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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Maybe It’s Not About Food

Have you ever watched a movie, or read a book where what you thought the movie was about turned out to be nothing at all what it was truly about? Happens to me with the best of reads and flicks. I think good authors and directors design it that way. The writer of Hebrews sort of does that with this “paragraph” of text.

In the the last entry, I covered the consistency statement about Jesus sandwiched between trusting leaders to avoid false teaching. But, what the writer does with the “false teaching” reference is actually surprising. It turns out it’s not actually about food:

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

Hebrews 13:9-14 (NASB)

So, we start with the reference to teaching about food, and end up looking at Jesus in heaven. On the way, we leave Jerusalem and view the crucifixion. Yeah, it’s a weird journey when you think about it. From food laws through crucifixion to heaven…wait, that sounds vaguely familiar. Do you see it?

In this letter to Hebrews, one of the “elements” claimed to be missing is any reference to Communion. Yet, if you go back and read those last sentences of the passage above again, do you see it? It’s the path of Jesus from the upper room to His ascension. In common application of communion, that’s what the Lord’s Supper refers to as well (Luke 22:14-20, Mark 14:22-45, Matt. 26:26-29).

But, of course, the path chosen by Nicodemus, has to pass through Exodus, in a sense. The writer uses a reference to the sin offering, the type of offering which in English translations is often “whole burnt offering”. In this type of sacrifice, nothing is eaten, there is no portion for the priests, and all of it is consumed by fire. The problem is that, when it’s an ox or bull, that’s a lot of animal to burn up. So, it’s divided up, with specific parts of the organs burnt on the altar, and the rest taken outside of the camp and burned.

What the author does here is point out how Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem. Remember that he is trying to encourage his audience to endure rejection from their fellow Jews rather than give in, and compromise their faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Here, he calls them to go outside the camp.

For us, this is like calling us to reject “science”, or “philosophy”, of the learned and schooled, the wisdom of this world. It’s challenging us to endure the smirks, the eyerolls, the sighs of the ones who have “done the math”. For this world, to believe that there is a Creator, that this Creator loves His human creatures, and that He is our Savior through the historical figure of Jesus is ludicrous. To go further and claim deity for Jesus is simply irrational. And yet, it’s true.

The writer of Hebrews calls on his audience to go “outside” and join Jesus, because the view from “outside the camp” is a view of the heavenly city. What we are seeking we will never find among the “accepted” of this world. We, like the host of witnesses who have gone before, seek a city not made with human hands. We seek to pass through the Holy Place, through the thick curtain, and enter the Most Holy Place, there to find Jesus on the throne interceding on our behalf with the Father.

So, it’s not about food, not really. It’s the transition from food (the upper room) to the cross (the sin offering burned outside the camp), and then to the foot of the throne in heaven. One day, the cup of communion will be shared with our Savior once again, when we “drink it new in the Kingdom of God”.

The writer looks forward, and the path he takes is the path of communion. The elements are there, flesh and blood. The crucifixion is in sight, and also the scene in heaven. The call is to leave the comfort of acceptance by the world, and go outside, to the reproach of the Anointed One. Rather than be carried away by pointless rules, carry the reproach of our Savior.

I suppose this is a call for volunteers to be the “village idiot”. Or, it’s a call to follow Pilgrim away from his family and village, to the Celestial City. It’s likely both.

What’s your view through the knothole this morning?

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

God's Last Will and Testament?

Reading Scripture carefully leads to the discovery of really weird things. Every once in a while, you will read something, even something familiar, and discover something not only new, but bizarre. Like this statement the writer of Hebrews makes about the “covenant”:

For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.

Hebrews 9:15-17 NASB (emphasis mine)

If you have ever read this before, did it ever strike you as odd that the first covenant was only valid once God died? It doesn’t say that? Read it again, look at what I’ve made bold. There was a covenant mediated by Moses, so there must, of necessity, be the death of the one who made it, right? So, how is it that the covenant of Moses wasn’t a “treaty” or “contract” between Yahweh and His people? How is it that this “covenant” was a “will”?

Well, for the covenant mediated by Moses to be a “will”, either God was the One who dies so the people can inherit, or the people die so God can inherit. The typical wording used throughout Scripture is that the people “inherit” the Promised Land, the land Yahweh promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That would mean that God dies, under the Mosaic Covenant. I don’t remember that ever being a part of the covenant made at Sinai.

So, is that what Nicodemus is saying? Is that what the writer of Hebrews, this man who has already shaken comfortable understanding, exploded traditions, and dismantled paradigms, means by these verses? Is he saying that God died when He made the covenant at Sinai? Well, not literally, but figuratively in the sacrifices, did they represent the people or God?

All along, the writer of Hebrews has been focusing on the ministry of the priesthood, specifically, the high priesthood of the Mosaic Covenant. In that ministry, one of the odd elements is the amount of blood used over everything, including the priest. He wears these linen clothes, and then they are sprinkled with blood. Gold items used in the tabernacle, beautifully made, also sprinkled with blood. Nice new stiff white outfit, now with blood spatters all over it. Lovely.

It’s the blood. We say that about Jesus’ death, and how He purifies us from all unrighteousness. It’s the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from sin. And here, the writer of Hebrews is explaining why that is true.

Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood.

Hebrews 9:18-21 NASB

When I’ve read Exodus 24 in the past, I’ve studied it at what I thought was a thorough level. But when I read that Moses had the people sacrifice peace offerings to God, and sprinkled the blood on the altars, the people, and the book (verses 3 through 8), it never occurred to me that it represented the death of God. I always assumed it represented the death of the people.

Basically, if the covenant at Sinai was a “will”, who dies, and who inherits? Since the references have been to the people inheriting the promised land (Ex. 32:13, 33:54), then doesn’t that mean that God dies for it to go into effect?

Don’t panic. I figured you might be by this time. Don’t. Remember what Nicodemus is doing here: he’s supporting an argument for the intercessory ministry of Jesus on our behalf with the Father. Nicodemus has supported his assertion by replacing the priestly sacrifices under the law of Moses with Jesus’ self-sacrifice. So, in his argument, God dies (i.e. Jesus dies, but is resurrected), and the (new) covenant is established through His death, like a “will”.

The confusion is arising because Nicodemus is also trying to connect sacrifices with the ratification of the covenant. And the covenant at Sinai was ratified with sacrifices, and blood was sprinkled over everything, just as he claims. So, how does the self-sacrifice of Jesus, once-for-all-time, relate to the sacrifices at the ratification? That was different from the sin offerings because it sanctified rather than justified (as in forgiveness).

On the other hand, you could say that there really isn’t much distinction between sanctification and justification because sin is what makes people “unholy” in the first place. So, my questions may be taking the connection further than Nicodemus may intend. That’s why I didn’t want you to panic. The truth remains that we have a relationship with our Creator through His efforts alone in the death of Jesus.

So, it may not change anything to ask whether the first covenant was a “will”, but it may be an interesting rabbit to chase. What would it mean if the sacrifices ratifying the first covenant with Moses represented God rather than the people. And before you get all hot and bothered about such thinking disrespecting God, read Genesis 15. God moving between the carcasses He is subjecting Himself to the promise, so the sacrifice represents Him, not Abraham. If He’s okay with it, don’t be afraid to walk the same path, but only do so to explore the depths of the love of our Creator for His creatures, you and everyone else.

Okay, my view through the knothole was really more questions than answers, but there you are. What’s your view through your knothole?

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

Singular Attention

One of the common themes in the criticism of modern Western Christianity is how we’ve become idolatrous. Our society has come right out of the closet, and we now have a whole show and industry around being an American Idol. We even acknowledge that idols may not be that obvious. They could be insubstantial, like time in an activity or hobby. It could be social, like football teams, or golf, or associations. It’s an obvious problem, and, mostly, Christians acknowledge it.

But no one seems to be ready or willing to embrace a solution. One of my favorites among the excuses I’ve heard is that people don’t like to read. In our culture, that may be becoming more true than it was in my formative years. In those days, I read all the time. Now we seem to want headlines, and pictures. Communication is degenerating into memes. We want icons, symbols of things and activities we want or need. And, in the background, the ironic penalty looms over us.

He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the Lord alone, shall be utterly destroyed.

Exodus 22:20 NASB

There are two interesting ironies in this single verse. The first is the reference to “god”, and the second is the penalty itself. The first irony is missed in translation, because the literal Hebrew is “to the gods”. It’s ironic because “the gods” is also a common reference to God, singular. It’s used 366 times in Hebrew, and mostly to refer to God. In fact, in verse 8, it likely refers to God although it is often translated as “judges”.

The second irony is that the penalty for sacrificing is being sacrificed. It’s the “ban”, the complete and utter destruction instructed against God’s most heinous enemies. Everything is destroyed, nothing is left, not family, not possessions, not the house, nothing. It’s a “whole burnt offering”, in a sense.

I live under the second irony daily. As some of you may know from following this blog, I struggle with an addiction. Nothing is quite as idolatrous as an addiction. To choose to act out in my addiction is an act of transgression, a sin of rebellion against my Savior.

But, there is forgiveness. There is room for repentance. Jesus was asked by Peter how many times one should forgive another, and Jesus answered, “A lot”. But, we may forget that this is only true because we are forgiven a lot, by our Savior. That’s hard to remember, and sometimes accept, in the face of a failure.

What I deserve is complete destruction. What I want is life. The question is will I accept the forgiveness of a Savior, or will I persist my rebellion to my own destruction? And it’s not just about me, it’s my family, my friends, and whatever I have contributed to the Kingdom of Jesus that is at risk.

Think of that when you spot the idols in your life. Think of that cost when you consider your next choice, or how you will respond to your own failure. What will you do? Repent? I hope so. I’m working in that now. What are you working on?

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

Choose Belief?

One of the challenges we have, as followers of God, is to relate to Him as He is, rather than as we want Him to be.  It’s the false intimacy, imagining God different than He reveals Himself in Scripture, which forms our “iniquity”; the twisting of our relationship with Him.

Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon.  Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:29-31 NASB)

The wording of this vow of Jephthah may seem peculiar, but what does it actually say about Jephthah’s belief in, and about, Yahweh?  Whatever comes out of his door will belong to Yahweh.  The options of things that could potentially come through his door are greater than we might think.  They could include some livestock.  The options could also include his family.  In a sense Jephthah is taking a risk about what will come out of the door, but the vow gives Yahweh the choice.  That detail is often overlooked in commentaries.

The practice of making vows isn’t unusual in Scripture, but it’s not common either.  Jacob made one at Bethel (Gen 28:20-22), the entire nation of Israel while migrating through the wilderness (Num 21:1-3), Hannah made one in order to get Samuel (1 Sam 1:11).  The unusual thing here is that what is vowed to Yahweh isn’t specified, which is why I believe it was left up to Yahweh to choose.

Leviticus 27 has some very interesting things to be said about vows, redeeming what was vowed, and when that’s not possible.  Animals, land, and people (slaves?), were given values by the priests for redemption.  But, particularly interesting is verse 29, where anyone “devoted” to Yahweh for destruction can not be redeemed.  Since Jephthah has, as his dedication, a whole burnt offering, whatever is chosen by Yahweh is to be destroyed.  Granted, it won’t be “disassembled” as is often implied by the process, but there won’t be anything left either.

Therefore, whatever Yahweh chooses will be completely destroyed for Him, regardless of value, and without the option of redemption.  And so we come to the triumphant return:

When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.  When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.” (Judges 11:34-35 NASB)

There are few, if any, commentators or scholars who will agree that Yahweh chose Jephthah’s daughter.  It goes completely against His character to choose a person to be sacrificed to Him.  It does, right?  Does it?  Jericho might disagree, as may Achan, who violated the devotion to destruction of Jericho.  If one worships an idol, they are utterly destroyed since what they do is detestable.  Cities following other gods are to be destroyed, devoted to Yahweh completely in destruction.  In a way, this is a religious practice of sacrifice where human beings are destroyed completely.

Jephthah’s daughter understood completely what her father did, and what that meant for her.  Did she understand herself as chosen to die by Yahweh?

When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.”  So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” (Judges 11:35-36 NASB)

The response of the daughter to her father implies she understands herself to be about to die.  Keep in mind that the people of Judah, reading or hearing this for the first time, knew of kings who had “made their sons pass through the fire”. Yet, the abomination was idolatry, the worship practice of a pagan.  Perhaps they wouldn’t see this as an abomination to God as much as a tragic sacrifice to God.

My challenge here is to understand my Master as One who would choose the loss of an only daughter.  I have only one child, and she is a daughter.  This whole chapter freaks me out because I see a character of God where He just might require my child of me.  He gave Isaac back to Abraham, but he doesn’t condemn Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice.  In fact Abraham is honored.  Here Jephthah as a similar challenge, but Yahweh permits him to follow through with it.

Why would my Master choose such a thing?  How could He?  I desperately want a passage that clearly states that my Master does not permit or that He detests human sacrifice.  I’ve looked, and I can’t find anything but possible allusions to such a thing.  Please comment on this with something tangible, a verse reference, specifically on this topic.  Because, otherwise we’re left with following a Savior Who will ask of us to hold nothing back, and is deadly serious about that requirement.  Can I follow such a King?  Can you?

What do you see (and please let it be that God does not accept human sacrifice)?