This is part 2 of a series about worship through sacrifice. Read part one here.
Sacrifice is about unity. Originally, for the Hebrews, it was about sharing a meal with God that both showed and enacted their unity with the Creator.
The sacrifices were not made in order to appease a deity. The main purpose was not to have sins forgiven. The goal was to share the meal with God. The cleansing rituals, usually involving the sacred blood, were preliminary to eating.
Jesus’s sacrifice was not about appeasing an otherwise insatiable deity either. God is one. He does not change. He could not have a need for revenge. In fact, Jesus forgave his tormentors before he died. He didn’t pray, “Father forgive them for I have satisfied your wrath.” He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” In the Law of Moses, the ritual cleansings were only provided for unintentional sins. As Jesus was dying, he put humanity’s greatest sin into the category of forgivable and asked God to forgive it.
But he didn’t die just so that the sin could be forgiven. He died for unity. Humanity’s sins had brought the consequence of death. Death is natural to anyone who has separated themselves from the Source of Life. Death is separation. The Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to a full and perfect unity between God and man. Pointed forward to the Incarnation. Death had become a fact of life and Jesus’s Incarnation was not complete until he was united to us in death as well.
Just as the ritual cleansings in the Old Testament were preliminary to sharing the unity meal, Jesus forgave us our sins in order to cleanse us in preparation for unity with God.
We pray this in the Prayer of Humble Access (one of the few parts of the liturgy to have originated at the Reformation, being actually composed by Archbishop Cranmer). We pray that we may be cleansed, body and soul, by his broken body and spilled blood, “and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”
The Wrath of God.
“See what destructions He has wrought on the earth: He maketh wars to cease. He breaketh the bow and knappeth the spear.” -Psalm 46
St. Paul says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” Yes! And this is what it looks like for God to reveal his wrath: Humanity pours its wrath onto Jesus and Jesus quietly and humbly accepts it. He is faithful to the Father and faithful to us while taking the full measure of our wrath. While we are torturing, killing, and cursing, he is forgiving. That is what it looks like for God to have wrath on ungodliness.
Of course God is wrathful. There’s no love without wrath. Think of the story of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea. What kind of salvation would it have been if the Israelites had made it to the other side only to find that the Egyptians were coming too. That story was written to be a picture for us. If sin brings death, God can’t love us without hating the sin that’s killing us. God loves his creatures, so he has to hate sin. But it’s always the sin he hates; never the people.
One of our problems, when it comes to understanding the Old Testament sacrifices (and, therefore, what worship means and primarily what Holy Communion, the “sacrifice of the Mass” means) is that we have a totally different idea of justice, judgment, and righteousness.
When we think of justice, we usually think of something that we don’t want. You’ll even hear pastors say things like, “when we stand before the judgment seat of God, we don’t want justice, we want mercy.” We’ve probably all heard the story somebody made up about the judge declaring us guilty and then taking off his robe and coming down from the bench and paying our fine for us. That’s supposed to explain how God can be loving and just at the same time.
But there’s underlying assumptions that haven’t been addressed here and which really need to be questioned if we’re going to be faithful to the Bible. We’ve assumed that justice and mercy can’t be the same thing; that they are, in fact, total opposites. We’ve assumed that, when God judges us, it’s going to be in a criminal court — like, the State vs. Marcus Emmons. We’ve assumed that, if someone has broken the law, they will have to pay for it; punishment will somehow make things alright.
And then we’ve added this assumption — which makes absolutely no sense — that an innocent person could pay the fine for a guilty person and that that would be okay. Like, it doesn’t matter who suffers as long as somebody does.
And that’s supposed to be just. I mean, we might let that slide in our own court system if we were talking about, like, a $10 fine or something. But imagine a capital offense and a judge says “I’ll die instead of you.” And after the judge gets executed and the criminal goes free, we all just say, “Well, as long as somebody died that’s okay. Justice was satisfied.” NO! There’s been plenty of times when our courts have executed a person only to find out later that the person was innocent and that the criminal is still at large. What do we say? “Well, justice was served?” That’s not justice! It’s the height of injustice.
And let’s not excuse ourselves from having to actually think by ripping a prophecy out of context and saying “God’s ways are not our ways.” Let’s do the work of reading the Bible and finding out what it actually says.
All through the Psalms, you’ve got people calling on God for justice, rejoicing in his justice. Every day in Morning Prayer, the first Psalm says, “Let the whole earth stand in awe of him for he comes to judge the earth, and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with equity.” This is something good!
There’s a whole book in the Bible called Judges and that’s as good a place as any to find out what we mean when we say that God is our judge. Judges is a fun little book, lot’s of earthy stories and scoundrels. But if you’re a bit fuzzy on it, here’s a quick recap of pretty much every story in it:
You’ve got God’s people who had been slaves in Egypt, but God defeated the Egyptians and set them free. That was the book of Exodus. They get to Canaan, the Promised Land, and they were supposed to clear it out and have a place to live in peace — no threats, no slavery, no oppression. But they didn’t really do it. That was the book of Joshua. So now, in Judges, the folks keep doing evil — worshipping other gods, violence, inhospitality, that sort of thing. So God let’s them get overrun by the surrounding nations, like the Philistines. So things get bad and the people cry out to God and God sends a judge. And the judge’s job is always the same: kill the Philistines (or whomever) and let God’s people go free so they can have a good life and enjoy God’s freedom. Then they go through it all again. And you keep hearing this little refrain — it’s all because they didn’t have a king.
A Sidenote About Inspiration and Interpretation
I don’t really want to get too much into the Bible interpretation questions. Suffice it to say that, just because we believe that the Bible is the Word of God Written and just because this story is such a perfect picture of what Jesus has done for us does not necessarily mean that we have to believe that Jesus actually commanded the Hebrews to wage a jihad and commit genocide against the Canaanites so they could steal their land. Just know that, if you doubt that Jesus would do that, you are not alone. Faithful Christians have been having these same doubts for thousands of years. It doesn’t mean that you’re being unfaithful to the Bible. If questions of biblical inspiration and interpretation interest you or bother you, you may find this article helpful. It is about Origen, a man who is often considered the father of Christian theology.
Jesus, our Freedom Fighter
Back to the text! For these ancient Hebrews, judgment meant having a hero come to fight off the enemies and rescue the good guys. It wasn’t like a criminal court at all. It was a bit like a civil court where the Philistines had done wrong against the Hebrews and the judge would come and decide in favor of the Hebrews and against their enemies.
Knowing about the Bible’s way of talking about judgment and justice, or righteousness, can really help us to understand what it is we’re talking about every week at Holy Communion. In our confession, we say that our Father is the judge of all men. It means that he is the One who is rescuing us from our enemies: the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. We know that he is a righteous judge, a just or impartial judge. He will always decide for what is good and against what is evil. So we want to separate ourselves, not only from the evil around us but also from the evil that we have committed. So we acknowledge and lament our many sins and wickedness which we have committed. He’s going to destroy those sins, so we ask him to separate us from them; to forgive us for colluding with the enemy. This separation is what we mean by the word holy. It’s also what we mean by the words sanctify and sanctification, which are just, like, the same thing in Latin. We ask God to have mercy on us. Not to overlook the sins or cover them up, but to rescue us from them. His justice is mercy. Wrath and fury against sin and death; peace and goodwill towards mankind. Judgment is a good thing. We want God’s justice.
Let me say it again plainly: the idea that justice means that everyone deserves hell while mercy means that Jesus pays the penalty for us in unbiblical. It’s a false oversimplification. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved”–John 3:17.
Biblical justice means that God condemns evil, sin, fallen angels, and finally, death itself. He condemns everything that is at work against his creation. A judge’s job is to kill Philistines. “By his death he has destroyed death.” Justice means that Jesus has rescued us and defeated our enemies.
Jesus is our judge and that’s a good thing.