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?