Friday, April 2, 2010

Reprint: Why Did Jesus Die? (Parts 4-6)

Why Did Jesus Die? (04) To Release us From Death
by Being Our Sin Offering

Sin wears two masks; sin is death and sin is guilt. In the West, people tend to emphasize the deeds of sin, making it virtually synonymous with guilt. In the East, we tend to emphasize the condition of sin, making it virtually synonymous with death. Both points of view are valid, although only when held together. To undo sin, both guilt and death must be overcome. The next post in this series will discuss how Christ’s death deals with our guilt. In this post, let’s examine how the flesh and blood of the new Passover Lamb take away the sin of the world viewed as death. We’ve already mentioned how Christ’s dying itself undoes death, simply by bringing Life to the death's nothingness; but how is it His Body takes away the deadly effect of sin, and His Blood infuses immortal life into us?

There are numerous places in the Old Testament in which God teaches Israel that the life of a person or an animal is in its blood. (And of course in a way, that’s literally true, since blood cells, like any of our cells, carry DNA; yet it is not the literal, but the typological meaning of blood that interests us for purposes of this discussion.) That is why animals had to be butchered, not strangled: because their blood, being the seat of life, was sacred to God. If you killed an animal, you must pour out its blood onto the ground and cover it up, and not eat or drink it; or if it were a sacrificial animal, you must consecrate its blood to the Lord.

And what did the Lord want with it? Does He delight in blood? Does blood give Him any kind of satisfaction, whether emotional or legal or moral? That is not what the Lord Himself says. Listen:

And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, 'No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.' (Leviticus 17:10-12)

“And I have given it to you upon the altar,” says God, “to make atonement for your souls.” The Hebrew word we translate “souls” is nephesh, which means soul or self or life. The blood atones for, makes up for, the sinner’s lack of life. It gives life. Ultimately, the blood is God’s offering to us. He has no other use for it. He is not bloodthirsty. He is not some Jewish variant of the volcano god. Blood is not the prerequisite for His forgiveness, as if divine forgiveness had a price; instead, blood, like the bronze serpent, or as with the healing of the paralytic, is the form His forgiveness takes: giving us healing and Life. Wherever in the Bible you see "blood," think, "Life."

This is why the animals were sacrificed, not to punish them (although they themselves might disagree!) but that we might offer their flesh to God and to obtain their life-giving blood for us; and blood's life-giving property is why it was used in the Old Testament for ritual purification of all sorts of things:

19. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20. saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you." 21. Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. 22. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. (Hebrews 9:19-22)

The Greek word should be translated "remission" here, not "forgiveness," since books, tabernacles, and vessels of ministry do not have guilt and need no forgiveness -- although it is also true that God's forgiveness comes in and through blood, as we shall see. Yet these inanimate things, too, although having no sin or guilt, needed to be purified with blood. In Exodus 29:36-27, atonement is even made for the altar. These guiltless items are sprinkled with blood to purify them from the taint of death because they are all part of the fallen world, part of the order of sin and death. They must be purified to be fit for use in the Lord’s worship. We, too, must be purified of the death in us to be compatible with the immortal God.

What? Isn’t all this more than a litle superstitious? Can animal blood really cure death?

No, of course not. We must constantly remember that all these things are types, that is teaching tools, of the reality to come. They only receive their full truth in Christ. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) These sacrifices only made one ritually clean. (Hebrews 9:13) They did not give eternal life. They didn’t particularly please God, either, even though He had ordained them. “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.” That’s Psalm 40:6, and quoting it, Hebrews 10:6: “In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.”

“It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” This was not because the price was too low, as most of the non-Orthodox preach (a mere irrational animal in exchange for a reason-endowed human being). Neither does it mean God’s promise to forgive in these rituals was false. Instead, it means that God forgave without the need of any compensation or payback or punishment! God's forgiveness is pure gift; it cannot be bought - for any price, by anyone, not even by Jesus. This is what true forgiveness is, of course: to revoke the penalty, cancel the debt, give up the right to be compensated, to decide not to take revenge. Anything involving payback is not forgiveness at all, but the opposite. Forgiveness and payback are mutually exclusive. So God did not require any price for His forgiveness. Or rather, the price He required, blood, was not for Himself, but strictly as a teaching device for us.

Yet all those whom God truly forgave in the sacrificial rituals died, went to Hades. God’s forgiveness alone, although sufficient to remove guilt, does not remove death. This is because guilt is an interpersonal affair or else a legal one; therefore personal forgiveness or a legal declaration is enough to remit it. Death, however, is far more than an interpersonal or legal matter. It is a state of being, or rather, lack of being. It can be removed neither by forgiveness alone, nor by the blood of animals.

Rather, the removal, indeed, the reversal of death must await the coming of Him, of whom these sacrifices are the foreshadowings. In Christ, human flesh and blood are united to divinity. In His flesh and blood He grappled with death and conquered it ("bore our sins on the tree"). In His flesh and blood He rose from the grave, was glorified, and was taken up into heaven; and in His flesh and blood He sits upon His heavenly throne. Christ’s flesh and blood, unlike those of animals, really are immortal. His flesh nourishes a whole new order of life in us, namely, His very own, divine, eternal life; and His blood is our true Fountain of Immortality. That is why Jesus offered up His flesh and blood, and how by feeding us upon these medicines, He takes away the sin of the world, considered as death. This is one sense in which Jesus died to be our sin offering, and also how He can be our Passover Lamb, whose flesh nourished Israel for the journey to freedom and whose blood fended off the Angel of Death.

Jesus said, “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)

You have redeemed us from the curse of the Law by Your precious Blood. By being nailed to the Cross and pierced with the Spear, You have poured forth immortality on mankind. O our Saviour, glory to You.

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Why Did Jesus Die? (Part 05) To Release us From Guilt

Jesus Died to be Our Sin Offering, Releasing us From Guilt

In the previous post, we saw how the main idea behind a sin offering in the Old Testament was not to punish an animal in the place of a sinner (although killing it certainly had the same effect!) but to offer it to God and to obtain its blood, the seat of its life, and to shed that blood so as to release the life in it.

Similarly, there is no idea in Christ’s death of God displacing our punishment onto Him, although His dying had the same effect. That is why we do sometimes speak of His death as punishment, metaphorically. We mean that the Crucifixion had the appearance and the effect of punishment although that was not its purpose.

In fact, a sin offering, in the Old Testament, didn’t even have to be an animal. If you couldn’t afford a bullock or goat, or even two doves or pigeons, a measure of the finest flour would suffice. (Leviticus 5:11-13) Flour cannot be punished, cannot suffer, cannot die, from which observation alone we ought to learn that punishment, suffering, and death were not the point of a sin offering.

Even if you only offered God that measure of flour, He would still forgive, because the offering was never the price of His forgiveness in the first place. His forgiveness has no price. It’s absolutely free, a notion that only bothers the devil, or only bothers us when we are considering others (not ourselves) receiving God's mercy for free.

So if a sin offering to God is not an exchange for His forgiveness, what is it for? It’s for just that: an offering! When we have offended someone, and we go to that person for forgiveness, the gracious thing to do is not to show up empty-handed! A sin offering is something you give to God as a gift, like the flowers a man brings his wife after a quarrel. The calf or birds or handful of flour or flowers are a token of your offering of yourself. That's what is needed if the relationship is to be restored.

And just such an offering, Christ made on the Cross on behalf of all of us. He offered God His body and blood, His life and His death, His faith and loyalty, His love, His obedience, His all, holding back nothing.

Now when we speak of perfect love, perfect faith, perfect obedience, we need to notice that perfection in these virtues requires extreme circumstances not merely to demonstrate the perfection, but first of all to elicit it. Easier circumstances summon easier forms of courage, easier degrees of faith and love and obedience. Harder circumstances call us to exert a more difficult faith, love, and obedience. Only the most extreme circumstances allow us to exert perfect love, perfect faith, perfect obedience. That necessary, most extreme circumstance, for Jesus, was the Cross. That is why the author of Hebrews says, “...though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” (Hebrews 5:8-9)

His dying was necessary in order to exercise obedience and love and faith to the point of perfection. That is to say, He never backed away from truth though the cost were death; He never acted out of anything but faith and love, never abandoned God or cursed Him, and above all, He did not refuse us His life-giving body and blood when called upon to donate them. In short, He died to defeat satan by love and faith and obedience, because satan is not utterly defeated until you have let him throw his worst weapons at you.

This, then, is another sense in which Christ died to be a sin offering, for obedience, made possible by faith and flowing from love, is the perfect sacrifice. "Has the LORD [as great] delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey [is] better than sacrifice, [and] to hearken than the fat of rams." (I Samuel 15:22. See also Isaiah 1:10-20, Jeremiah 7:22-23, Hosea 6:6.)

In Hebrews, we read (and this is very important):

For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:

"Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.
Then I said, 'Behold, I have come--
In the volume of the book it is written of Me--
To do Your will, O God.'"

Previously saying, "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the law), then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God." He takes away the first that He may establish the second.

By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:4-9)

Christ “takes away the first”, that is, Old Testament kinds of sacrifice, and comes with a body (i.e., as a human being) to enable Him to practice obedience; He thereby establishes “the second”, that is, the sacrifice of obedience to the Will of God.

And God was pleased with this offering. Or, we can say, God was propitiated, for it means the same thing. “Propitiated” does not here imply soothing God’s ruffled feathers, calming His temper tantrum, or appeasing His wrath. It simply means pleased.

And this perfect obedience (a work of perfect love premised upon perfect faith), due the Creator from all men, Christ offered on behalf of us all, and God accepted it as being from all of us. St. Paul writes, “For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)

God having accepted the offering of perfection on behalf of us all, there remains nothing to punish, no place for punishment, no application for it. For Him to require both perfection and punishment would have been not only unjust and immoral, but also illegal.

Not that any amount of suffering by anybody could ever offset guilt, anyway; only repentance can. Only faith cures faithlessness; only love heals lovelessness; only obedience corrects disobedience. Suffering merely punishes guilt (and momentarily, it's true, fends off guilt feelings) without addressing its causes or providing any genuine relief.

Christ deals with its causes. He not only offers His perfection to God on our behalf, but also offers it to us, that we may partake of it as branches partake of the Vine’s sap. When we are grafted into Him in Holy Baptism and when the Holy Spirit comes to reside in us in Holy Chrismation, immediately the seeds of righteousness are planted in us; already we partake of Christ's righteous, holy, never-ending Life.

This is how Christ, on the Cross, deals with our guilt. His Life-bearing Blood is shed upon the world. His Body is offered for our spiritual food. His offering to the Father of perfect faith and love and obedience reverses, remediates, replaces, and legally more than offsets our own faithlessness, lovelessness, and disobedience. Thus, at the cross, "justice and mercy kiss," as indeed they always had.

But God does not work such miracles for people He has not forgiven. It is impossible He could have done all this for us and yet be holding a grudge against us. Therefore, this sacrifice, upon the Cross displayed, from the Cross offered to God as a pleasing (propitiatory) sacrifice, from the Cross given to us as new possibilities of which we may partake, shows us God’s forgiveness streaming down upon the world. The Cross is not some basis for God's forgiveness, as if a basis were needed; neither is it only a revelation of His forgiveness. Instead, the Cross is the ultimate form God’s forgiveness takes.** The Cross cleanses our conscience, persuading us that God loves us, has always loved us and ever shall love us; and that God forgives us, always has forgiven us and ever shall forgive us - period, no matter what.

God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

**If this sentence alarms you, see my earlier post on what God's eternal, never-changing love for us does and does not mean.)

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Why Did Jesus Die? (06) To Become our True Mercy Seat

In the Temple Solomon built was an enormous bronze bowl, sitting on twelve bronze bulls. It was 45 feet in circumference. It had a name; it was called “The Sea.” (II Chronicles 4:2, I Kings 7:33)

Also in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, was the Ark of the Covenant. It was a wooden chest plated with pure gold and it contained holy relics. The lid, also of wood covered with pure gold, had a statue of a cherub on either end of it. (A cherub is a glorious rank of angel, not one of those cute, winged, Valentine babies.) The space on the Ark’s lid between the cherubim was the Mercy Seat. It was where God’s mercy was to be met. It was where, once a year, the high priest sprinkled animal blood. You’ll recall from previous posts in this series that in Hebrew thought, where blood is, there is life. Mercy was given from the top of the Ark of the Covenant because the life-giving blood was sprinkled there.

The Mercy Seat, then, is the place of God’s favor and mercy. (And this, regardless of how the ancient Israelites may have understood it.) The Mercy Seat is neither where God’s changeless favor and mercy are won nor where His free gift is bought, but where His mercy and favor appear, in the form of the blood. That blood is the token of our life offered back to God together with the animal's, and life from an animal (typifying Life from Christ) being offered to the sinner.

The Glory of God shone above the Mercy Seat, and it was the place where God promised to dwell and to “meet with thee.” (Exodus 25:17-22)

The Mercy Seat is described in Hebrews. “…above [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” (Hebrews 9:5)

The word “mercy seat” in this verse as well as in the Old Testament (Septuagint Bible) is, in Greek, hilasterion (“hee-la-STARE-ee-own” if you use the Erasmian pronunciation). The word also means “propitiation,” in reference to the Mercy Seat, for the Mercy Seat, like the giant bronze bowl, had a name. It was called “The Propitiation.” Thus, the verse in Hebrews could have been translated, “…above [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing The Propitiation.” Bear in mind that propitiation, for the Christian, has no implication of changing the unchanging God. (And this, regardless of how the ancient Israelites may have understood it.)

St. Paul tells us that Christ is our new and true hilasterion:

“… whom God set forth as a hilasterion through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because of the paresis of the sins that were previously committed, by God’s forbearance.” (Romans 3:25)

The Greek word, paresis (“PAR-eh-seess”) is related to paralysis and means weakness or numbing effect. God had up to now left us in this semi-paralyzed state inflicted upon us by our sins; but now, to demonstrate His righteousness, He comes to free us, providing us a new Mercy Seat, “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (v. 26)

Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about this passage, Romans 3:25-26:

For he does not say “for the sins,” but, “for the relaxing,” that is, the deadness. For there was no longer any hope of recovering health, but as the paralyzed body needed the hand from above, so doth the soul which hath been deadened. And what is indeed worse, a thing which he sets down as a charge, and points out that it is a greater accusation. Now what is this? That the last state was incurred in the forbearance of God. For you cannot plead, he means, that you have not enjoyed much forbearance and goodness. But the words “at this time” are those of one who is pointing out the greatness of the power and love toward man. For after we had given all over, (he would say,) and it were time to sentence us, and the evils were waxed great and the sins were in their full, then He displayed His own power, that you might learn how great is the abundance of righteousness with Him. For this, had it taken place at the beginning, would not have had so wonderful and unusual an appearance as now, when every sort of cure was found unavailing. (St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Romans, Homily VII.)

While we were sinning, the Saint says, God was being kind and indulgent. As a result, our affliction grew worse. God let it, because had He healed us right away, the wonder would not have appeared as great. If God were to cure you of typhoid the first time you coughed, would you even know He had done it? But if He were to wait until you were nearly dead, and then raise you from your sickbed in perfect health...!

God forbore to wreak vengeance upon us. That doesn't mean He is about to change course now! No, now His righteousness is going to be demonstrated a different, new, better way: by rescuing us from our sin. He rescues us from it by destroying it, as we've seen. Revenge, in comparison with this, would be a crude and childish justice. It would be the "eye for an eye" kind of justice Christ used to contrast with the kind He wanted us to practice in order to be like our heavenly Father: turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, give your cloak to the man who stole your coat. Such "justice" would be merely retaliation by a petty god instead of correction by the True God.

The true justice of the true and living God is to make things just; that is, to set things back to rights, to make things as they were intended to be, to make the story end as it should. (Yes, I know; there are quite a few people who think the story ought to end with certain people frying in hell, but of course such an attitude is hardly loving, hardly Christian! And it remains to be seen what ending our gracious, kind, compassionate, good God will bestow, perhaps one far beyond our ability to imagine.)

Paresis can also be translated “passing over, letting pass, neglecting, disregarding”. That would render the verse: “… whom God set forth as The Propitiation [Mercy Seat] through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because of the passing by of the sins that were previously committed, by God’s forbearance.”

If we use "passing by" to translate paresis, we must be careful not to accuse God, or attribute to St. Paul an accusation against God, of having failed to supply chastisement in appropriate measure! This He certainly did all along, as the Holy Scriptures abundantly attest.

What He had not provided for us until “the present time” was a definitive escape from sin and death. God, by waiting until the time was right to send the Son into the world, had appeared to be neglecting the catastrophe of sin and simply allowing His handiwork (us) to die! What kind of a supposedly all-powerful and loving God would do that? Now He comes to demonstrate that He does not overlook our plight. Now He shows His supreme righteousness (justice), exceeding any we had ever imagined, by justifying those who live by faith in Christ – which justifying, in New Testament usage, is the same as giving us life.

In the words of St. Irenaeus,

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and for ever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man [Christ] did He bind the strong man [satan], and spoiled his goods, (Matthew 11:29) and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. (St. Ireneaus, Against Heretics, 3, XXIII, 1.)

Christ, then, died to be our new Mercy Seat, the place where God meets us, where His own Life-bearing blood is sacrificed to bring us Divine Life, and God is pleased to display His righteousness by justifying (vivifying) us.

We will have more to ponder concerning justification in the next post in this series.