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

the jealous God

You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” wrote Solomon, speaking of the human sin of covetousness, the “green-eyed monster” (Proverbs 27:4). Such is the jealousy that contributes to such a large percentage of murders each year – literally as well as in the sense of heart-level murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Jealousy-fueled hatred is ugly, obsessive, and alienating. And it is absurdly proud.

Yet, God tells Moses in Exodus 34 that his very name is “Jealous.” Throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible, God says the reason he hates idolatry is because he is a jealous God (e.g. Deut 4:23-24, Ezek 8:3-5, 1 Cor 10:21-22). God’s jealousy is worlds different from our self-obsessed covetousness. The jealousy of God is a holy zeal to establish and protect the love-relationship between himself and his people. It is analogous to the jealousy of a wife for the husband she loves, which adultery so deeply and penetratingly wounds. A marriage which adultery does not affect is a sham, and loveless.

The companion of God’s jealousy is not hatred, but love, a love that is righteous and relentless. If you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice that the biblical God is intensely concerned, and intimately involved, with the lives of the humans he has made. He cares; about our lives, our suffering, our actions (whether good or evil), and most fundamentally, how our hearts are related to himself. He sends plagues, he parts seas, he creates nations, he destroys nations, he decrees laws about what animals to eat and what clothes to wear, he rains down fire, he rescues the poor from their oppressors, he whispers in the storm, because he is a jealous God.

The fact that he knows, and passionately cares about, the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts is, on the one hand, terrifying. He knows as no one else does the darkest corners of my depravity. He sees how much I love to hate, how little I love to trust him, how little I thank him. He sees my excuses. He sees the ridiculous struggle I go through to carry out even the most insignificant acts of selflessness, the struggle to which all others are blind. He knows, and he cares, and he hates my sin with ferocity. The hatred I am learning to feel toward my sin pales in comparison to the reaction of his holy nature against it. He is a jealous God, jealous for his own glory, jealous for my worship. My spiritual adultery against my Creator is uglier than the wickedest affair, the most flagrant betrayal. (If you want to know what it’s like, see, for example, Ezekiel 16.)

God’s jealousy scares me, because I know how far short I fall. It also makes me cry, and sing, and hardly know what to do with myself, when I think of how he loves me. God is jealous for me. God is the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15, running out to me, embracing me, kissing me, hardly able to express his joy at having me home. He is the prostitute’s husband in Hosea 2, romancing me all over again, betrothing me to himself in tenderness, in love determined to win me back. He is, most of all, the man on the cross, dying in torment, declaring in paradoxical victory, “It is finished.” My sin, atoned; my debt, paid in full; my inheritance, secured forever.

He is a jealous God. He is jealous for his glory, tolerating no rivals, going to every length imaginable to protect the relationship between himself and his creation, avenging himself in justice when that relationship is violated. He is jealous for you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, for “he yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5 ESV). He wants you to be close to him, to experience his mercy, to be who you are and who you are meant to be by living in a right relationship to him by faith.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

The counterpart of God’s jealousy in us is zeal: zeal for God’s glory, passion to show his love to other people. Paul had it – see above. Jesus never lived a moment without it – his disciples recognized the scripture “zeal for your house will consume me” as describing him perfectly (John 2:17). He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). If any of us understands God’s jealousy in any sense whatever, zeal for him simply becomes the appropriate response. Lukewarm people, lukewarm churches, respectable though they may be, are inadequate for a God like this one. He is too amazing, his gospel too good, to be an afterthought, or anything other than the goal and glory of our lives.

album review: “The Water and the Blood” by Sojourn

This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 1 John 5:6

I, and many I know, have an ambivalent relationship with contemporary Christian music. As a musician, I often feel frustrated with the boring music and thoughtless lyrics of “Christian pop/rock.” Amateur musicianship, coupled with the undefinable quest to be relevant, leaves much of it unattractive and unmoving for me. I do, however, occasionally find reason to get excited about Christian music: most often it’s because of the growing movement of musicians who combine centuries-old hymn lyrics with accessible modern music. And it usually comes with some soul.

This week I found such a reason to get excited. “The Water and the Blood,” produced by Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is the second of two albums based on the hymns of prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts (e.g. “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed”).

The musicians of Sojourn took the lyrics of Watts’ hymns (with some liberties) and put them to the music of twelve original songs. The music is indie folk-rock with a big dose of soul, sung by male and female vocalists with voices reminiscent of singers such as Amos Lee and Adele. It is full of terrific harmonies and is instrumentally balanced; I especially appreciated the tasteful guitar licks which occasionally rise to the surface. Overall, it feels like live music. The artists of Sojourn thankfully avoided slick overproduction, and its authentic sound makes the album.

The album is worshipful, personal, and theological. Much of its lyrics come right out of scripture, especially the psalms. They express childlike wonder at the atonement of Jesus’ blood for sin and at God’s faithful nearness. Sometimes they touch on topics not usually heard in popular Christian music: track 11, for example, is almost certainly the only song I’ve heard based on Romans 7:9, and it’s one of my favorites on the album.

You can buy the album here . I downloaded the entire thing for only $6.

The track listing is:

1. Absent From Flesh
2. The Water and the Blood
3. From Deep Distress
4. Compel My Heart To Sing
5. Let the Seventh Angel Sounds
6. Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past
7. Deep In Our Hearts
8. Blest Be The Lamb
9. Death Has Lost Its Sting
10. Early, My God
11. Let Your Blood Plead For Me
12. The World Will Know

Worshiping God with songs of good music and thoughtful poetry is a beautiful and appropriate element of the Christian life, made even sweeter when we join our voices with the generations of saints who have come before us.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Psalm 146:2

compartmentalizing God

In my personal devotions, I am currently in the Old Testament book of Hosea. It’s one of my favorites. I love it because in it, God is so passionate about capturing his people’s hearts. He addresses Israel as a wounded husband whose wife plays the part of a whore by chasing after other “lovers” – i.e., other gods and the things of this world. He does everything he can – pleads, promises, threatens, woos, thunders, mourns – to get Israel’s attention back on him. The God of Hosea, and of the whole Bible, never submits to being put in a box, never resigns himself to the sidelines, never rests content as one among many (whether among ancient pagan deities or the equally idolatrous modern equivalents of comfort, doing what we want with “our” time, other people’s respect, etc.). And do we really believe that he should?

We “compartmentalize” God all the time. For me, it often goes something like this: “God is relevant to what I pray about and to what happens after I die, but not to how I spend or save my money. Or to how I treat my parents. Or to my attitude when I get up in the morning. Or to how I drive, what standard of living I live at, my choice of college major, or…” On and on. Fill in the blanks for yourself.

The lie we believe is that we can create a “religion” compartment in our lives, into which God fits quite nicely, and call it satisfactory. We try to “fit” God into our lives instead of fitting our lives into him. The assumptions behind this compartmentalizing attitude can be basically summed up with the title of a J. B. Phillips book I read last year: “Your God Is Too Small.”

Phillips discusses some of the “too small gods” that Christians attempt to worship, such as: the resident policeman; the parental hangover; the grand old man; the meek-and-mild; the managing director; the pale Galilean; the impersonal force. Sometimes God’s holiness gets minimized, leaving him as a friendly, cosmic grandfather-type who just wants people to be happy. Other times his grace is ignored and he becomes something like the cosmic projection of an impossible-to-please, emotionally distant human father. In every way these conceptions of God are lies. The holy, infinite, active, personal, Lover-God of the Bible does not resemble them at all.

God is “above the earth and heavens;” he is “over all the nations” (Psalm 113:4, 99:2, 148:13, and many more). He is beyond the vastest expanses of the universe. He is the king of and provider for every creature that has ever walked, crawled, swum, grown, or breathed on the earth. He knows the full personalities of all people, and he understands every facet of who they, and you, are. His glory is inexpressible and his character is irrepressible. He is a consuming fire, a thundering lightning storm, brighter than the brightest star, deeper than the deepest ocean; he exhausts every metaphor. How else can we respond to him but to join with the psalmist in saying, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4)?

Stop limiting God, and thereby limiting your life with him. Refuse to believe the lies of American culture and your own biased take on things, both of which are so often based on inaccurate, unquestioned assumptions. Look up quietly at the stars on a dark night, embrace your own smallness, and begin to understand the greatness of our God. His creation, his word, and his Son declare him to be so big, so glorious, so much more solid and powerful than us, that the only thing for it is to bow down in worship.

The Israelites in Hosea’s day viewed Yahweh, the true God, as just another deity among many, who, like all the others, would be easily appeased with the religified offering of some dead animals (cf. Psalm 50). We too expect God to be appeased with a nice show of religion, an average-type level of commitment, a half-hearted spiritual life. Thank God we are saved by none of these things, but only by the cross of Jesus; thank him that because of the cross he does not hold our complacency against us. With him, there is inexhaustible forgiveness! Really, truly, God is good.

Do you understand that he demands total allegiance in all things and in every way? He is a “jealous God.” He loves you as a husband loves his wife, yet so much more than any man has ever loved a woman. He loves you as a father loves his firstborn son, yet so much more than any parent has ever loved their child. He is the great Lover, the eternal Giver. His passion concerning you is that he himself will be your beloved, your sole refuge and greatest joy, your closest friend, your one and only. He wants deep, uncompromised intimacy with you. What was the purpose for which he bought us back with his blood? To “dwell among us.” To be, he himself, our God. How breathtaking – we are so foolish and blind to settle for anything less than all of himself.

Allow God to begin breaking out of the compartments you put him into, and witness the changes in how you live. Cling to the cross as your only hope for bringing you close to this God “above the universe,” as your sole salvation, as your greatest proof of the never-running-out love of God. Live in awe, for our God is great; live with confidence, for our God is good.

Who among the gods is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders? Exodus 15:11

For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. Isaiah 54:5

But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:4

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. Revelation 21:3