Far As the Curse Is Found
- Thursday, December 24, 2009
The Jews' ultimate hope was the same hope that is given to us in the New Testament, the final eschatological hope of the beatific vision: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). Don't you want to see him? The hardest thing about being a Christian is serving a God you have never seen, which is why the Jew asked for that.
There is a scene in the movie Ben Hur where Ben has been reduced to slavery and is being dragged behind his captor. They finally come to a well in the midst of the desert. Ben's lips are parched and he is overcome with thirst. All of a sudden we see someone come out of the shadows, and he stoops over and gives Ben a cup of cold water. The camera is positioned to reflect Ben Hur's vision. As he looks up into the face of the one giving him the water, Ben's face begins to shine. The viewer doesn't have to be told who gave him the drink of water; it is understood that the Lord Jesus made his face to shine upon this slave.
But my purpose here is not to explain the blessing of God but its polar opposite, its antithesis, which again can be seen in vivid contrast to the benediction. The supreme malediction would read something like this: "May the Lord curse you and abandon you. May the Lord keep you in darkness and give you only judgment without grace. May the Lord turn his back upon you and remove his peace from you forever."
The Core of the Gospel
There are several animals involved in the ritual performed on the Day of Atonement. Before the high priest can enter into the Most Holy Place (which he alone can do only one day each year), he must make a blood sacrifice and go through an elaborate process of purification. There are two more animals involved, one that is killed and another that survives. The one that is killed yields blood, which the high priest takes into the inner sanctum and sprinkles on the mercy seat to bring reconciliation. Yet, in this drama there is no power in that blood other than its pointing forward to the blood of the Lamb, even as the blood on the doorposts on the night of Passover pointed beyond itself to Christ.
We know two things from the Day of Atonement. First, that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. We also learn from the author of Hebrews that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. But in the drama of the blood sacrifice that is sprinkled on the mercy seat, an act of propitiation is symbolized, which some brilliant translators in the middle of the twentieth century decided to take out of the New Testament, to their everlasting shame.
Those are two words at the core of the gospel—propitiation and expiation. They have the same root but different prefixes. People must understand propitiation and expiation if they are going to understand the gospel. I use the structure of my church, St. Andrew's, as an illustration. The church is built in a classical style called the cruciform. If it is viewed from the air, the shape of our building forms a cross. Those who walk down the center aisle are reminded of the vertical piece of the cross. I tell my congregation to let it remind them of propitiation. In propitiation the Son does something to satisfy the justice and the wrath of the Father. It is a vertical translation, which was prefigured in the sacrifice made on the mercy seat.
Let's not forget the other animal that liberal theologians try every which way to erase from the biblical record. I'm speaking of the goat, the scapegoat, which became the object of imputation when the priest lay his hands on the back of the animal, symbolically indicating the transfer of the guilt of the people to the back of the goat. Afterward the goat was driven into the wilderness, outside the camp. In the middle of the camp, equidistant to every settlement of every tribe, was the tabernacle, which indicated that God was in the midst of his people. So to be driven out of camp, outside the covenant community, was to be driven to the place where the blessings of God did not reach. That's what Christ did for us in expiation.
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