Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Levitical Sacrifices

For several years, I have followed a plan to read through the Bible in a year by reading a few chapters from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament each day. The Old Testament readings start off with a bang, opening with well-known and exciting accounts of the creation, the flood, the journeys of the patriarchs, Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, and the exodus from Egypt. However, about halfway through the book of Exodus, the focus shifts to describing the tabernacle, the priestly garments, and the Levitical sacrificial system. I must confess that when I reach this point in the reading plan, I have to mentally gird myself to focus on the upcoming passages and I am tempted to skip them altogether. However, I am reminded that the Bible was not written for our entertainment, it was written for our edification. I hope that the next few posts, which will focus on elements of the Levitical sacrificial system, will bring new life and insight to portions of the Bible that may be considered boring and irrelevant, because these chapters clearly point to the future work and ministry of Jesus.

Imagine if the Levitical system had not been established and implemented for centuries prior to Christ’s arrival on Earth. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). What sense would this make if the Levitical sacrificial system had not been a central focus of Jewish culture and thought? Much of the book of Hebrews would lose its rich meaning if it were uprooted from the context of the Jewish understanding of the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple, and the priestly duties. We cannot fully understand the message of the New Testament and the gospel without understanding the sacrificial and ceremonial systems that were instituted in the Old Testament.         

With that in mind, in this post we will examine the five sacrifices described in the book of Leviticus to reflect on how they foreshadow the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In doing so, we will encounter another principle of seeking Jesus in the Old Testament. The systems that we find in the Old Testament are shadows of the things to come, which also fall short of accomplishing what Jesus would fulfill in his life, death, and resurrection.

The Burnt Offering (Leviticus 1, 6:8-13)

The burnt offering introduces a concept that is important in the Levitical system, that the offering must be without defect or blemish. In the same way, we are redeemed through “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.” (1 Peter 1:19). It was engrained in the Jewish mindset that a spotless sacrifice was needed to atone for the transgressions of blemished sinners.

Whether bringing a bull, sheep, or goat, the person who was making the sacrifice and was to receive atonement was the one who was required to kill the offering. In a prayer recorded in the book of Acts, the early church prayed, “In this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28). What God’s plan had predestined to take place was that the Messiah would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), an act that was carried out by both Jew and Gentile, a New Testament manner of referring to all of humanity. Since both Jews and Gentiles bore some measure of responsibility in Jesus’ death, both Jew and Gentile also benefit from the atonement that is available through his sacrifice. That is not to preach universalism, but simply to say that forgiveness of sins is available to the whole world through the cross: “But now in Christ you who were once were far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

A unique characteristic of the burnt offering is that the entire animal was offered on the bronze altar as a sweet smelling aroma to God, with the fragrant smoke ascending to symbolically represent peace or reconciliation between God and the person who brought the offering. In the same way, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, [as] a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2).

The Grain Offering (Leviticus 2, 6:14-23)

The grain offering was a free will offering that was not required as atonement for sin, but often followed the burnt offering and was voluntarily given to worship God and acknowledge his provision. If the grain offering was a loaf of bread, it could not contain yeast or other leavening agents. In the New Testament, leaven is associated with sin, hypocrisy, and pride. The Apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to stop boasting and to not be filled with “the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8). The humble nature of unleavened bread is symbolically fulfilled in Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

An offering of fine flour or crushed grain was to be anointed with oil and frankincense (Leviticus 2:1, 15). Likewise, shortly before his death, a woman pour nard over Jesus’ head, anointing him with aromatic oil. Although some questioned the waste of such an expensive perfume, Jesus defended her actions and said, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:8). Additionally, Jesus famously received a gift of frankincense from the wise men that visited sometime after his birth (Matthew 2:11).

Some might anticipate a connection to Jesus’ declaration that “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), however, in context it is clear that the real connection in this passage is to the manna that God sent down from heaven to sustain the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Similarly, while Jesus instituted the Last Supper, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19). While this could connect to the grain offering, the context more clearly links it to the symbolism of Passover. That fact that both these allusions to Jesus’ body as bread more strongly tie back to two other separate events in the Old Testament only strengthens my claim that Jesus can be found all over the Hebrew scriptures. 

The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3, 7:11-21)

As part of the fellowship offering, the priests sprinkled blood from the sacrifice on the sides of the altar. This was a visual sign of peace between God and the person making the fellowship offering. The book of Hebrews emphasizes the principle that was mentioned in the opening – the types and foreshadowings of Christ fall short of their future fulfillment. The author of Hebrews explains how the sprinkling of the blood of Christ has purchased a lasting peace and fellowship with God that far surpasses that which was sought through the fellowship offering. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4 – 5:13, 6:24-30)

We now transition from free-will offerings that were voluntarily given as signs of fellowship and worship of God to obligatory offerings that were required to atone for the transgressions of both individuals and the larger community. God revealed himself to Moses as “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7). How can God both forgive sin and not clear the guilty? In the sacrificial system, guilt was symbolically transferred from either the individual sinner or the entire Israelite community to the animal sacrifice. In this way, a just and holy God could both forgive sinners and rightfully punish sin.

The gospel follows the same logic. Though “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Christ was put forth as a sacrifice for sin “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” and “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26). In other words, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the sin offering, allowing God to be who he claims to be – one who is both merciful in forgiving sin and just in not allowing sin to go unpunished.

The sin offering could be made for individuals who committed specific sins or to atone for the entire community, however, it could not be offered for intentional sins. More on that in a moment. Whether an individual was making a sin offering for their own transgressions or whether a priest was making the sin offering on behalf of the community, they must lay their hand on the head of the sacrifice, symbolically transferring the sins onto the animal. In a similar manner, “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin (Christ), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Although the blood of the sin offering was to be brought into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or temple to make atonement, the rest of the sacrifice must be taken outside the camp and completely burned (Leviticus 4:12, 6:11, 16:27). The author of Hebrews saw a clear connection to Jesus, who “also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” (Hebrews 13:12).

In the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched the blood of a person would become unclean. Interestingly, if a person touched the flesh of the sin offering, they would be considered holy (Leviticus 6:27). The good news of the gospel declares that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) How does God cleanse us from sin? A couple sentences earlier, John explains, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). When we touch the ultimate sin offering of God, we are also considered holy in his sight.

The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14-19, 7:1-10)

The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, but could only be offered for individuals and also required not only an offering to atone for the specific transgression, but restitution to fix the situation created by the sinful act (Leviticus 5:16). Jesus came not only to forgive us of our sins, but ultimately to redeem a fallen, sinful world. Humanity’s sin has not only created separation with our creator, but has also subjected the entire creation to the negative consequences that occur when people ultimately live for themselves. Yet, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). The guilt offering of Christ not only deals with our sin, but also redeems the consequences of our sin.

In a messianic prophecy, Isaiah announces that the LORD will make the life of the anticipated suffering servant to be a “guilt offering.” (Isaiah 53:10). The Hebrew word used in this passage, “asam”, is the same word used for guilt offering in Leviticus. However, a unique aspect of the guilt offering predicted by Isaiah is that it would not just be for an individual, but “the LORD [would] lay on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) and that the blood of this sacrifice would “sprinkle many nations.” (Isaiah 52:15). Once again, the ultimate fulfillment in Christ would far surpass the shadow revealed in the Old Testament.

What About Intentional Sins?

Let’s close by returning to the idea that the sin and guilt offering could not cover intentional sins. While there is debate about what falls into this category of sins, they likely refer to premeditated sinful actions, such as when King David deliberately sent Uriah to be slaughtered in the front lines of his army to create an opportunity to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, and create a cover for the child she was expecting as a result of their affair. In a song of lament written in the grief of confronting his grievous sins, David wrote, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). God did not despise David’s contrite heart and the prophet Nathan assured David that “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Samuel 12:13). However, ultimately David’s sin had not yet been atoned for and the Levitical sacrifices did not have provisions to deal with his transgression. God had shown forbearance in forgiving sin, but a better sacrifice would be needed to “show God’s righteousness.” (Romans 3:25).

While the Levitical sacrifices provided a temporary system to have fellowship with a holy God and to atone for certain categories of sin, they also pointed to the need for a better sacrifice. A sacrifice was needed that would not be required year after year but could be offered once for all. A sacrifice was needed that could atone for even the worst of our sins. Such a sacrifice could only be fulfilled by the spotless Lamb of God.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Psalm 22

Let’s play a little game. I’ll write just a few words from a biblical passage and see if you can finish the rest of the verse.

“In the beginning God…”

“For God so love the world…”

“The Lord is my shepherd…”

My guess is that most Christians would be able to finish these famous verses. For some, it probably loads the larger context and meaning of the rest of the chapter. We are used to referring to biblical passages by chapter and verse number, but we need to remember that those are not original to the text and were added later to make it easier to communicate about specific passages. In first century Palestine, when a person wanted to refer to a section of scripture, they would not use chapter and verse designations, but would use a method similar to the one I just illustrated by saying the first phrase or sentence of that passage. Someone might say, “You know, in the ‘In the beginning God’ passage” to refer to the first chapter of Genesis.

Therefore, when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is doing more than expressing the separation from the Father that he experienced while enduring God’s just wrath for the sin of mankind. He was also directing the observers to the words of King David in Psalm 22. Those who heard his words would have immediately loaded the rest of the psalm in their minds. It was as if Jesus was saying, “At this moment, Psalm 22 is being fulfilled.”

The idea that Psalm 22 is a prophetic illustration of the suffering of the Messiah is not a Christian idea that was concocted to highjack Jewish scriptures. The famous Jewish Midrash Pesikta Rabbati of the 8th century explains, “It was because of the ordeal of the son of David (i.e. the Messiah) that David wept, saying: ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.’” Additionally, if one surveys the life and death of David, there is nothing that even remotely fits the events described in Psalm 22. It must be referring to someone else. A straight-forward reading of the text points to one person in history: Jesus of Nazareth.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 1)

The initial words of the Psalm not only reference the passage for listeners, but they also carry important theological significance. Jesus was not forsaken by the Father in the sense of forfeiting the favor and love of the Father. He never laid down his identity as the beloved Son of God, yet he did experience a time of abandonment and desolation as the full weight of God’s wrath was poured out on the sins of the world. Jesus’ cry of agony meshes perfectly with Isaiah 53, where we read, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Jesus’ experience of being forsaken on the cross, should direct our attention to the seriousness of our sin and the depth of God’s love that he would give his only Son to bear it on our behalf.

“I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (v. 6)

Although the Hebrew word “rimmah” is often used to describe a worm or maggot in the Old Testament, the word selected in this verse is “tola’ath”, which specifically refers to the “crimson worm” or “scarlet worm.” This insect is important in the region and was used to make a natural red dye. The life cycle of the worm is particularly interesting.

When it comes time to reproduce, the female tola’ath firmly attaches herself to a tree by surrounding her body with a hard, crimson shell where she will lay her eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the body of the mother, emerging from the shell in a few days after becoming permanently stained red by a dye that oozes from the dying mother. However, after three days, the dead mother’s body loses its crimson color and the empty shell turns into a white, flaky wax. To summarize, a mother tola’ath worm hangs on a tree to offer its body as a sacrifice for her children, who must eat her flesh and are permanently marked by her blood, but three days later the tomb where her bloody body lay is empty and turns to pure white. Does that sound familiar?

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13). Jesus told the crowds that followed him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56). We are made free from guilt and can come near to God with a sincere heart because we have been “sprinkled with the blood of Christ.” (Hebrews 10:22). And, of course, we know that “[Jesus] was buried [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:4). Indeed, Jesus is our tola’ath worm.

I almost feel like I could end with a mic drop here, but there is so much more.

“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v. 7-8)

The ordeal described in this psalm is clearly a public humiliation of some kind, such as crucifixion, which was designed to be a public warning against provoking the ire of the Roman empire. Not only did Jesus suffer publicly, but he also endured the scorn of the people in almost identical fashion to the derision described in Psalm 22. In the gospel of Matthew, we read, “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ And the robbers were with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:41-44).

“Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their moths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” (v. 12)

Bashan was a territory east of the Jordan River that was known for its fertile pastureland and bulls renowned for their size, strength and fierceness. During the crucifixion, Jesus was encircled by both the religious power of the scribes, pharisees, and chief priests and the military might of the Roman ruling authorities and soldiers.

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (v. 14)

In the next section of the psalm, the imagery used will seem to clearly describe crucifixion. However, one must remember that David lived 1000 years before Christ and crucifixion was invented by the Persians in the 6th century B.C. The accuracy with which David seems to describe crucifixion gives prophetic validity to the psalm that I think is difficult to dismiss.

As Jesus hung upon the cross, the strain on the wrists, arms, and shoulders would have resulted in the dislocation of the elbow and shoulder joints. During the ordeal, he experienced extreme thirst and dehydration as body fluids were diverted to try to make up for heavy blood loss. As the end neared, Jesus said, “I thirst” so “they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.” (John 19:28). Since the crucifixion occurred on the day before the Sabbath, the day of preparation, the Jews requested that the Roman soldiers break Jesus’ legs and the legs of the criminals who were crucified one either side. Doing so would prevent the crucifixion victims from holding themselves up, which would quickly lead to suffocation and death. However, seeing that Jesus was already dead, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:34). Modern medicine supports this eye-witness detail. As Jesus’ heart beat faster to circulate available oxygen, capillaries would have begun to leak watery fluid from the blood, resulting in a build up of fluid around the heart and lungs. This was the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side.

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.” (v. 16)

Keep in mind that this psalm was written four centuries before crucifixion was even invented, yet King David seems to perfectly describe this method of execution when it says, “they have pierced my hands and feet.” It is no surprise that this particular verse is questioned by Jewish counter-missionaries. Rabbi Tovia Singer claims that the correct translation is “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet” and that “The King James version (of the Bible) deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word kaari as ‘pierced,’ rather than ‘like a lion,’ thereby drawing the reader to a false conclusion that this Psalm is describing the Crucifixion.”

Let’s suppose for a minute that Rabbi Singer is correct and the verse should be translated as “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.” What would hands and feet look like after being ravaged by a lion? Probably pretty similar to how they would look after having a metal spike driven through them.

We don’t need to rest on this reasoning, though, because Rabbi Singer’s accusation is incorrect. He is relying on the Masoretic texts, which were written between the 6th and 10th century AD. However, the Masoretic texts are not the oldest manuscripts of Psalm 22. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written two hundred years before Jesus’ birth have only one letter different in the passage in question, but it changes the meaning to “They have mined (bore a hole) my hands and feet.” Additionally, the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was also written before Jesus’ birth, uses the Greek word “oruxsan” which can be translated as “they dug” or “they pierced.” Despite Rabbi Singer’s claim, it would appear that it was actually the Jewish scribes who wrote the Masoretic texts who deliberately manipulated the passage so that it would not point so clearly to the crucifixion.

“I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (v. 17-18)

Not only do these verses point to medical realities that Jesus would have experienced on the cross, they make an incredibly specific prediction that the sufferer’s clothing would be both divided equally amongst some bystanders and awarded to the winner of a game of chance. Though these results seem slightly at odds, they are exactly what happened in the crucifixion. In John’s gospel we read, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” (John 19:23-24).

“But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” (v. 19-21)

At this point, the psalm begins to turn. As we move on the song is no longer about death. There is a temporary forsaking of the person described in Psalm 22, but an ultimate deliverance.

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (v. 22-23)

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” (v. 27)

As a result of the events described in this psalm, first the Jews and then people around the earth will turn to worship the Lord. This describes exactly how the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection, which demonstrates the forgiveness of sin that comes through faith in Christ, spread first in “Jerusalem and in all Judea…and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Who else could this psalm be pointing towards? Who else has died in a similar manner and been ultimately delivered, resulting in both Jews and Gentiles coming to praise the God of the Hebrew Scriptures?

“All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

One cannot help but think of the following verse: “God has highly exalted him (Jesus) and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11). What was accomplished in this psalm has been proclaimed to a people yet unborn. The glory and gospel of Jesus Christ has been declared around the globe. He has done it!

As we come to the end of Psalm 22, I am amazed at how accurately it describes the death, deliverance, and glorification of Jesus. There are intricate details, written centuries in advance, that point with laser-sharp precision to the actual events of the crucifixion. Is this all just coincidence? Did the gospel writers purposely fabricate their accounts to align with Psalm 22, even though this would contradict the deep moral foundation of their teaching and their willingness to face persecution and even death for the message they were preaching? Or is this one of the many examples where God has revealed Jesus in the Old Testament so that, like “all the ends of the earth”, we might turn to worship him?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Abraham Called to Sacrifice Isaac

As we work through this series on Jesus in the Old Testament, we will encounter a few principles that can help us to identify foreshadowings or “types” of Christ in the Old Testament. These types will include events, people, inanimate objects, and clothing, among others. Sometimes, when reading a passage, we will ask ourselves, “What in the world was that about?!?” Those are often great opportunities to look for foreshadowings of Christ’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ultimate purpose in God’s plan of salvation. The focus of this post falls into this category.

One of the more startling sections of Scripture is God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Not only is it unsettling to put oneself in Abraham’s shoes, put the command also goes against God’s repeated condemnation of human sacrifice. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Lord warned them, “You shall not worship the LORD your God [as they worship their gods], for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31). Yet, it seems that God is asking Abraham to do the very thing that he abhors.

It is understood from the text that part of the Lord’s purpose was to test Abraham’s devotion, however, when we look at the entire narrative of the Bible it is clear that there is greater purpose being accomplished through this trial. On several points, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which God ultimately prevented, points strongly to God’s sacrifice of his own Son for the salvation of mankind. If you are not familiar with or need a refreshing of the account, it can be found in Genesis 22:1-19.

The story starts with two astonishing connections to Christ. The Lord said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2). I read this passage numerous times without realizing that the land of Moriah was the future site of the city of Jerusalem. Hundreds of years later, “Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (2 Chronicles 3:1), and hundreds of years after the days of Solomon, Jesus Christ would be crucified outside the very same city. That Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem is a bedrock historical fact that is agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. That Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice in the very place where Abraham had been instructed to sacrifice Isaac is either proof of God’s sovereign plan or an amazing coincidence.

Not only is the place selected for Isaac’s sacrifice significant, but the Lord refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” While it is true that Isaac was the child of the promise through whom God had promised to bless Abraham’s descendant, he was not Abraham’s only son. Abraham had another son, Ishmael, through Hagar, the servant of his wife Sarah. However, when reflecting upon God’s instruction for Abraham to sacrifice his “only son”, one cannot help but think of probably the most famous verse of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, emphasis added).

With a heavy heart, Abraham started the journey to Moriah the next morning, bringing Isaac, two servants, and a donkey saddled with wood for the sacrifice. With Abraham’s mind set on obeying and trusting God, Isaac was already figuratively dead during this journey, which just so happened to take three days. The book of Hebrews adds to our understanding of Abraham’s mindset by explaining, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:19). So figuratively speaking, Isaac was dead for three days before being restored to life. Think of the words that the angels spoke to the women when they discovered the empty tomb: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24:5-7). What God represented metaphorically by Isaac’s figurative death and resurrection on the third day, he accomplished literally through the resurrection of Jesus on the same third day.

As Mount Moriah came into view, Abraham instructed his servants to wait, while he and Isaac pushed on alone. During this agonizing last leg of the journey, Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice while Abraham carried the knife and the fire. Centuries later, God’s own son would carry a wooden cross up the same hill where the Father would pour out his wrath upon the sinfulness of mankind. There are numerous biblical examples in which God’s wrath is symbolized by fire, which Abraham carried up the mountain, including this warning from the prophet Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah in inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jeremiah 4:4). 

As they proceeded up the slopes of Moriah, Isaac questioned why they brought the wood and fire, but no lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham, answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8). Upon seeing this promised sacrifice in Jesus of Nazareth, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Apostle Peter declares that we are “ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Once they reached the mountain summit, Abraham constructed an altar, bound his son, and laid him upon the altar. The passage does not specify Isaac’s age and the word that is often translated as “boy” or “lad” can be used to represent a wide range of ages, but clues from the text indicate that he was probably at least a young man, since he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain. Abraham, on the other hand, was over 100 years old. It seems safe to assume that Isaac could have overpowered his father, if he so desired, but instead trusted his father and willingly submitted to his will. Similarly, as Jesus faced his own sacrifice, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42). Jesus makes clear that “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18).

At this point, there is a divergence in the two sacrifices, for as Abraham raises his knife the Angel of the Lord intercedes and says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:12). However, God would not stay his own hand in sacrificing Jesus for the sins of the world. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:10).

After the Angel of the Lord interceded and Isaac was figuratively raised to life on the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram caught in a thicket. The Lord, had indeed provided the sacrifice, and Abraham offered the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son. Interestingly, Abraham called the name of the place of sacrifice, “The LORD will provide” (Genesis 22:14), not “The LORD did provide.” In fact, at the time when Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, it was still being said by the Israelites that “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:14). Therefore, God’s people had an expectation that God himself would provide a future sacrifice in Moriah, the very place where Jesus would be “pierced for [their] transgressions [and] crushed for [their] iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5).

My mind is absolutely blown. You literally cannot make this stuff up. The connections between Abraham’s test of sacrificing Isaac and God’s final sacrifice of his own Son are too numerous and too powerful to ignore. Which brings us back to my original point. When we see something that is a bit confusing in the Old Testament, we should ask whether God is using this passage to point to Jesus. I believe that God ultimately called Abraham to sacrifice his son in the land of Moriah so that when he sacrificed his own Son on the same hill nearly two millennium later, it would be obvious that this is what he had planned all along.  

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament Series: An Introduction

If I could partake in any Bible study throughout history, it most likely would have been the one that took place on the road to Emmaus. On Resurrection Sunday, the risen Jesus joined two of his followers as they travelled to the village of Emmaus. As they chatted, the men were bewildered to learn that their new companion had not heard of the recent happenings in Jerusalem: that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had hoped was the Messiah, had been delivered by the Jewish leaders to be crucified by Pontius Pilate. Though their expectations had been dashed, that very morning some of women of their company found Jesus’ tomb empty and reported that they had seen him alive. Other disciples investigated their claim and found that the tomb was empty, but Jesus himself, they did not see.

In response to this news flash, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that they prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27). What a Bible study that must have been!

Throughout every genre of writing, the New Testament affirms that the entire Bible is a revelation of Jesus Christ. In the gospels, Jesus makes this proclamation multiple times. When the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal with God by calling God his own father, Jesus responded:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life…Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you; Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39-40, 45-46)

In both this rebuke and the one on the way to Emmaus, Jesus affirms that all “the Scriptures” – from Genesis to Malachi – speak of him. This doesn’t mean that every single verse of the Bible is a foreshadowing or prophecy of Christ, but that we should expect to see a coherent Christological narrative woven throughout the Old Testament.

Jesus clearly viewed himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17). Elsewhere, after reading a messianic passage from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus sat down will all the eyes in the building fixed on him. He broke the suspense by simply stating, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21).

The preaching of the early church was built upon the foundation that the Old Testament bore witness to Jesus. In the very first public preaching of the gospel, the Apostle Peter quotes extensively from the Old Testament to persuade the crowd that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been God’s plan of salvation. He makes this more explicit in his next public preaching by proclaiming, “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled…And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.” (Acts 3:18, 24).

Other church leaders used similar tactics. It has the Apostle Paul’s normal custom when travelling to a new city was to enter the Jewish synagogue and reason from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the promised Christ and that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead (Acts 17:2, 18:4). After hearing such a message from Paul, the Bereans were applauded because they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11).

In sharing one of the earliest creeds of the church, which most scholars agree dates to within three to five years of the resurrection, Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, that that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, emphasis added).

The message of the New Testament is clear – Jesus is all over the Old Testament. Yet, one may wonder, why does this subject warrant the attention of an entire series? I would argue that this area of study is one that has been somewhat neglected by the church and possesses great value in discipleship, outreach, and personal devotion.

I consider the rich and pervasive foreshadowing of Jesus in the Old Testament to be one of the strongest apologetic defenses of the truthfulness of Christianity and the reliability of Scripture. The Old Testament was written by dozens of authors over a period of more than a thousand years, yet, as we will see in this series, these writings contain amazing coherence and diversity in the way Jesus is interwoven into the text. Jesus will by foreshadowed or “typed” through people, events, religious ceremonies, and direct prophecy. Passages that we often skim through or skip altogether, such as the description of the priestly garments, will powerfully point to Christ.

I see three possible explanations for this coherency throughout Scripture: pure coincidence, deliberate and brilliant deception, or intentional revelation. Through the depth and variety of examples that will be provided, I hope to diminish the likelihood of mere coincidence to an asymptote of zero. The hypothesis that the New Testament authors intentionally created a legendary Jesus figure to fit Messianic foreshadows or types from the Old Testament has several problems. First, it goes against the mockery of pop-atheism that tries to discredit Scripture by claiming that it was written by illiterate goat herders and fisherman. You can’t question the reliability of the New Testament Scriptures on one-hand by questioning the qualification of the authors and then turn around and claim that the same authors skillfully crafted a legendary figure to fulfill existing Scripture in a plethora of ways. Second, there are some known facts about Jesus’ life and death that the New Testament authors could not have concocted, even if their motive was duplicitous. Third, the New Testament writings attest to a concern for truth and integrity that would seem at odds with a devious scheme of fabrication. Finally, the New Testament authors faced extreme persecution and even death for their testimony of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. While one’s willingness to die for what they believe only proves that they are sincere, the disciple’s willingness to die for that “which [they] have heard, which [they] have seen with [their] own eyes, [and] which [they] have looked upon and have touched with [their] own hands” (1 John 1:1) supports the theory that they were truthfully reporting real events and vastly undermines the hypothesis of literary invention.

This leaves the explanation that God purposefully and sovereignly embedded these foreshadows of Jesus within the Old Testament writings. Yet, how many Christians have considered these deep truths of the faith? According to a Pew Research study, the number of millennials who identified as Christian dropped by 16% from 2009 to 2019. I wonder how many of these Christians who left the faith could identify even one way that Jesus is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, let alone the vast array of types of prophecies that this series will offer. Maybe if youth groups and churches had sought to instill a deep understanding of the breadth of Scripture, instead of primarily seeking to entertain and rarely scratching below the surface message that “Jesus loves you”, more millennials would have remained strongly rooted in the faith when encountered with skeptical objections, cultural pressures, and even the shortcomings of the church, itself.

Furthermore, I find that the comprehensive foreshadowing of Jesus in the Old Testament has great potential in outreach to unbelievers. I don’t try to conceal or apologize for the fact that I hope to persuade others by writing this blog. Though I hope to accomplish other purposes, such as building up the church, I do hope to convince others of the truth of Christianity. If you do not believe in Christ, I would invite you to read this series with an open mind and consider what is the best explanation for the coherent and interwoven image of Jesus that appears throughout the Old Testament. If you are a believer, I would challenge you to share these ideas with your family and friends. If one really digs into revelation of Jesus in the Old Testament scriptures, I think they will find truths that are difficult to dismiss or explain away.

Finally, I believe that they study of Jesus in the Old Testament has great potential to enrich the devotional lives of Christians. Paul closes his letter to the Roman church with this doxology: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27, emphasis added).

Paul’s implication is clear. Before Jesus, the Old Testament was not fully understood, but now these mysteries have been disclosed not only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but through the writings themselves. In other words, using what we know about Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimate purpose, we can return to fully understand the mysteries contained in the Old Testament scriptures. In doing so, we will more fully understand and savor God’s eternal plan of salvation and the beauty and majesty of Christ that is revealed throughout Scripture. According to Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament will enable us to accomplish both of these ends – glorifying God for his manifest wisdom in weaving the message of salvation through Christ throughout the Old Testament and enjoying the many ways in which mystery of Christ has been revealed to us. Regardless of any apologetic effectiveness, I consider these benefits alone to be good reasons to seek to find Jesus in the Old Testament. So, let the search begin!   

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Racism and the Cross

“You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world. But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them. The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things.”

Seeking a path to peace

Pastor John Piper started his stirring “Don’t Waste Your Life” sermon, which was delivered to thousands of college students at the Passion Conference in 2000, with these powerful words. This challenging address had a profound impact on the lives of many young Christians, including my own, and I think the opening lines continue to be relevant in the current day. As people survey the current landscape of our country, I believe that there are many who want to make a difference in the world and help bring forth a more just, peaceful, and equitable nation and world. Regarding the topic of racism, I believe that there are many people who want to work towards a world free of racial inequality, injustice and animosity.

This series has been exploring the topic of racism from a Christian perspective, first unpacking the extensive Biblical teachings that undermine both personal and systemic forms of racism and then considering how an understanding of the gospel should cut the root of defensiveness and lead towards the freedom of being able to confess and repent when we have fallen short in the area of racism both individually and corporately. However, this series would not be complete if it did not offer a solution and a way forward.

I humbly admit that I do not know “a lot of things” when it comes to the topic of racism. Although I have lived, worked, and traveled in multicultural settings for over a decade, there are many things that I don’t know both intellectually and experientially. I certainly don’t pretend to know what it is like to be a racial minority in America, nor do I know the ins-and-outs of every policy or institution that might be relevant to this discussion. However, I do know one “great thing” that I believe has the power to address the problem of racism at its core – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is “the gospel”?

A clarification of the definition of “the gospel” is needed before we dive in. The word gospel simply means “good news”, but like many words, I think that it is important to be specific and define our terms. Relevant to the discussion of racism, people may mean different things by words such as injustice, oppression, white supremacy and even the word racism, itself. Similarly, people might mean different things when they refer to “the gospel.” Some may refer to a general sense in which God is loving, gracious and accepting towards all people. Others may point to Jesus’ death as primarily a demonstration of sacrificial love meant to expose the dangers of political power and claims of absolute truth. Although this description is admittedly brief, my explanation of the gospel from a post on the Christian worldview hopefully gives clarity to how I am using the term.

God’s plan of salvation, which is foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament, was accomplished through Jesus’ death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. This good news, or gospel, forms the foundation of the Christian worldview. Entire books have been written to expand upon the depths of the gospel, but in short, the good news is the answer to the following question: How can sinful people have fellowship with a holy, just God? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and the just punishment for these transgressions is eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23). Yet, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). As a result, God demonstrates his justice in punishing sin through Christ’s atoning sacrifice and his mercy in forgiving sinners through faith (Romans 3:25-26). This free gift of salvation is available to all who “declare with [their] mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in [their] heart that God raised him from the dead.” (Romans 10:9). The Christian worldview is built upon the foundation of this good news.

Examining two paths forward

I want to be clear that racism is evil. Although we may not all agree on its definition, pervasiveness and various forms, there is general agreement across our nation that racism is a great moral plight. Yet, there is a whirlwind of voices leading the way forward, resulting in confusion about the role of the church in response to racial tension and injustice. I believe the church’s response must be rooted in proclaiming the hope and redemption that is found in the gospel. There are other voices providing different solutions and approaches. I believe that these perspectives largely come from a place of good intentions, seeking to address real problems, however, I believe that they lead to vastly different outcomes than a gospel-focused approach. For the sake of clarity, I will juxtapose the solution offered by the gospel against the general message being offered by the world (though I recognize that it is impossible to fully represent the range of different perspectives and solutions).

Two views of the problem

To understand a proposed solution, we must first understand the nature of the problem being addressed. I admit that I do not understand every aspect of racism and have not experienced racism as a minority, but I believe that racism in both personal and systemic forms is a symptom of a deeper-rooted disease: sin.

We must first understand that sin is fundamentally rebellion against God. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). We were created to love God with all of our hearts and to glorify him, but our nature, which we inherit from Adam (Romans 5:12), is to follow our passions and desires and to seek our own glory. This leads to vices such as hostility, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, and division (Galatians 5:20), which, when practiced on the basis of race, provide a pretty good definition of racism. That we do not do the good that we know we should do, but instead do that which we know we should not do (Romans 7:19), is a universal part of the human experience, even by those who would not label it as sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Our conscience reminds us of this reality. We all desperately need a savior.

There are competing ideologies that identify a different fundamental issue. The main problem is not the oppressive nature of our own sinful nature and rebellion against God, but the pervasive and persistent oppression of marginalized identity groups by dominant identity groups. This way of thinking divides people based on an array of different identities according to gender, sexual orientation, gender preference, physical ability, and of course, race. The oppressors in the dominant group will by nature oppress the marginalized group, not necessarily by committing unjust or cruel acts, but by wielding hegemonic power, or the ability to shape the cultural norms and values of society. With regards to racism, white Americans are the dominant group and whiteness is the ultimate disease that has plagued our country since its inception.

Two views of the solution

As in medicine, it is important that we correctly identify the underlying cause of an illness and not merely its symptoms. Worldly ideologies may make some correct observations about outward symptoms, such as racial hierarchies and power structures being used to justify the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow, but if they do not correctly identify the underlying disease of sin, then they will not be able to offer a path that leads to lasting peace and reconciliation.

However, if we recognize that the foundational problem is the sinful and wicked heart of man, then we can point to the sufficient solution of the redemption, forgiveness, and transformation that comes through faith in Christ. God’s plan of salvations was prophesied centuries in advance. In the 7th century B.C, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5). The Apostle Paul explains, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our initial healing is in our relationship with God. Though we were rebels and enemies of God, Christ died for us so that we might be cleansed from our sin and clothed with his righteousness, able to enjoy fellowship with a holy God. It is essential to understand that in order to be reconciled with each other, we must first be reconciled with our Creator.

Being reconciled to God through Christ transforms our heart and desires. Believers are encouraged to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24). Our right relationship with God enables us to pursue reconciliation with others and to put the needs of others above our own. We are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” and to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).

This is not just an abstract, theological theory. The transformative power of the gospel led to reconciliation between groups of people who experienced ethnic tension that equaled if not surpassed that found between blacks and whites in America. Writing to a diverse church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:13-15). In other words, Christ made a bridge between two hostile groups. Through a shared identity in Christ, there can be unity between drastically different people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Having been reconciled first with God, we are able to pursue lasting peace and reconciliation with others that is built on the foundation of our shared identity as children of God and members of the body of Christ.

The solutions being offered by the world are much different, and I fear they will only lead to constant and increasing division, dissension and unrelenting guilt, as will be explained in a couple of paragraphs. In vague terms, the solution is to dismantle the power of the oppressor group and the scourge of white supremacy, which doesn’t necessarily mean confronting people in white hoods carrying Confederate flags, but can also mean de-normalizing “white values” such as “objective, rational linear thinking” or the belief that “hard work is the key to success”. I must admit that I am confused about how this practically looks in the real world, but there have been calls to action, such as movements to defund the police or to decolonize school curriculums. It seems that there has been much more focus on tearing down existing institutions and cultural norms, so I remain confused about the vision for the rebuilding effort.

This is not to say that we should not give a critical evaluation when certain racial groups are being inequitably served by public institutions or when there are disparities in education, health, housing, etc. For example, the achievement gap among racial groups in America has been pervasive and should lead to changes in educational funding and policy. However, I fear the current path of focusing on racial identity will only lead to a revolving struggle for innocence and an endless supply of guilt. The following passage from Kevin DeYoung’s article Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions: Sin and Guilt articulately illustrates my concerns.

“I’m reminded of something I read in Shelby Steele’s remarkable book The Content of Our Character: ‘I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence’ (5). According to Steele, one of America’s most honest and trenchant voices on these matters, both races understand that to lose innocence is to lose power, and given the way the racial debate has been fostered in this country, one’s innocence depends on the other’s guilt. Consequently, racial difference has become the currency of power. To maintain their innocence, ‘blacks sting whites with guilt, remind them of their racial past, accuse them of new and more subtle forms of racism.’ And in return whites try to retrieve their innocence by discrediting blacks and denying their difficulties, ‘for in this denial is the denial of their own guilt’ (145).

For whites, it can feel like redemption is always out of reach. If you don’t have animus in your heart, you have implicit bias that you can’t see. If you haven’t personally done anything against black people, other whites have, and you bear their shame. If you speak out, you should have listened. If you stay quiet, your silence is violence. If you do nothing tangible to counter injustice, that’s sinful indifference. Try to take the lead in fixing things, you may want to check your privilege. Your institution shouldn’t be all white, but it shouldn’t engage in tokenism. You should celebrate diversity, but without cultural appropriation. And any disagreement with the fundamental contours of this one-way conversation is just another manifestation of white fragility.

In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.

And for blacks, it must feel like even the barest recognition of the ongoing effects of racism is a bridge too far for most whites. Because whites are often preoccupied with their search for innocence, they fail to muster even meager sympathy or understanding for black pain. If you want to talk about policing in America, we will bring up black homicide rates in Chicago. If you want to talk about criminal justice reform, we will mention the black abortion rate. And if that doesn’t adequately move the guilt from our shoulders to yours, we can always talk about our black friends, insist that we are color blind, or weaponize pull quotes from Thomas Sowell.

In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.”

A few closing thoughts

Obviously, it would be foolish to deny that whites have caused far greater harm to blacks in America’s history. Yet, despite often good intentions to address real issues, I struggle to see how the current path of increasingly focusing in identity differences, not only racially but in a host of other areas, leads to lasting peace and reconciliation. How does it lead to freedom from guilt? How does it cut the rope in the tug-of-war for innocence? How does it abolish the finger-pointing and self-justification, and instead lead to unity around a shared identity? I don’t see positive answers to these questions.

However, the power of the gospel accomplishes all these things. As I said in the introduction, I don’t pretend to know everything (or even a lot of things) about racism, but I do claim to know one great thing: Jesus died for sinners that they might be reconciled to God, freed from the chains of sin, and able to pursue reconciliation with others. The gospel ends the struggle for innocence, because through the gospel we realize that we are ultimately in the same boat – sinners in need of a savior. There is no need to defend our own innocence because we recognize that our righteousness does not come from ourselves or our good deeds, but from Christ. Having experienced the sacrificial love of Christ and received a transformed heart, we are able to sacrificially love others, even those who are greatly different from us or who have caused us great harm. Even those who otherwise would be our enemies. This is a way forward. This is a path to peace.

How does this path look practically in the real world? For the church, it means that being gospel focused should be a core value and primary mission. It might seem like a given, but I fear that it is not in all churches or the lives of all Christians. This is not to say that every sermon, song, book or conversation needs to be directly focused on the gospel, but the gospel should be the center of both our corporate fellowship and private devotions. Christians never outgrow the gospel. We need to be continually reminded that God first loved us and sent his Son to die for us, that we have been greatly forgiven based on no merit of our own, and that our righteousness does not rest in secondary identities or in our performance, but in the free gift of grace that we receive through Christ. This frees us to sacrificially love others as God has sacrificially loved us.

It also means that we recognize that what the world needs most is not structural change or the dismantling of oppressive identity groups, but inner transformation that comes through the gospel and the experience of the love of God. This does not mean that non-Christians cannot make valuable observations or contributions toward overcoming racism. It does not mean that we ignore racial minorities’ felt needs or physical realities. Yet, it does mean that what the world needs most is to be reconciled with God and freed from the guilt of sin, enabling lasting peace and reconciliation with others.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Racism, Confession and Repentance

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:2)

Defensiveness is one of the branches that God has needed to prune in my life. Despite growth in this area, it is a persistent little vine that keeps trying to rear its ugly little head and choke out the fruitfulness of the branch. Partly, this is because I am human. I think being defensive is a natural response of our human flesh and something that we all struggle with to some degree. Without completely psychoanalyzing myself, I think that my disposition and life experience make me particularly prone to this sinful attitude, without the work of God’s spirit in my life. By the grace of God, I have mostly learned to control my tongue and typing in this area, but it is an area where I need sustained grace and strength from God.

In the first post of this series, I provided a systematic exploration of how the Bible addresses the topic of racism. Throughout scripture, we see that God’s plan of redemption is for people from all tribes, tongues, and nations and leaves no room for either personal prejudice or institutionalized systems of racism. Of course, as is always the case, sinful humanity falls short of God’s plans, desires and intentions. This includes both individual Christians and the corporate church. 

The topic of racism has been at the forefront of the national conversation this year. While I have observed many instances of honest self-reflection and confession of past failures of commission or omission, I have also witnessed examples of defensiveness at both the individual and corporate level. The purpose of this post is not to provide a mea culpa of all the ways in which Christians and the church have fallen short of the vision of racial reconciliation, integration, and peace that God sets forth in scripture. Nor is to condemn individuals or the church as being pervasively and inherently racist, as some voices in the conversation are doing. Instead, the purpose is to cut the root of the vine of defensiveness, which I think is a prerequisite to pursuing the shalom peace of God.

At the individual level, the good news of the cross of Christ should be a death blow to the attitude of defensiveness. Embedded in the central message of Christianity is the truth that “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:11-12). None will be justified by their good works because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but through repentance and faith in Christ, “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28). No one will be able to provide a defense before God. Our only defense is to place our trust in the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us through faith in him.

Even after turning from sin and trusting in Christ, we will battle against sin during this life. Writing to believers, the Apostle John writes, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10). This verse does not give the Christian freedom to continue to live in unrepentant sin nor does it provide grounds for living a life that is void of spiritual growth and sanctification. We should strive to grow in godliness and Christlike character in this life, with the realization that we will still fall short and that our hope is not in our moral perfection, but in his atoning sacrifice for us. When that sinks deep into our souls, it should eliminate the crutch of defensiveness.

For the Christian, this should apply to all areas of our lives, including racism. We should not defend ourselves by claiming that we are color-blind or that we don’t have a racist bone in our body. To put it bluntly, I find that people who make such claims are often people who have chosen to live in places where they only interact with people who look and sound just like them. If we are honest with ourselves and look deep within ourselves, I think that we will see that our thoughts and the attitudes of our hearts condemn us. As Jesus teaches through multiple examples in the Sermon on the Mount, following God’s law is not merely about conforming to external standards, but is about the internal condition of our hearts.

A few years ago, there was an unfortunate incident in which a teacher in the school system where I teach was caught on video yelling at students and using the N-word in her tirade. She was rightfully fired. There is no defense for her words and the school system absolutely made the correct decision. There was no other way forward. However, it saddened me to see the vitriolic response to her in the comments section of articles reporting on the incident. Since we had a mutual friend, I wrote an email to express that, while I fully supported her termination, I did not demonize her and that I understood how a person who entered an urban school system with good intentions could be led to dark thoughts, and eventually harmful words, through a discouraging and defeating teaching experience in a cross-cultural setting. I am thankful that some of my inner thoughts have not been broadcast for the whole world to hear, as her words were. I believe that honest reflection would lead everyone, regardless of race, to the same conclusion.

Thus, when engaged in conversations on race, such a realization, along with the fact that we are only righteous through Christ, should cut off defensiveness. When white Christians are told to acknowledge our privilege or to abandon our fragility, the first response should not be defensiveness. That does not mean that we have to accept every charge that is brought against us or that there is not room to oppose certain views and philosophies, but it does mean that we should not enter conversations with the goal of defending our own righteousness. We live in a racialized society. Humans have the natural ability to recognize patterns. To some extent, all people of all races, even Christians, are going to struggle with personal prejudice. I think there is freedom in acknowledging this, asking the Holy Spirit to help us grow in this area, and ultimately clinging to God’s mercy and promise for our righteousness and justification.  

While I have reached a point where I don’t take offense at a personal level, I do feel more defensive when charges of racism are brought against the church. I feel an immediate impulse to say, “Well, what about the abolition movement? What about Christian civil rights leaders? What about all the schools, hospitals, charities, and relief organizations that have been built by Christians?” Partly, I interpret these allegations as being threats to the truthfulness of the gospel and the Christian worldview. While it is true that some do reject Christianity due to the failings of either individual Christians or the church, my fears are misplaced and I think that these are not good reasons to reject Christianity. To determine whether Christianity is true, we should not look to the conduct of the church, but answer the objective question whether Jesus rose from the dead. Yes, the church should shine as a city on a hill, but as discussed previously, it will also be full of redeemed sinners, not to mention those who may claim the name of Christ but do not actually follow Christ. As with the Christian, we should not expect perfection from the church.

Still, the impulse to defend the church remains. Over the past few months, I have frequently heard Christians refer to the Biblical principle that each individual is responsible for their own sins, not the sins of their ancestors.

The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. (Ezekiel 18:20)

One does not have to deny this principle to also recognize many instances in which leaders of high character led corporate confession of current sin or confessed the sins of their ancestors. Daniel, who would rather face the lion’s den than fail to honor God in prayer, confessed the following after realizing from Jeremiah’s prophecies that the Jews would be exiled from Jerusalem for seventy years due to the sins of their fathers:

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws...Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us...Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name. (Daniel 9:4-19) 

Similarly, after hearing that the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruin, Nehemiah offered the following lament while still in exile in Persia:

Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:5-7).

From examples such as these, we can pull out two principles that are important in the present day. First, while we may not have directly committed certain sins in the past, we are not free from the consequences of those actions or inaction. Yes, we were not directly involved in slavery and there were certainly Christians and churches that fought against slavery, but there were others that used the Bible to justify this treacherous institution and to claim that blacks were less than fully human. To think that we are free from the consequences of those grievous sins is naive. Likewise, we may not have stayed silent during the Jim Crow years or while neighborhoods were redlined and intentionally segregated, but we would be foolish to think that we are free of the consequences of those eras.

Second, we are not as innocent as we think. Both Daniel and Nehemiah include themselves and their current generation in their confession. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day built tombs to honor prophets that had been mistreated and sometimes even killed by their ancestors, yet they were the generation that would kill the Messiah. I think that we often think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We assume, “If I had been alive in the 1800’s, I would have been an abolitionist. If I had been alive in Nazi Germany, I would have hidden the Jews and plotted against Hitler. If I had been alive as America expanded westward, I would have fought for the rights of Native Americans.” And some of us would have. Many would not. It is easy to point a finger at the sins of the past, yet fail to miss the failures of the present. At the very least, as the body of Christ, we should be able to admit that we have been too indifferent to the racial inequality that exists in our country. The fact that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of the week testifies that we have not taken racial reconciliation as seriously as we should.

Both individually and corporately we should be able to throw off the chains of defensiveness without putting on the shackles of shame. We should be able to say that we are children of God who are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, yet we still struggle with the sin of personal prejudice. Our hope is not in our own perfection, but in that of Christ. As a church we should be able to confess that in the past and the present, whether by action or inaction, we have not sought racial peace, justice, and reconciliation as we ought. Still, the church is a city on a hill, the body of Christ, a force for good in the world, and the herald of the gospel.

By throwing off the weight of defensiveness, we should be able to listen with a genuine desire to learn, understand and grow. Yet, we should not be ashamed of the message with which we have been entrusted. I believe that the church boldly sharing and living out the gospel is the only hope for cultural transformation and lasting peace and reconciliation. That is the subject of my next post.