worship & sacrifice

Every Sunday, Christians around the world gather together to celebrate and spiritually absorb the sacrifice that Christ made in the gospel, in his incarnation and crucifixion. We tear bread and pour wine into cups as a sacred ritual of remembrance and receiving of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, the elements of the sacrifice which impart his indestructible life to us. We gather and remember so that we may worship the God who so loved, that he gave. In our Christian worship, we imitate Christ’s great sacrifice and offer ourselves back to God.

Before Christ, the purpose of the old covenant sacrificial system was twofold. The dead animals were given to atone as well as to worship. The different types of sacrifices had different names and different rules. Burnt offerings and sin offerings saved the sacrificer’s life on the principle of substitution, and cleansed the person’s moral conscience, while thanksgiving and freewill offerings were just that: optional expressions of gratitude and love to God.

Once, in his old age, David sought to build an altar to God and sacrifice animals on it, using another man’s nearby property to do so. The man offered David the use of his land, animals, and materials for free. By this point in his life, however, David understood, better than most of us, the stuff of which the worship of God consists. He responded, “No, but I will buy it from you at a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).

The entire Mosaic religious system was principled on sacrifice. But then, so is religion everywhere. Deep in human nature exists an urging to sacrifice to God. Monks flagellating, Brahmans fasting, pagans cutting, Jews and Muslims slaughtering livestock. Religion tends to focus and codify this urging, but it goes deeper than religious codes. It’s more universal.

The dualistic urge to atone–to cover our shame and make good on our broken promises–and worshipfully love something greater than ourselves through sacrifice drives modern people along an unending pursuit of achievement and conformity (which gets billed as nonconforming originality, of course). Even without a demanding deity in the equation, we have created an urbanized version of law-keeping to what we imagine to be The Ultimate, accompanied by the required sacrifice of our actual, uninformed desires. Corporate ladder climbers, hipsters, gangsters, junior highers, moms. Everybody does it.

Now, back to Jesus. He gave up the riches of divinity for the poverty of humanity. He gave up his body to be smashed and disfigured by human cruelty. He gave up his self to be oppressed by the full load of human guilt and shame and to be ignited and consumed by the divine curse. In short, Jesus Christ made The Great Sacrifice to God. As with the old covenant animals, his death was both atoning and worshipful.

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2

There it is. Christ’s death was a “fragrant offering” (worship) and it was “for us” (atonement). He worshiped his Father by obeying his will to the point of death, and he atoned for the sins of his people by suffering the consequence of their evil in their place and by offering a sacrifice of infinite positive worth to God on their behalf.

We celebrate Jesus’ death today because it canceled, once for all time, the need for us to sacrifice for atonement’s sake. The blood of Christ washes away all sin, and it is finished. We add nothing more to obtain forgiveness and vindication: not livestock corpses, not self-denial or self-harm, not the performance of good deeds, not conformity to a supposed standard of success. Our deep longing for absolution is at last profoundly satisfied. It’s done. Jesus did it for us.

The story about David remains, as does the worshipful aspect of the crucifixion. The other side of our drive to sacrifice, we find, is valid in Christ. Not to atone, but to worship. Worship to the God who so loved that he gave, it turns out, also looks like giving.

  • It is the sacrifice of our pride and self-justification, and the offering up of our broken hearts (Psalm 51:17).
  • It is the sacrifice of our money and possessions, given to spread God’s gospel among humanity (Philippians 4:18).
  • It is the sacrifice of our self-absorption and boasting, exchanged for talk of God and verbal praise of him (Hebrews 13:15).
  • It is the sacrifice of our time and energy spent in self-service, exchanged for the service of other human beings (Hebrews 13:16).

Ultimately we discover that our worship’s substance is the sacrifice of our selves.

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

David was right. There is no worship without sacrifice. The remarkable thing is that we never give to God something we didn’t firstly receive as a gift from him (1 Corinthians 4:7). We have nothing of our own to offer. Truthfully, all we ever bring to God is our need.

Yet he asks us to give–to give ourselves–anyway. It fulfills our deep urge to worship, and to do so by giving and sacrificing. It is the definition of love.

At the end of it all, we find that nothing is so truly ours as when we have given it completely to God.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” -Jim Elliot, 20th century Christian martyr

“I never made a sacrifice.” -Hudson Taylor, 19th century missionary to China

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meditations on Holy Week (3): the Passover lamb

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7
In the book of Exodus, God freed his people the Israelites from viciously oppressive slavery. In order to do so, he inflicted a series of ten miraculous plagues against their masters, the Egyptians, and the false gods the Egyptians worshipped. Each successive plague demonstrated the greatness and the “mighty hand and outstretched arm” of the true God, Yahweh, in comparison to the nonexistent power of the Egyptian idols. The last plague was the worst. In one night, God caused the firstborn son of every idolatrous family in Egypt to die.

Every family, except those who did this one thing: slaughtered an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts of the family’s home.

This ancient event constitutes the extremely important Jewish holiday of Passover, so-called because God “passed over” the houses with blood on them. Jews of all kinds celebrate it around the world today. Jesus and his disciples celebrated it 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, during the original Holy Week. They ate the traditional Passover meal during the “last supper,” Jesus’ last meal before he died.

Passover meant (and still means) everything to the Jews, because it so incredibly encapsulated the awesome interplay between God’s justice and his mercy, and it so vividly demonstrated his provision of grace. The reality is, though, that Passover absolutely pales in comparison to its true fulfillment at the cross of Jesus.

Jesus – the Holy One of Israel, the Chosen One, the Messiah – for the sake of love became, himself, the final Passover lamb, the sacrifice for the idolatry of the people. The spotless lamb, the man of perfection, shed his blood on the cross, on two wooden beams so much like doorposts, so that idolaters like you and I may be “passed over” on the coming Day of Judgment, when every hidden thought and deed is laid bare before the piercing eyes of a holy God. Not only passed over, but freed from slavery, redeemed, given an inheritance in the ultimate promised land, adopted as children of the Father.

The love of Jesus on the cross is what Christians celebrate today, Good Friday, and oh how good it is. This love is not clean, it is bloody, and incalculably painful; but it is pure. This love is extended to all who dare to listen, and it is good enough for all who dare to come. This love is what makes life make sense, it’s what quiets a guilty conscience, it’s what humbles the proud and raises the shamed, it’s what changes a life, it’s what saves a people, it’s what brings us to God.

Therefore: paint his blood on your door! Paint his blood on your door daily. There is never a day when you do not need it, and never a day when it is not sufficient for you.

meditations on Holy Week (2): in the garden

Matthew 26:36-46Mark 14:32-42Luke 22:40-46

The Bible opens with a garden – Eden. It closes with one too – the New Jerusalem. In between, in the midst of Holy Week, another garden comes to play in God’s story of redemption – Gethsemane.

Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray as no one else has ever prayed, before he went to the cross. The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record excerpts of his prayer, which contain that same incredible tension found in the psalms and throughout the Bible: honest emotion, genuine expression of pain, authentic human desire; coupled with total trust in God and surrender to his will. Don’t skip too quickly to “your will be done” and miss the “take this cup from me.” Both make up all real prayer, and ultimately, real relationship with God. God does not ask that we lie to him – he commands us to be real – but that we trust him.

It’s important for Christians to take home the lesson about submission to God and dependence on him even in the face self-sacrifice. Jesus’ night in the garden of Gethsemane was for a far bigger purpose than our prayer lives, however. In the garden, the Son of God stretched himself out on the night’s cold ground and prepared to take on the sins of the world.

In that first garden, Eden, Adam hid from God, disobedient and ashamed. He rebelled against his Creator, then hid himself among the trees because he now knew shame and fear. He sinned, then retreated. Although God cursed him, he did not bring Adam’s death sentence down on him that day. He spared him.

In Jesus’ garden, Gethsemane, Jesus undid what Adam had done. Jesus had nothing to hide, no rebellion to be ashamed of, no wayward thought at which to cringe. Yet, he gave himself up willingly. The sinful Adam hid and was spared. The sinless Jesus gave himself up and was condemned.

He was condemned for my sake, and for yours. It pleased Father, Son, and Spirit for Jesus to become a sacrifice for many, so that he may redeem a people for himself. Jesus’ blood now covers my rebellion and my shame. Jesus experienced the condemnation of a righteous God in my place. I am free.

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:22-25

a kingdom of priests

Priesthood – it is a crucial concept for Christians to understand. It is 100% relevant to the day-to-day identity of believers. Modern American Evangelicals, however, with their woefully inadequate understanding of the Old Testament, are largely missing out.

Priests in the Old Testament

In Exodus 19, God called Israel a “kingdom of priests” (verse 6). Yet in that very same chapter, six verses later, God declared that whoever dared to touch even the mountain on which his presence had descended would be put to death (verse 12). Clearly: God is holy. At Sinai, Moses interceded for the people (although even Moses was not permitted to see God directly). Throughout the history of Israel, priests performed the ongoing role of intercessor between the holy Yahweh and the unholy Israelites. God set apart Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his descendants, to be Israel’s priests. To be a priest meant to be a full-time servant of the covenant, a mediator between the people and God. The author of Chronicles gives a summary of the priesthood:
Aaron was set apart to dedicate the most holy things, that he and his sons forever should make offerings before the LORD and minister to him and pronounce blessings in his name forever. 1 Chronicles 23:13

The priests had more of this one thing than anyone else in Israel: access to God’s presence. The law allowed them to enter further into the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) than anyone else. It set them up as the ones to whom Israel turned when they wanted to “inquire of the LORD.” The law considered them holy in a unique way. However, while the priests had access, that access was limited. Only the high priest, one day a year, could enter the “Most Holy Place” in the Tabernacle/Temple where the Ark of the Covenant resided, and to do so required even more sacrifices than usual: an entire bull just for the sins of high priest.

Leviticus 8 records the ordination of Aaron and his sons. I encourage you to read it. You’ll soon notice, it was very bloody. Moses must have been covered nearly head to foot in animal blood by the end of it. You’ll also notice the repetition of the word “consecrate.” Consecration meant setting apart someone or something specifically for God and his purposes.

If one were to summarize the Old Testament priesthood with two words, those might be it: bloody, and consecrated.

Priesthood under the New Covenant

The concept of a priesthood still exists in the New Testament – and it’s amazing.

Peter writes in 1 Peter 2: “As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” A few verses later, echoing back to that crucial passage in Exodus 19, he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

John calls us priests too: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6). He says we will praise Jesus forever because he ransomed us to be priests: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

Our lives our bloody and consecrated, too. This is who you are, Christian: set apart to be holy, to give blessings in the name of Jesus forever, to bring unholy people to God, covered from head to foot by the all-sufficient once-for-all sacrificial blood of Christ.

We offer sacrifices, too. Not dead sheep and goats, but living sacrifices of:

  • thanksgiving (Psalm 50:14)
  • broken and contrite spirits (Psalm 51:17)
  • prayer (Psalm 141:2)
  • our bodies (Romans 12:1)
  • gifts (Philippians 4:18)
  • praise (Hebrews 13:15)
  • doing good and sharing what we have (Hebrews 13:16)
  • love (Ephesians 5:2)
Jesus the High Priest

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:11-14

The book of Hebrews calls Jesus our “High Priest.” Christ himself fulfills everything the Old Testament priesthood foreshadowed: he is our mediator, the only one capable of bridging the holiness-gap between God and humans (1 Timothy 2:5); he is our intercessor, even now praying for us in the throne room of heaven (Romans 8:34); he himself is even the sacrifice for our sins. He is the priest, and he is the lamb on the altar.

It is for this reason that the curtain in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom, when Christ died. His torn body now opens access to all who will come; no more priests, no more sacrifices, no more warnings to stay away from the mountain are necessary. The invitation is for all who are far off to come and know God as your Father through the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The priestly blessing

In Numbers 6, God gave Aaron the high priest a special blessing to pronounce on all the Israelites for all generations. Here, then, your High Priest’s blessing on you today, believer:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-25

what it means to be a disciple

A disciple of Christ is one who intentionally and relentlessly pursues Christ. Disciples seek to know him more deeply, to love him more fully, and to witness to him more profoundly with their lives, every day. Disciples hold nothing back. They submit it all – time, money, plans, family, friends, talents, comforts, desires, needs, sickness, health, present, future, body, soul, everything – to the will of their Lord. He is the author and finisher of their faith. He is their “all in all.”

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Luke 14:25-35

Characteristics of disciples:

1. singular trust
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” John 14:1

Disciples do not trust in the vanity of this world. They do not trust the devil who accuses them, the world which tempts them, or their own flesh which lures them. They do not trust their own opinions, or their own interpretations of life. They do not trust their own righteousness or moral efforts. Their trust is in one place, and one place only: their Savior.

2. unattached to the world; wholly attached to Jesus
“…set apart for the gospel of God…” Romans 1:1

Disciples do not seek to gain the world, for their citizenship is already secure in heaven. They do not want what the world wants or fear what the world fears. To them, ambition, money, and worldly success only pale in comparison with the joy, peace, and satisfaction of knowing Christ.

3. sacrificial love
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

In order to love like Jesus, disciples give up their rights for the sake of others. They don’t insist on what they want, but humbly and quietly sacrifice their desires and needs so that other will benefit. They do this because of the way Jesus has loved them, giving up all his rights for their sake and taking up his cross for them.

4. a passion for the poor, oppressed, and lost
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14
Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus spent the great majority of his time on earth with sick people, societal outcasts, nobodies, and the poor. He preached about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, and he demanded that his followers give up everything they owned in order to follow him. Christ’s disciples compassionately and intentionally seek out the poor, the oppressed, and the lost in order to provide for their physical needs, love them, and tell them the gospel of Jesus, the “man familiar with suffering” who is nonetheless “making all things new.”

5. sharing the love of Christ and making other disciples; being “salt and light”
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

Disciples know that Jesus is in charge of the universe and their lives; they know he loves them and will never leave them. Therefore, they go. They go and they take his message with them.

 

Jesus warned us: count the cost. The road will not be easy. It will be marked with suffering and identified by sacrifice. It will require daily struggle, daily repentance, and daily surrender. But it will be the journey of a lifetime. It will conquer the universe.