Sacrificing Sheep

Participles are extremely flexible words. Using two words, one of them a participle, four sentences making up three verses can be summarized. Titles are places to condense, and paragraphs are places to expound.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Hebrews 13:15-17 NASB

There are familiar elements to these verses, but I have rarely heard them all used together. We (Americans) don’t like ideas like “sacrifice” and “obey” much. These concepts get in the way of our self-focused lives. I’m generalizing, but it certainly applies to me. And, from commercials and what passes for entertainment around me, I think it applies to far more people than just me.

This isn’t a great spot to unpack all that Scripture says about sacrifice, so a slice will have to suffice. Sacrifice isn’t exactly what we typically think it is. Sacrifice, in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, satisfies a few practical theological requirements. Look at God’s response to Noah’s sacrifice after the flood:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
“While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
And cold and heat,
And summer and winter,
And day and night
Shall not cease.”

Genesis 8:20-22 NASB

Our Creator, the Destroyer of the world through flood, smelled the aroma of the sacrifice. And then, having smelled the aroma of the sacrifice, He promises never again to interrupt the cycles of this world. He promises this even though He can see that the people He created are twisted from birth. That is the effect of sacrifice, that is how our Creator responds to sacrifice. Well, some sacrifice, He doesn’t respond that way to all sacrifice.

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:3-7 NASB

Cain did not “do well” with his sacrifice. There has been a lot of speculation about why Cain didn’t do well enough that his sacrifice wasn’t accepted by God. All we can truly assert is that the description of Abel’s offering was qualitatively better than Cain’s. So, the difference is qualitative, rather than the actual substance of what was sacrificed. There is a qualitative requirement for our Savior’s acceptance of a sacrifice.

The prophets, starting with Samuel, write as follows:

Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
He has also rejected you from being king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23 NASB

“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the LORD.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.

Isaiah 1:11 NASB

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward.

Jeremiah 7:21-24 NASB

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6 NASB

And in case you are thinking that “praise and worship” is different…

“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:22-24 NASB

There are more, but you get the gist. There is more that our Savior requires than the practice of singing and praising. Look again at the second of the two components included in “sacrifice” in Hebrews 13:16, “And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Sure, we like the singing part. That’s fun. But doing good and sharing is what pleases our Savior. Even the content of the praise should be thankfulness, as in agreeing that God has given us all we have.

The second element, obeying our leaders, is included because I believe it’s part of the actualizing of our ‘sacrifice’. When we submit to those our Savior has placed over us, when we make the burden He has placed on them lighter, then our sacrifice to our Savior, is real, coming from a sincerely dedicated heart. To do good stuff, to sing loud songs, and to give stuff to others isn’t enough if we refuse to submit to our leaders. And keep in mind that the refusal to submit is evidence of a prideful heart. It’s not one more thing on a checklist.

In fact, none of these things are checklist items. Loving justice and doing good, sharing and praising are all things that are supposed to originate from a devotion to our Savior. Religious practice without a relationship with our Creator is pointless. In fact, a case can be made that the object of our worship at that point isn’t our Creator at all.

So, let’s be the “sheep” of our Good Shepherd, sacrificing to our Savior, those things acceptable to Him. Let us practice our praise, our doing good, our submission, all because our Creator is also our Savior. Love, give, submit, for we are disciples of Jesus.

What’s your view through the knothole this morning?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

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Priests of the Consuming Fire

Regardless of what you might feel or believe about the word “religion”, it has a place as a definition of the life of a disciple of Jesus. People may not like it, but it remains a reality. The Christian Scriptures refer to disciples of Jesus as priests. And priests practice religion. That is their primary function. Their entire role, perhaps life, is bound up in the practice of religion. And for disciples of Jesus, this is true as well.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:28-29 NASB

The word for “service” above is a Greek word typically referring to a “hired hand” or even, in some cases, “enslaved”. The translators of the Septuagint used it for service to God (or other god), almost exclusively. and in the Christian Scriptures, it’s never used otherwise. Here, the writer of Hebrews combines it with “reverence and awe”, making the meaning unmistakable.

One of the dangers of only seeing our life with our Savior as a “relationship” is that we run the risk of missing His superiority. He is our Savior, but He is also our Creator, and not just of people, but the this vast, unimaginable universe. The writer was serious, dead serious, about serving our Savior with reverence and awe.

We think of Jesus as “love”. That makes us feel good because we don’t really understand love. I know that’s true because we get a warm fuzzy comfortable feeling from God being love, but not from God being a “consuming fire”. Suddenly we’re overly hot, on fire, about to die.

We need to strike a balance in our relationship with our Creator. We, as disciples of Jesus, must take Him more seriously than we do. The choice of the word for “service”, brings with it a life dedicated to working for God. For the Greeks, it can have religious significance, but it typically referred to working for someone. We think of our work-life as separate from our religious-life. That’s not how our Creator inspired Scripture to be written.

One of the more familiar passages speaking to service to God is Romans 12:1,2:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 NASB (emphasis mine)

In this passage, “service” is a noun, but the noun version of verb used in Hebrews 12:28. In other words, it’s the same thing said differently. The point for Paul in this passage is that our lives are to be completely dedicated to this life of service to our Savior. Which is very close to the meaning for Nicodemus, our writer of Hebrews.

Nicodemus provides a terrifying reason, missing in Paul’s call to service. “Our God is a consuming fire.” Do you think of Him that way? Do you consider that your seriousness in service is due to Him being a consuming fire? Our Creator is also our Savior, and He is love. But He is also a consuming fire! Think about that for a moment. That, logically, means that love is a consuming fire.

There is so much we miss in our life with our Savior. We do not pay enough attention to Scripture, and miss so much of what our Creator reveals about Himself to us. We have to fight our tendency to focus only on what we like about our Savior, and miss what He shows us about Himself. We need a more complete view of our Savior. We need to receive all of Him revealed in His Scripture.

This means that we need to spend more time in study of Scripture, something we tend to spend the least amount of time during the day. We also need the varied perspectives of our fellow disciples. Our Creator doesn’t reveal Himself fully to each person, but contextualizes Himself to His creatures. Jesus never healed the same way twice. The Holy Spirit doesn’t “fall upon” His people the same way, and there are different effects each time. Paul doesn’t write the same thing to every church, because they don’t all have the same people nor the same problems.

Let’s remember the seriousness of our religious relationship with our Creator. Let us live reverently and in awe of our Savior. Let’s keep in mind that the One before whom we live is a consuming fire. This isn’t an opportunity for roasting marshmallows, this is the fiery furnace with an extra Person in it. Let’s sober up and get busy.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Relational Religion

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6 NASB)

Religion: 1) The state of a religious (person); 2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; 3) scrupulous conformity; 4) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Relationship: 1) The state of being related or interrelated; 2) the relation connecting or binding participants in a relationship, such as: a) kinship, or b) a specific instance or type of kinship; 3) a) a state of affairs existing between those having relations or dealings b) a romantic or passionate attachment. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

You’ve all heard it, “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship.”  You’ve probably even said it.  The problem is that it isn’t exactly true.

The truth is more toward a blending of the two than one over the other.  The way that Scripture describes the Creator and His people, there is both a relationship, and religious practice.  What is often missed, especially by the people on the pages, is that the the religious practice is about maintaining the relationship.

Not to oversimplify, but the practice of faith is mostly about “problem” and “solution”.  The problem is what’s wrong with our relationship with our Creator, and the solution is what’s being done about it.  Like a marriage, either we’re working on improving the relationship, or we’re letting it die.  Relationships don’t remain idle.

From the definition of religion above, there are two basic elements required: belief, and practice.  From the definition of relationship there are also two basic elements required: relation, and participants.  In Hebrews 11:6, we can find all four elements.

And without faith <belief> it is impossible to please Him <practice>, for he who comes to God <participants> must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him <relation>. (Hebrews 11:6 NASB)

Followers of Jesus exist in a religious relationship with Him.  It can also be said that followers of Jesus pursue a relational religion of Him.  He is the Participant, and the Object.  He makes the relationship possible, and we act out our belief within that relationship.

The primary problem is that He has the entire universe on his workbench as some sort of spinning decoration, and we’re infinitesimally small within that.  We can’t get out to Him, He has to come within to us.  It has to be our Creator who initiates the relationship.  We’re stuck with that.  What we do once He has is up to us.

But once in this relationship, we discover there are “rules”, that our Creator has established boundaries.  Think through that verse again.  We please Him.  We seek Him, and He rewards us.  The give and take elements of a relationship are there, but it’s truly about Him.  Why?

A relationship with our Creator has to be about Him.  He is “out there” where we can’t go.  It’s either His route or no route.  We won’t find Him accidentally, invade His space, or stumble through to His existence.  In order to get to Him, we need to follow His rules.

Sometimes people get so stuck on the problem that we have to follow His rules they forget He provided rules.  Think about that for a sec: The Creator of the universe provides a way for us to know Him.  We can’t get off this rock to get to Him (or anywhere, for that matter), and we pout because He didn’t provide the way we wanted?  We matter to Him, but that’s not enough.  Let’s be honest, we can’t be trusted to leave this rock.  We belong in a playpen.

But why do His “rules” include a cross?  Ah, yes, why indeed?  I’ll explore that next week.  Along with more of the “Gideon Saga”.

So, what’s your view of God through the fence?