Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
An Allegory of the Atonement
In one of my previous notes I was sketching an acount of the atonement from the “bottom-up”, the basic summary of this account simply being that, Christ came down to be our God and our Lord, and in our sin we rejected and executed him, but he rose from the dead and forgave us our sin. Before I go on to explain how the sacrificial system of the Old Testament fits into this account, I think it would be good to recapitulate my exposition of this account with an allegory
Suppose there is this person driven mad by rage against everyone and everything and would destroy everything in sight and eventually even himself if he was not restrained. So the mayor has him committed to a mental instituition where his rage is restrained and contained by the order of the institution, so protect both himself and others bodily from his destructive tendencies. But naturally these external restrains does nothing to squell the violence within him which burns as furiously as ever, if not even greater, for the restrains he is under.
Naturally if the mayor was simply interested in external order, the institution and it’s external restrains would be sufficient. But he wants to restore the mental patient’s relationship to his town and to be in fellowship with others as well. But what’s he to do? If he lets him loose, this person would go on a rampage. So what this mayor does is to send his son, to enter into the maximum security wing of the institution, to befriend the raging mad person and to gain his trust and restore his relationship to the town.
So the Son enters the mental hospital and into the deepest maximum security wing of the institution. However, one cannot very well befriend and earn the trust of a person restrained by a straitjacket. So the Son takes the bold and daring next step to fulfill his Father’s will: He instructs the straitjacket to be removed and himself to be left alone, vulnerable, powerless and defenceless in the same room as the mental patient. The mental patient immediately pounces upon the Son and inflicts the full fury of his anger upon him. The mental patient abuses the Son in very possible way imaginable, however, because the Son was determined to obey his Father’s will to be the mental patient’s friend and not his enemy, he did not retailate nor did he defend himself, but he endured the sufferings inflicted by the mental patient. This went on for quite a while with the Son unimaginably battered and bruised until the mental patient was thoroughly exhausted and collapse from venting his anger. The Son then rises and places his hand upon the mental patient’s head and says, “I forgive you, and so will my Father.”
The explanation of the allegory goes like this: Original Sin can be compared to the “madness” which all mankind suffers from, because we refuse to acknowledge and trust in God, we deny the truth and order of our creatureness and exalt the creation instead of our Creator as God, doing violence to the limits and boundaries of creation. And in exalting the idols of our hearts into god, we transgress the boundary and order of creation and do inflict violence throughout all creation, bringing destruction both upon others and ourselves. (The rampaging madness bit). However, God in order to preserve the worldly life of his creations and limit the full extent of their violence, imposes firm orders and laws upon the world. This is comparable to the institution and straitjackets and bodily restrains which does not resolve the root cause, i.e. not having God as God, but rather deals only with “outward” behaviour. As the Bethel Confession puts it,
The church teaches that God has patience with mankind, allowing them to live in the fallen world and sustaining them there. To preserve mankind from their unbridled selfishness and keep them from destroying themselves, God imposes firm orders upon human life.
Thus worldly authority, property, work and economy, the institution of the family, etc, have all been given by God to preserve the external worldly life of mankind and to restrain their destructiveness and to prevent them from committing suicide. However, it is not the will of God to simply preserve the outward life of his creation, it is his desire and will to enter into fellowship with man, to be the heart of their trust and love. Thus, to be capture the hearts of his creations, he can’t simply exercise more authority and power by increasing the power and horrors of the institution (more Law!), God does not want to rule through coercion, but to rule in the hearts of man. Thus, he sends down his Son to earth, renders him completely vulnerable and powerless before mankind, to win their hearts and their soul to God by healing, forgiving and teaching. However, the closer God got to mankind, having come in our very own flesh! the more terrified we become, and we inflicted the worse we can upon any human life, death. Thus, in a sense, Christ got killed, murdered, because he got too close, like approaching a flame, or a rabid dog, he got burned and bitten because he got close. But Christ being the obedient and true Son, obeyed and carried out his Father’s will to the very bitter end. He called off the “restrains” or his mighty angels which could protect him, and he allowed all the powers and authorities of the world, religious and civil, to torture and crucify him. But Christ continued to submit to his Father’s will, to love his enemies and his creation, to not use force or power to retaliate and protect himself, but instead he prayed to his Father to forgive his enemies as they crucified him.
But even after we have done our very worse, Christ because he obeyed the Father, rose again in glory, was delivered from death and he came back to continue to love and forgive us. And when we realise that the fullest extend of our destructiveness and sin cannot stop God from loving us and seeking our trust, and that we and the devil and all the powers and authorities of the world have been disarmed of their greatest weapon, death, we are rendered helpless, our idols are powerless, unable to stop God from breaking through to us, and we surrender to God and die to our sins and idols, and let God be our God.
To recapitulate, the point is that God must concretely forgive our sin “down here”. A forgiveness of sins which occurs “in the heavens” and in eternity is useless. God’s will to be reconciled to us must happen to us in our concrete lives, as spatio-temporal beings. But in order for us to be completely and concretely forgiven, we need to be completely and concretely guilty as well. We need to be “caught in the act” (Forde), implicated with the deicide and the rejection and murder of God’s son, which is the alpha and omega of all sin. This is why it is said that all mankind has been implicated in the murder of God’s son. All mankind, all the powers and principalities of this world, from the greatest to the least, have been condemned and implicated in this deicide, simply by being a part of the fallen order and law of this world. But because we are all guilty of Christ’s crucifixion, we are also all the subject of Christ’s prayer to forgive his murderers as we crucified him. Before this mighty prayer of God’s only Son, all the underworld trembles, the law and conscience falls silence and bows down in awe and Satan and his host of minions are cast down to the ground and disarmed. God’s Son have prayed for our forgiveness of his own murder, and who dares object to God’s own prayer? And if God can forgive the murder of his own Son, what can he not forgive?
On the Logic of Sacrifice
It would be good to start the account of the Old Testament sacrificial system at this juncture. And any Christian engagement with the sacrificial system could take as it’s focus the book of the Hebrews which is the most sustained discussion on Christ’s High Priestly Office and the relation of the Old Testament sacrifice to the work of Christ. We shall begin first with a discussion on how the sacrificial system works before going on to how it is related to Christ.
You are Your Goods
In order to understand the concept of Christian sacrifice, it is necessary first to understand how Christians understand what it means to be a person or personhood. Now Christ says in the Gospels (Matt 6:21, Luke 12:34) that,
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also
The idea is basically that you put your money where your heart is. We spend our resources, be it time or money, on whatmatters to us, on things that are important to us. Thus, how we use our resources, the ends to which we employ them reflects where our hearts and our values are. In fact, Christ’s claim is much stronger than to say that the way we use our possessions merelyreflects our hearts, he is in fact saying that our hearts are at where our possessions are.
In this light, it is easy to understand the logic of animal sacrifices. In the ancient world, especially to primitive cultures,animals and agricultural products are their ‘treasures’, theses possessions are the measure of the person. To apply the logic of of Christ, where their animals are, there is their heart also.
Sacrifice; or Beam me up Scotty!
If in the Old Testament period, a person’s agricultural goods was a part of their personhood, then the logic of sacrifice becomes clearer.
In most OT sacrificial ritual, the killing and slaughter was not part of the ritual but merely a prepratory rite, performed by the offerer, not the priest. The real ritual action was the holocaust or the burning of the already dead animal (or animal parts) by the priests. The hebrew word for “holocaust” orolah means something like “that which goes up”. To understand this a bit better, you need to have an image of a burning animal on fire with the smoke “going upwards” to the heavens.
Thus, to put everything together, the idea is that the animals, symbolising ourselves, are offered up by the priest to be sacrificed, which is simply a symbolic act of offering up our hearts and persons unto the Lord. If the animals are “where our hearts is”, then the act of offering up the animals to be burnt and lifted upwards in the smoke towards the heavens is an act of withdrawal ourselves and our hearts from ordinary use unto the Lord, it is in effect, an act of consecration and separating ourselves unto the Lord. It is an act of a union and harmony with God and his will, a powerful symbolic act of giving oneself up unto the Lord. In this light do we understand the idea of how cleansing or expiation from sins works. A person tainted by sins or uncleaness offers up pure and undefiled animals or sacrifices to symbolise his personhood and to separate himself from his past person who has sinned up unto the Lord in the sacrificial holocaust as performed by the priests, thus being consecrated and cleansed of sins once more as his person, as represented by the animal, is offered up in obedience to the Lord by the priest.
As evidence for this explanation of sacrifice, we can note that first in Numbers 16:41-48, as God’s wrath broke out amongst the people, Aaron made atonement or cleansed the people by offering up incense, proving that neither killing nor the death of any animal is required, only that the people be cleansed. Secondly, we also note that when a person was too poor to afford animal sacrifices, the sacrificial laws does make provisions that they can instead offer up cakes or flour offerings, etc, again highlighting that the essence of the sacrifice did not consists of killing or slaughter but of utter dedication or separation up unto the Lord. To summarise, an explanation of the Old Testament sacrificial rituals put it this way,
The links made in Leviticus 5 between the offering brought and what one could afford to bring are important. The close connection between substance (“wealth”) and person suggests that the more wealth one has (in a comprehensive sense), the more “self” there is to give (2 Sam 24:24, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing”). Thus, in the offering the worshipers submitthemselves to God. The sacrifice is thus a tangible sign of faith, a concrete way in which one offers the self to God; no theory of how the worshiper is related to the animal is involved.
Health Potions of Blood
If the holocaust is the “upward” action of the sacrifice, the emphasis on our consecration and dedication to God, then the sprinkling of the blood was the “downward” action of the sacrifice which cleanses us of our sins “down here”. It can be observed that blood is not something which we “offered upwards” to God but is used “downwards” to sprinkle and pour upon objects, altars, and even people to cleanse them from uncleaness and sin. Remember in the Old Testament, God gave the blood as currency for cleansing and to represent life as Leviticus 17:11 puts it,
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is theblood that makes atonement by the life.
Thus, the idea is that because of the “life in the blood”, it is able to grant life when applied to people (like a health potion!), and to cleanse objects and altars and places from their sin and uncleaness by giving “life”. It is in this sense that we understand Hebrews 9:22 saying that,
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
The word “shedding” is a bit misleading as in the Greek it is more accurately translated as “pouring”, thus, pouring upon us, downwards, not the act of killing or slaughter itself, but the application of blood unto us.
Thus in the animal sacrificial system, there is one long link which connects heaven to earth which passes through the animal sacrificed: The “heavenly end” whereby the animal is burned upwards and connects us to God, the “earthly end” whereby the animal’s life-blood is descends downwards to us and is sprinkled upon us to grant us new life after the destructiveness of our sin.
Critique of the Sacrificial System and True Sacrifice
But later much prophetic critiques on sacrifices would be focused on the Israelites abuse of the system whereby they simply mechanically gave animals sacrifices without the consequent giving of their hearts and obedience, not realising that the animals is simply a representation of their life, not its substitute. King David would later point to the true meaning of animal sacrifices to say in Psalm 51 that it is the sacrifice of a contrite heart which God is well-pleased and also there would be much mentioned on the sacrifice of righteousness, etc. Hebrews 10:1-4 critiques it this way,
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
So what is the true sacrifice? Hebrews 10 would continue,
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Thus, the true sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience to the will of God. Thus, Christ offered up this sacrifice of righteousness, righteousness in conformity to God’s will, unto the Father. But how is this sacrifice of righteous obedience related to Christ’s high priestly office? Earlier Hebrews 5:1, 7-10 explains,
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God,to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins… In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Thus, Christ offered up the sacrifice of prayers and supplications as the high priest, but must importantly, he offered up the sacrifice of obedience. As the high priest, Christ obeyed his Father commands to love God and all mankind, to love his enemies and to forgive them. What Christ preached, he practiced, and his practice of obedience was his sacrifice to God. As high priest, he offered up prayers and supplications to God upon the Altar of the Cross, on behalf on all mankind, calling upon God to forgive his murders and making intercessions for his enemies. This can be considered to the be “upward” movement of the animal sacrifices. Remember, the animal sacrifices was the consecration of mankind to God “upward”, Christ’s prayer for his enemies to be forgiven and his sacrifice of obedience to God to love his enemies and all mankind is the ultimate dedication and consecration of all mankind to God, which he sanctified by this mighty prayer and supplication in obedience to the Father’s will to love his creation.
But just as there is an “upward” movement in the animal sacrifice and in Christ’s passion upon the Cross which consecrates mankind to God in heaven, there is a corresponding “downward” movement in Christ’s sacrifice which is poured out in the Blood of his New Testament in the Lord’s Supper. Just as the blood of the animal sacrifice is poured out and sprinkled upon the people to grant them new life and forgiveness, likewise is the blood poured out from Christ also “sprinkled” and given to us in the Eucharist to concretely grant new life and remissions of sins according to his New Testament. Thus in Christ runs the line connecting heaven and earth. His life of obedience, offered up to God, whereby he makes intercessions and prayers for mankind, the ultimate prayer being the prayer of forgiveness for his enemies and all mankind and to love them to the utter bitter end, even unto death. His life in his blood of the New Testament, poured out for us upon the Cross and continues to be poured out today in the Eucharist, whereby we drink that blood to our cleansing and forgiveness. Both life, in the blood in the Eucharist and in the obedience unto death, are necessary for our atonement.
I think this note has grown frighteneningly long. So I think I would just end it here, but suffice to say, with this account, it would be very easy to see how the “active obedience” or righteousness of Christ justifies us and merits our salvation, and how the sacrificial system is fulfilled in the Christ.
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