Tag Archives: Sacrificial System

Historical Context, and the Growth of Understanding

For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:16-17 (NIV)

One of the most important things to remember when journeying through a 2,000 year-old letter is historical context. The author of Hebrews is writing to fellow Hebrews around the years 67-70 A.D. The temple in Jerusalem where Jesus taught and threw out the money changers is still in existence and the sacrificial system is operating full steam. Jews of that day would be well acquainted with the sacrificial practices, the importance of priesthood, and the political and religious power of the High Priest. Most Jews would have made pilgrimage to the temple at least once in their lives.

The author of Hebrews began their letter by saying they were going to address the question of “Who is Jesus?” Now they begin to fill in the answer. Jesus was Creator made fully human in order to become High Priest and make atonement for the people. The readers of the original letter were well aware that in the sacrificial system established in the Law of Moses. There was one High Priest, the only one permitted to enter the intimate “Holy of Holies” in the temple once a year to stand before God and make atonement for the sins of the nation. The high priest was the representative, the conduit who made sacrifice for the people, one for all.

The language of God is metaphor, and for first century Hebrews the word picture the author of the letter is making is powerful and clear. The system defined by the Law of Moses was a precursor, a waypoint, and a word picture pointing to what would be fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus and His resurrection. This was a huge paradigm shift in thought for the Hebrews of that day (Jesus’ followers included). The popular opinion was that Messiah would be a triumphant geo-political powerhead that lifted the Hebrew people to the top of the temporal, earthly food-chain. The author of Hebrews is beginning to unpack Messiah as cosmic high priest and sacrificial lamb who would lift any who believed to a right-relationship with God in God’s eternal Kingdom.

By the way, within a generation the writing of the Book of Hebrews the word pictures the author is making would forever lose some of the power they had with the original readers. Shortly after the writing of the letter the Roman Empire, in 70 A.D., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the genealogical  records essential to establishing who among them were Levites qualified to care for the temple and who among them were sons of Aaron qualified to be priests and make sacrifices. Despite a few abandoned attempts to reestablish the sacrificial system in other locations, the fullness of the sacrificial system established by Moses was essentially dead, and has remained so for 2000 years.

Old things pass away, new things come.”

This morning I’m thinking about perceptions and paradigms of thought about God. The Hebrews who read today’s words for the first time had their own experiences, beliefs, and preconceived notions. The truth is that I have my own. God’s Message describes the followers of Jesus ever growing and maturing in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of God. I’ve found the same to be true on my own life journey following Jesus. Who I perceived Jesus to be when I began this journey as a young teenager is different than perception today. My own understanding of, and my relationship with, Christ continues ever to grow, expand, and deepen.

That’s what living things do.

 

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 3

“All the fat belongs to God. This is the fixed rule down through the generations, wherever you happen to live: Don’t eat the fat; don’t eat the blood. None of it.”  Leviticus 3:16-17 (MSG)

Many years ago I had a traffic accident and suddenly found myself without a car for a short period of time. A compassionate neighbor offered to let me have one of his cars while mine was in the shop. It was a kind gesture, but I was rather surprised when he handed me the keys of his new luxury sedan. He had a couple of older vehicles he could have given me, but he gave me the best he had to give. I was humbled and grateful. I’ve never forgotten his extravagant generosity.

In acient days, when Leviticus was given as the law, the “fat” of an animal was considered the very best part. When setting up the sacrificial system, God clearly wanted to the people to cheerfully and freely give the best portion of a pure animal to God. While the sacrificial system is difficult for us to wrap our cultural minds around, the word pictures given within the system are just as relevant for us today.

When we give to God, when we give to others, are our hearts open to giving the best we have to give? Or, do we hoard the best for ourselves and parcel out what’s left if we’re forced to do so? It is really a litmus test which reaveals the condition of our hearts. Can we let go of the temporal, material things of this world, or are we clinging on to to things for dear life, and so revealing where we find our treasure?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and andreiz

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 1

“If the offering is a Whole-Burnt-Offering from the herd, present a male without a defect at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting that it may be accepted by God. Leviticus 1:3 (MSG)

My grandfather was a court bailiff and as a child I spent my spring break with him at the courthouse. I still remember the long bookshelves, stacked floor to ceiling with an important set of leather bound books entitled “Code of Iowa.” It was the “book of law” for the state of Iowa. Call it the rule book for our society. It prescribes the rules by which we live together and on which our judicial system judges those who break the rules.

Leviticus is not an inspirational book of song lyrics (like Psalms). It is not a devotional book of wise sayings (like Proverbs). It is not a biographical story (like Matthew). Leviticus is an ancient book of law. Like the Code of Iowa sitting on the county courthouse shelf, Leviticus is the “Code of (ancient) Israel.”

We also have to remember the time and historical circumstance in which the book of Leviticus was given. A couple of million Israelites had just left slavery in Egypt. An entire nation with their flocks and herds now found themselves wandering in the desert together. There was no system of government. There wasn’t an agreed upon set of rules. It was a law-less nomadic society; Imagine the entire population of the state of Iowa (complete with farmers taking their livestock) grabbing everything they could carry and making their way on foot toward Canada [Canadians will appreciate that I made them “the promised land” in this metaphor]. Leviticus was God’s attempt to provide some basic rules for life and worship to an ancient people whose daily life we can scarcely imagine in a time and culture very different from our own.

Besides being mindful of the historical context, there are two things I always try to keep in mind while wading through the Code of (ancient) Israel. First, the common link we have to that people is our sin nature. We all blow it and fall short of God’s holy perfection. The sacrificial system prescribed by Leviticus is an initial attempt in history to deal with the core spiritual problem: man is sinful, separated from God, and therefore stands condemned to die.

Second, God is a God of metaphor, so the Code of worship and conduct prescribed in Leviticus is going to provide word pictures and foreshadowing to the larger story God is authoring. For example, the first sacrificial offering prescribed is a “male without defect.” Picture Jesus, God’s own Son, a male without defect, dying on the cross. Two thousand years before Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross, God was trying to give people a word picture of the ultimate plan in the sacrifices He prescribed.

Today, I’m mindful of an epic story of grand design which is still being authored, of which I am a part. And, I’m thankful for a God of detail who has a master plan, even though my finite mind can’t completely comprehend it.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and rachael voorhees