You know how passionate I am about discipleship, and how concerned I am that we have had multiple generations now that have been on a steady diet of milk without ever really moving to meat. Sometimes that becomes apparent to me in the oddest of ways. Like today.
Yesterday we celebrated Christian communion. I spoke from Leviticus 16 about the Day of Atonement. I made essentially three points:
1. Atonement had to be made for all the people of Israel, including Aaron the High Priest. He was not perfect. He sinned and his personal sin had to be addressed before He could offer sacrifices for others. Moreover, the Levitical priests who offered sin offerings on behalf of others, they had to be cleansed, too. So did the Tent of Meeting itself, and the altar on which sacrifice was made, even the Holy of Holies. All had to be cleansed, because it was “among them in the midst of their uncleanness.”
I showed how this pictured the coming Messiah, who could offer Himself as a sacrifice of atonement, on His own merit, because He was the only one who was truly clean. I noted that the other sacrifices had to be offered continually because the blood of bulls and goats could never truly take away sin, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all because his sacrifice was actual, not symbolic.
2. The goat that was chosen to be sacrificed demonstrates God’s justice. We hear the word “priest” and we think of a nice man in a black suit with a clerical collar. He’s refined and benign and civilized. But in the OT, a priest butchered animals all day every day. It was bloody and gory and violent. When we consider all that gruesome bloodshed, we come to a better view of how God views sin with bitter hatred and wrath. And we come to some understanding that it is actually merciful for God to pour out that wrath and visit that justice upon an animal instead of on the humans who are really and truly guilty.
Again, I showed how this related to Christ. God poured out His wrath upon one who was truly innocent instead of pouring it out on the entire human race. I think this is the point of Rom. 3:23-26: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
God could not just wink at the monstrosity of sin still be just. He did not just ignore sin, He dealt with it. And He did so in a way that expresses the true vehemence which He feels toward sin. He turned His face away from His own Son. Jesus did more than die. He bore the righteous wrath of God against sin.
How beautifully Thomas Kelly captured that thought in these words from his hymn, “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted”:
Many hands were raised to wound him
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.
Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
3. Finally, I talked about the scapegoat. If the goat of sacrifice pictures God’s wrath against sin, this goat represents God’s compassion for sinners. The picture is so clear any child can see it. This goat symbolically carries the sins of the people of Israel out into the wilderness, and neither the goat nor the sins he bore would ever be seen or heard from again. Those sins were gone.
And so it is with Jesus. Having borne the justice of God in His death, we are forgiven for our sins. Not symbolically forgiven, but really and truly forgiven.
So why do I speak of pastoral heaviness? Because of the number of Christians, some who have been followers of Christ for many years and even many decades, came up to speak to me after the service. I know they meant well and intended to be encouraging about the sermon. But what they said was hard for me to hear: “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life.”
How can it be that Christians have not really considered Jesus’ vicarious atonement? That they’ve never been taught that His passion was foreshadowed in those Old Testament sacrifices, that He was our atoning sacrifice, that He was truly innocent, that He bore the awful hatred of God for sin, and that He forgives so fully and freely that our sins are carried into oblivion, never to be remembered?
I came away convicted. We have to do a better job. I have to do a better job. Pastors, God’s people need to grow up. And it begins with us.