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Follow up to “I Want Blood!”

About 10 days ago, I attempted to explain, in response to a reader’s question, why God needs a blood sacrifice, and why it had to be Jesus Christ. I also promised to consult with folks who’ve studied theology formally to get an ‘official’ perspective and follow up. I asked four pastors and a friend about the issue, all of whom I respect highly for their thoughtful responses as opposed to ‘party line’ autonomic responses. I have heard back from four of the five, two by email and two by conversation, and the summary is that all of us pretty much have the same understanding. Tonight, I will include the two written responses, edited for clarity.

My current pastor was the first to respond, hurriedly and briefly due to giving his kids a break in caring for a sick grandchild. His first thoughts are as follows:

1. The question of sacrifice is not a "difference maker" for God. By that I mean sacrifice does not change or make a difference in God, There is no need for him to sacrifice. It is a response of man to God as you have indicated in your house analogy. He did create (sole mover) all things but the point of the sacrifice is not God's need to sacrifice. It is man's need of redemption that creates the need for sacrifice. God created us as free, moral choosing beings, and it is our choice to respond to God appropriately, in this case sacrifice, not God's NEED to make a sacrifice.
2. Jesus was not sacrificed by God. Jesus CHOSE to endure the cross and crucifixion for our sins John 15: 12-17; John 19:8-11; John 1:1-5; Philippians 2:5-11  (just a few references) {RJW Note:  yes, Jesus is God, in the person of the Son, but was not ‘made’ to sacrifice Himself by God the Father. I know, I know, the whole Trinitarian idea of 3 Persons yet 1 Being is a tough one. For purposes of this discussion, think of the Trinity as 3 independent persons whose will is completely unified in inseparable purpose. Yeah, it’s still clear as mud. Let’s move on and see if things clear up as we move downstream.}
3. I am going to give you a web address below just for some reading. Like all things on the internet, I don't agree with everything in this response (even most things) but it is a good foundation on the background of the sacrificial system and the need for sacrifice.

I will try to get more from him this week. The second respondent was my pastor in another town, and a former engineer with a passion for thinking things through. He and I are a lot alike, though he would cringe at the idea! :P He says:

Before getting to the blood sacrifice itself, a couple of preliminary remarks:
(1) We must begin with God's character. If He is righteous, just, merciful, gracious, holy, etc., whatever he does must align with His character, or He is no more than the mythological pantheon of gods who are not consistent, and who are not perfectly righteous, etc. If His character is not perfect, it seems foolish to worship Him other than in fear of what He might do to us.
(2) We must understand the seriousness of sin. Sin is intentionally violating God's character (e.g., if we lie, we act contrary to His character of truthfulness). And, we must understand that we are fallen creatures to our core (i.e., we sin because we are sinners, not the other way around). We sin often and repeatedly.
(3) Now, because of God's character and our character, a "great gulf" exists. As Habakkuk cries out to God, "You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, And cannot look on wickedness... " (Hab. 1:13). God must do something about this gulf. He can
(1) ignore it, and consign us to our fate,
(2) ignore it, and pretend nothing really happened (essentially, universalism), or
(3) deal with it justly.
We know because of His character, he cannot choose either option (1) or (2)
(4) The next key issue is, how serious is the crime? Even if we ignore the death penalty in our culture, a person who murders once is usually sentenced to life imprisonment ("usually" allows for the limitations of our legal system). So, is the scope of the crime God must deal with greater than or less than a single murder? I would argue it is much greater because (a) we ultimately are replacing God with ourselves (idolatry) and (b) Jesus tells us that if we hate another, we've committed murder in our heart. So, I would argue, the crime is much greater, so it is reasonable, based on our own morals, to expect the penalty to be much higher. So,
(5) To satisfy His justice, the penalty for the sin must be paid. At the same time, God is gracious and merciful, so how can He act to perfectly satisfy all His attributes? The cross - Jesus endured the full brunt of our sin, thus the price has been paid. Because he is God, He alone could endure the high price. So, in His death, the price was fully paid legitimately. Because he was man, He legally represented mankind and could substitute Himself for us. His blood, ultimately, implies a life was given as penalty for the severe nature and penalty of the crimes (sin). But, in Jesus, the blood is not the end - the price was fully paid, but Jesus alone, as the sinless sin sacrifice, was raised from the dead. A life was paid because of God's justice, He was raised "for our justification", i.e., showing God's perfect graciousness.

All "blood sacrifices" prior to Jesus portray the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, but could not pay the required price because the sacrifice was not of a perfect being and was not of a legitimate substitute for man. The blood sacrifice symbolized, however, the high requirement God's justice demands for our sinfulness. The ones making the sacrifice realized (or should have!) that a life was required for life.

I hope this is of help to folks. If there is interest, as I hear more, I’ll share it. Like I mentioned above, the two with whom I discussed this in person shared similar thoughts.


Dominion vs Stewardship, Chapter 2

Yesterday, I talked about dominion and rule in Genesis 1. It is time to look at Genesis 2, Adam in the Garden.

According to my friend, there is some evidence in the Hebrew phraseology that indicates that Genesis 2 is not a retelling of Day 6, but a subsequent event on one of the following days. (That topic is too huge to even begin covering in a single blog post, because there are a lot of controversial implications. I’ll wait to go there until his book is finished and published, and tell you where you can read up on it then.)

What is interesting is that in Genesis 2, when God charges Adam with the maintenance of the Garden, He uses a very different word, shamar. It means to nurture, protect, guard and so on. This passage does convey the stewardship idea that contemporary Christians have associated with Genesis 1 and 2.

The fact that Genesis 1 and 2 use such very different terms for what appears to be the same task, is actually evidence for my friend’s case that they are in fact, different events. In Genesis 1, God creates a wild Creation in need of conquering, taming and ruling by humans (‘pre-historic hominids”?) (‘adam’ in Hebrew). In Genesis 2, He creates a lush, pastoral garden in which to put the first fully modern human couple (‘Adam’ and Eve), where He can begin to build a relationship with them. Thus, His focus is different, so they are in a different environment, a pre-tamed one.

Why the difference? I am completely speculating here. Perhaps, in giving the first humans capable of spiritual responsibility the best opportunity in which to get to know Him and choose whether to love Him or not, a pleasant Garden was more conducive to that than the harsh world:  God’s Garden in which to nurture His people.

Once they chose their own sovereignty over His even when the deck was stacked towards making the best choice, then the consequence was expulsion back into the kabash, radah world from which they had been pulled/spared. Because God gave them every reason to choose Him and they didn’t, it is consistent with God’s desire in Scripture to give all some clear opportunity to make a conscious choice to follow Him so that if we choose not to, we will have no excuse.

While this scenario is speculation on my part, it seems to be consistent with what I understand of the Hebrew in Genesis 1-3, and the English translations. It isn’t the typical interpretation, so I am interested in thoughts from those who have studied the passage with more expertise and scholarship than I.

What are the implications for us today? I see several. First, it is a reminder that by only knowing the Scriptures in our tongues, we lose some of the richness of the original, having to depend on the translators to convey the original meaning properly through the evolutions of both Hebrew/Greek and the translated tongues.

Second, given that God gave us both the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, they must both be correct, so inconsistencies must rest with our interpretations of either or both books.

Therefore, third, it is exceedingly wise to maintain humility about our understanding of theology and science, both, which implies that we should do a lot of listening to others’ interpretations and the whys of their interpretations before either subscribing or opposing them, or, refining them.

Fourth, we need to major on the majors and minor on the minors. If we are too wrapped up in our pet interpretations, and they are shown to be wrong, will that damage our faith or enrich it? Which do we want more—to be right or to know the Living God? That answer will reveal a lot about our teachability.

A final take home for me is that though I have read Genesis 1-3 many times, there is still much I have no clue I’m even missing. We simply do not realize how subconsciously we read our interpretation into the text and it blinds us to what God may really be saying. It isn’t until we hear someone give a different perspective that it even occurs to us that there might be a different one, regardless of whether it is wrong or right or somewhere in between.

This principle of humility in one’s interpretation is illustrated in II Peter 1:20-21: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Does this mean we must be tentative and self-conscious when discussing the Bible? No! There is a difference between arrogance and confidence, between timidity and humility. Again, we turn to Peter, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” I Peter 3:15-16

I look forward to learning more and more to know Him ever better. In that spirit, feel free to offer your insights, with gentleness and respect,…and the reasons behind them!


Dominion versus Stewardship

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”                                  Genesis 1:27-28

I, and many contemporary Christians have interpreted the ‘dominion passage’ as to basically refer to the idea of good stewardship, that the harsh ruling connotation of the words was just that, modern connotations of a more pastoral intention by God.

A Christian colleague of mine in the biological sciences has been studying the original Hebrew of Genesis, in preparation for a book he’s writing. He presented some of his thoughts to our faculty group recently. I learned from him that in fact, the original Hebrew is correctly translated, connotations and all.

According to him, the word for subdue is kabash. Yes, in the sense of putting the kabash on an idea. It does mean subdue as in putting down an enemy or a rebellion. This has an even more profound implication:  that Creation is harsh and an enemy in need of being subdued. But wait, it gets better—God declares that this harsh, untamed Creation is good, and that humanity’s charge to tame it is very good!

This awareness of the Hebrew has rocked my image of God. If you’ve read this blog for very long, I have often commented that our definitions of the words ‘goodness,’ ‘holiness,’ and ‘righteousness’ are far too tame. Yet here again is another indication that God is no mere benevolent grandfather in the sky, but something far wilder, far more…, well more, than we can possibly imagine. He is no urbane metrosexual, but a living Being of Power, who demands we conform to His image, refusing to conform to ours, even delighting in shattering our views of Him because they are too small.

Then the word for rule (‘rule over the fish in the sea…”) is radah. This means to rule as a king. It has a royal connotation to it. In order to interpret it properly, we need to look at what God demanded of kings. Look up all of Psalm 72 on your own (homework), but here are the first seven verses:

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
   the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
   your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
   the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
   and save the children of the needy;
   may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure as long as the sun,
   as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
   like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
   and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

If this is indeed the kind of behaviour God expects from a king, then radah in Genesis 1:28 does convey the idea of lifting up, taming for better use, almost in the sense of bringing out the perfect gem hidden in the rough stone. Therefore, taken together, God’s commands for us to kabash and radah the Creation form a vastly richer picture of what our work on Earth is meant to be. It is no mere idyllic scene, neither is it merely survival of the fittest, but a great work, with meaning, purpose and reward.

{For a more thorough article on the Hebrew words, read this.}

As Christians, we need to stop making apologies for God as if He’s some quirky or misunderstood uncle. We need to understand what He says about Himself and get to know Him, proclaiming rightly all of His character. He says that He will offend people, that they will stumble over Him, and consequently set themselves over against Him.

But how can we give them the opportunity to make that choice in an informed manner if we ourselves don’t know Him? He is not a tame God. He commanded us to tame nature, and that He would tame us. Yet, instead we often try to have nature tame us (i.e. radical environmentalism) and then we try to tame God. That is the heart of paganism.



Today, spend the time you normally would reading today’s post on praying for the Middle East and the entire Moslem world.


Discovery, Awe, and Humility

Today was the final liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery, STS 133. It was an extraordinary and profound event for me in a couple of ways. First, it was truly awesome to witness so much power under complete control, doing exactly what was expected. It was amazing to have a human made device that went from sitting completely still in Florida to being over 100 miles up and over the Indian Ocean less than an hour later. Watching such a complicated machine with so much demonstrated explosive capability safely carry fellow humans completely off of our planet so quickly…there just aren’t words for it. We have so overused superlatives in daily language that we now have no way to express a superlative experience. C.S. Lewis commented on this 50 years ago when he said, “Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

The second profound aspect of watching this launch was doing so
     on my laptop
sitting at my desk
at work
500 miles away
with a Dr Pepper in my hand,
seeing the camera’s perspective as it sat on the external tank between it and the shuttle,
looking back at the receding Florida coastline,
then the curvature of the planet,
then the blackness of space
with the unfiltered brightness of the star fueling our solar system,
watching from less than 20 feet away as the solid rocket boosters fell off,
and finally as the shuttle itself disengaged and proceeded on to its mission.

As I watched and marveled, I wondered in prayer what God feels when He watches us do these things. Does He share in our joy, in our healthy pride? Does He feel like a proud parent watching His children taking such a big step in exploring a new part of His Creation?

I believe to some extent He does. Yet, He who sees the end from the beginning also sees more. I felt in the place of the disciples, and for the first time, truly understood where they were coming from in the following passage from Mark 13:1-2 (and repeated in Matthew 24 and Luke 21):

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Why am I trying to be a downer? I’m not. There are definitely thoughts generated that leave me to grieve that our greatest achievements are so ephemeral. I balk at Solomon’s declaration that ‘all is vanity,’ when applied to this context. But it simply is the truth.

I believe we can be proud of our accomplishments and simultaneously believe that we should be humble about them. As much as Jesus was giving a message about the upcoming Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the larger picture of end times, I think He was also reminding us that our greatest achievements (and He does call the Temple great) are like a toddler’s first painting posted on the refrigerator—significant for what it symbolizes, but frankly unimpressive.

What encourages and excites me is, if this is one of our first scribblings, what does God have in store for us later to achieve in Glory?