew that they could do nothing else but trust in God.

The echoes of Psalm 31 in Christ’s crucifixion are one of many of the amazing and unbelievable threads of continuity within Scripture. One final detail to point out is that Psalm 31 is one of the many psalms which are dedicated to “The Choirmaster.” outside of the psalms, this phrase appears many times, but only one other instance is it translated from Hebrew into English as “choirmaster.” In every other situation, it is translated as “Eternal One,” or “The One Who Overcomes.” Additionally, these particular psalms–the ones to the Choirmaster–have messianic themes, and often have the highest view of God’s majesty. With this understanding, it makes Christ’s last words even more powerful. Not only was Jesus quoting David; He was quoting a work that was dedicated to Him.

Trials and grief and sorrow in this life are plentiful and sure to come. But take hope in the One who has been your rock and your refuge. Trust in the One who knows how hard it can be to trust. Commit your life and your spirit to the One who took your damnation and who died to slay sin to save you.

Artwork: “Crucifixion,” 1964, Marc Chagall

Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Rest.

Christianity, Religion

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus‬ ‭33:14‬

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘You will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-29‬ ‭

Rest is a precious commodity. As our daily routines run together into weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, and we find ourselves exhausted and worn out. Rest is one of the most necessary items we require in our lives, and yet it is the one thing that we so often fail to get or choose to go without. We run ourselves ragged, never taking time to rest and to enjoy all the many things in our lives that God has blessed us with, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and spiritually drained. We do not rest like God desires us to, or as He modeled for us to do through His own actions. 

God rested from His own creative work, so that He might enjoy it. The Sabbath itself was for man to worship God through resting from the mundane. Rest serves as a positive interruption from the grind of our daily lives. Rest is the small break from the toil that sin chains us to as a result of the Fall. 

The importance of rest is further reinforced by the promise thereof in the two passages we see today. In Exodus 32, the Israelites committed their sin of idolatry with the golden calf. As a result of this, at the outset of Exodus 33, God told Moses to carry on leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. God went on to tell Moses that He would  send an angel before them to clear the way for them, but that He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. God would not be going any further with them because of their obstinacy and continual desires to test Him and stray from Him. The people heard this news and mourned greatly, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people for Him to remain with them. God then promised Moses that He would go with them, and that He would grant them rest—He would lead them to the place He promised to them, and He would allow them to enjoy it. 

This promise of rest is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God reiterated it to Joshua when he began to lead Israel after the death of Moses. God promised to give Israel rest from their enemies as long as they remained faithful to Him. After the conquest of the Canaanites, it was said that even the land itself had rest. The message of rest was continued by the prophet Jeremiah; he told the Israelites that if they had remained in the ways of those of old who had followed God, then they would have received rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16).  Instead, they strayed and became even more enslaved to sin, and thus had to experience God’s judgment. Israel’s infidelity voided their promised rest. 

The reward for faithfully following God was not prosperity in this world, nor was it a promise of being spared from pain and suffering. God’s promise was to give His people rest, so that they might endure whatever they encountered. 

Jesus’ own preaching touched on this same promise of rest. In Matthew 11, after calming the fears of the imprisoned John the Baptist, and preaching in honor of John, Christ turned His attention to the cities in which most of His ministry took place. He denounced Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their hardheartedness—or obstinacy—-and said that if Gentile cities had witnessed such miracles, they would have  been immediately repentant. Those who thought they knew how God operated and thought they had God figured out were blind and missing what He was doing, while the infants—those who were untaught and uneducated in the Law or how God worked—were the ones who were witnessing and partaking in the miraculous works of the Messianic Age. 

Christ then called on all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and that He would give them rest. Christ is not a cruel and demanding task master, the yoke He offers is not one which will bear the wearer down; it is not a yoke of oppression like that of sin. Instead, the yoke offered by Christ is one which is easy and light, for He is meek and gentle. Those who come to Him and learn from Him and live like Him will find rest for their souls. Christ here  quoted directly from Jeremiah 6:16, saying that those who yoke themselves to Him and follow Him will walk in the paths that lead to rest. 

Christ will give to His followers the rest that God promised throughout the Old Testament. He will grant them  peace and an interruption from the constant and hectic pace of life. Christ promises to His followers the thing they need most in this life. It is not prosperity, nor is it a lack of trials. His promise is that of rest, so that we might worship Him and enjoy His blessings, and so we might be able to endure this world. 

Go to Christ. Allow Him to break your chains of slavery to sin and bondage to this world. Take the yoke that He offers you, and let Him lead you in the ways which lead to rest.  

Artwork: “Noon Rest From Work After Millet,” Vincent van Gogh, c. 1880. 

Vines and Roots.

Christianity, Religion

“Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.” Isaiah 5:1-2

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:1,4 

The Old Testament prophetic works give us a unique view of the society of ancient Israel. Those whom God called upon to be His prophets had a specific purpose: to deliver a message from God to the people. Often, God also called upon the prophets to write down the words that He had given to them, so that future generations would heed them and learn from them as well. From these writings, we learn about what the people of Israel were doing, and we also read of the work that the prophets did. Our view of Old Testament-era Israel is written from the perspective of those who remained faithful to God, and this allows us to see how far Israel had wandered away from God.

The prophet Isaiah is a perfect representation of all of this: he lived in the era before the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, and God called upon Isaiah to deliver a two-fold message to the people of Israel and Judah. The first part of the message was one of punishment; the people were told that their sinful behavior and disregard for God had gone on for too long, and that God would bring about corrective judgment. The second part of Isaiah’s message was one of hope–that after the judgment came, there would be a restoration.

Chapter 5 of Isaiah’s writing presents one of the most beautiful examples of his work. In it, the prophet relays a parable to the people of Israel from God. In this parable, God describes Himself as a vinedresser who plants a beautiful vineyard, a vineyard which the vinedresser loves and cherishes and nourishes. Within the vineyard, the vinedresser reserves the best spot for the best vine, and the vinedresser does everything within his power to ensure the success of the best vine and vineyard. The vinedresser goes as far as to build a tower in the midst of the vineyard so that he can stay in the vineyard with the vines, look out over the vines, protect them, and watch them grow and flourish.

The vinedresser loved the vines in his vineyard, and he did everything he could to ensure their success–to ensure that they bore good fruit.

The vines, however, did not produce good fruit. They instead produced worthless grapes; grapes which were good for nothing and were rotten and inedible. Despite the love and best efforts of the vinedresser, the vines had become infected and infested with something that had ruined them, and destroyed any potential they had of producing good fruit. The vinedresser laments “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Isaiah 5:4). The vinedresser had done everything he could for the vines, and yet they still failed to do what he had hoped they would.

Isaiah unpacks this parable for us–Israel is the vineyard, and Judah the choice vine. God planted Israel in the Promised Land, He nurtured Israel, He proved for them, He protected them, He did everything that He could do for them–even gave them the Law–so that they could be His holy people; so that they could be holy as He is holy. God loved Israel and built His house, the Temple, in their midst–just as the vinedresser built the tower in the vineyard–so that He could dwell among His people.

And yet, just as the vineyard in the parable failed to produce the fruit it was supposed to yield, so too did Israel fail at being God’s holy nation of priests. Israel could be no different than the fallen humanity around them; they were infested by sin and succumbed to pagan worship, idolatry, immorality, and infidelity to God. Israel’s spiritual fruit was just as worthless and rotten as the worthless grapes of Isaiah’s parable.

In the parable, the vinedresser realizes that the only way to remedy the infestation in the vineyard is to let the vineyard be destroyed; to allow the elements reclaim the vineyard and to begin anew. God would do this same thing with Israel; the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be destroyed by Assyria and Babylon. This destruction was to be the punishment for their continued sin; it was also to purge the faithlessness from the people so that they would not stray from God again.

Isaiah’s message, though bleak, does contain hope. In chapters six and eleven, he begins to talk of a root which would survive the destruction and judgment, and which would grow back. This root, the Root of Jesse, would lead to one who would be the true vine–who would be the vine that Israel was always intended to be. This root of Jesse, or the line of David, would lead to one who would undo the curse which has decreed after the Fall, and this one–this messiah–would lead all the peoples of the Earth in seeking after God. The One from the Root would enable people to live as God commanded them to live.

On the night that Christ was betrayed, He celebrated the Passover–the holiday in which Israel commemorated God resuing from slavery in Egypt so that He might plant them in the Promised Land–with His disciples. After eating the Passover meal, Christ gave the disciples a new observance, the Lord’s Supper. Following the Communion, Christ and the Eleven walk through the streets of Jerusalem to Gethsemane. In John’s account of this nighttime trek, Jesus spends these last moments giving the disciples His final teachings and instructions. He also reveals His messianic identity in a way that beautifully demonstrates the connectivity and cohesion of the Old and New Testaments.

In John 15:1, Christ tells the disciples plainly that He is that true vine–the one which grew from the Root of Jesse, and that His Father is the vinedresser. His words hearken directly back to the themes we read about in Isaiah; Christ here establishes Himself as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.

Christ gives the disciples–and all future believers–a crucial instruction: to abide in Him. The Christian must remain connected to and believing in Christ for two reasons: first because on our own, we can do nothing. Just as a branch cannot grow and produce fruit unless it remains attached to the vine, neither can we be fruitful and faithful unless we stay connected to the true vine–Christ. Secondly, and more importantly, it is only through abiding in Christ that we can keep from being infected and infested like the vineyard of Isaiah’s parable. Abiding in Christ is the only way in which we can avoid being ruined by sin.

We must understand this: just as the vinedresser allowed the vineyard to be destroyed to purge it, and just as God allowed Assyria and Babylon to lay waste to Israel and Judah to purge them of their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God was now going to let the true vine be destroyed in order to cleanse humanity from its infestation of sin. The destruction that Israel experienced was only a preview of the judgment and destruction that humanity deserved, but Christ took that judgment in our place. He had the full cup of God’s wrath–the wrath which we should have endured for eternity–poured upon Him and He allowed it to kill Him so that we would be pardoned.

Through the shedding of His blood and His death, Christ purged us of the sin which infected us, which keeps us from bearing good fruit. By cleansing us of our infestation of sin, He made us able to live as He commands us to live; He corrected the very problem Israel could never overcome. With that, just as the root of the previously destroyed vine grew back, death would not be able to contain Christ, and He–the true vine–would grow back again, only three days after his death. As Christ walked with his disciples on that first night of Passover–Christ knew everything that was about to happen, and He knew why it must happen. So Jesus commanded the disciples to abide in Him, to stay connected to him– to keep believing in Him, because that was the only way for them to be rid of the sin which would destroy them.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God planted a new vineyard, and Christ is the choice vine. Faith and belief in Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to become branches on His vine, and as long as we abide in Him–remain connected to him, believe in Him, seek to do his will–we will bear fruit. We will be pruned and cut back from time to time, this process will hurt and be painful, but it re-shapes us; this is the only way in which we can grow. Our sinful flesh still causes us to think that we can grow on our own; it still tempts us to turn away from God, but we must abide in Him. Without Him, we will be no better than the worthless vines of Isaiah’s day, and if we turn from Him, we deserve the same fate that they met.

In Isaiah 5:4, we saw God asking what more could He have done for his vineyard, for Israel. In Christ, we see God doing the only thing left to do– going to the root of the problem, and killing the sin which ruined Israel and all of humanity. In order to do this, Christ had to suffer. He had to endure the fullness of the wrath and judgment of God–the wrath and judgment which was rightfully ours–and He did so willingly. He did this so that we could be grafted in as branches of the true vine, His vine, and so that we could abide in Him and be empowered by His spirit to live as He commands us to live–as Israel was supposed to live– as His holy people–a people who live out righteousness and justice.

He died so that we could live differently and bear fruit.

So, we must exam our lives; we must look at ourselves and determine this: what kind of fruit are you? What kind of fruit are you producing? Are you abiding in Christ? Are you bearing fruit? If so, continue abiding in Him, and be ready to be pruned back from time to time so that you might grow and bear more fruit. When the pruning comes, continue to abide in Him, regardless of how painful that process might be.

God has done everything for us, even more than what He did for Israel–He sent His son to redeem us from sin. In three hours on the cross and three days in the grave, Christ fulfilled our eternity in Hell.

Abide in Him; stay connected to Him. Turn away from the sin that infest you, and allow Christ to cleanse you and enable you to live differently, and then bear fruit for Him.

Artwork: “The Green Vineyard,” Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

Living Sacrifices.

Christianity, Religion

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

The offering of animal sacrifices was common practice in Paul’s day. The Jewish tradition he came out of was heavily steeped in that ritualistic observance, as were many of the Gentile cultures of this era. The religious practices of the Greeks and Romans and many near-eastern societies shared animal sacrifices as a common practice.

For these societies, sacrifices were offered to appease any number of a pantheon of gods and deities who could become displeased with humanity. The sacrifices were used to buy favor with the gods, and hopefully to avert vengeful behavior. In the case of the Hebrews, the sacrifices had a two-fold ritualistic purpose: to atone for sin and to worship God. In the religious system of the Hebrews, sin required the shedding of blood to make one blameless before God, and when sins were committed, a sacrifice must be made to amend the wrong. The Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement is a prime example of this. On this particular day, a goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the nation, thus atoning the people for their sins.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we see sacrifices used as a form of worship to God. Throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see people building altars to YHWH, and offering sacrifices to Him as forms of sincere and reverent worship. Abel does this, as do Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, to name a few.

Offering a sacrifice was one of the most sincere ways in which to worship God, so much so, that God only allowed this form of worship to be carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem once it was completed, and they could only be carried out by temple priests. Making a sacrifice to God was also a grave matter; it required something living to die, and it required the one making the sacrifice–especially before the institution of the priesthood– to get up close and personal with death. Offering a sacrifice was not a clean and sterilized form of worship; it was not one in which participants could opt-out. It was dirty and brutal, and there was blood. This form of worship was not for the faint of heart; it was for those who were serious about seeking after God and serious about offering genuine and sincere worship to an awesome God. Only those who took God seriously took the time to slaughter a beast to Him.

With the crucifixion of Jesus, the temple-sacrifice system had been fulfilled. Christ was the once-and-for-all atonement for all humanity, and there would be no need to continue making sacrifices in Jerusalem, nor should Gentile converts continue to make sacrifices to deities at their pagan temples. Instead, Paul–under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–made a bold statement about what Christians should now do regarding sacrifices: they should live their lives as continuous sacrifices to God. This is not a sacrifice of atonement; Christ already accomplished that for us. Instead, we should lay ourselves down upon the altar as sacrifices, just as the saints of old laid their animal sacrifices down upon altars to God in worship.

Our most sincere and genuine worship to God comes when we lay entirely upon the altar at His feet. It is when we wrestle with our fallen flesh–our sinful desires, selfishness, malice, greed, anger, everything–and we cast those things upon the altar to be sacrificed to Him. It is when we realize we must continually plunge deeply into and be covered by the blood of Christ to live correctly as His follower. The most genuine worship we can give God is by dying to ourselves, and offering ourselves as a sacrifice–a living sacrifice–to Him each and every day. It is when we fully and totally submit to living for Him and doing His will. This form of worship isn’t for the faint of heart; it is also only for those who are serious about seeking after God and worshipping the awesome God who died to save His people.

God does not want our worship with the blood of animals; He wants our hearts covered in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. People often cringe and complain about how bloody the Bible is. A word of warning: the Christian life, properly lived, is no less bloody. That blood is what ransomed your life.

Christ laid down His life as a sacrifice for you. Dedicate living yours as a sacrifice to Him. 

Artwork: “In the Slaughterhouse,” Lovis Corinth, 1893.