Bringing Home the Faith (fourteenth installment)

Bringing Home the Faith: a Pastor writes to her teenage son about Christian belief is a series of ten letters I wrote for my son addressing his doubts about Christian faith and answering his questions about what Christians believe and why.  Each letter is preceded by an Introduction which introduces its particular topic.

Please share these weekly installments of Bringing Home the Faith with someone in your life, whether young or old, who wants uncomplicated and honest answers to their questions and concerns about Christian faith.

Letter No. 5: Why Jesus Had to Die

Introduction

Was Jesus an unwitting victim, merely put to death by religious leaders who were jealous of his popularity among the people of Israel?  Or, was he a willing sacrifice, who knew that his death was a central part of God’s plan of salvation from before time?

In this letter I talk about another important doctrine about Jesus called, the Atonement – how Jesus’ death set us right before God.  But this doctrine makes some modern Christians uneasy.  They find it hard to accept that our sins could only be forgiven if Jesus gave up his life.  Such a remedy sounds too gruesome, too barbaric.  This unease is honest and must be addressed.  Why would God insist on a plan where his son is nailed to a cross?

If we don’t properly understand what Jesus’ death is all about we will end up in serious spiritual confusion.  Church doctrines are formulated to clear up confusion and keep people out of spiritual trouble, not from a desire to control or stifle discussion.  In this letter I wanted to be absolutely clear with Caleb that sin is costly – to him and especially to God.  If he were not to know about that cost and about what it took to remove it, he would not be able to fully appreciate how trustworthy God is and how completely He loves us.  As a parent and a pastor, I cannot in good conscience withhold the awesome bloody truth.

Dear Caleb,

In the last letter, “Why Jesus Was Born on Earth”, I wrote about how Jesus opened up the way back to God through his obedience and his death on the cross.  But, I did not address the fact that Jesus had to die.  The truth is, our disobedience required that someone give up his life – and not just any person, but the innocent Son of God.

At this point you may be wondering:

1)      Is sin so bad that someone’s death is required in order to set us right again?

2)      Couldn’t God just let us off the hook or look the other way? 

I want to address these questions, but I should first say something about God’s nature.

God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-mighty.  He is also just, holy and pure.  The Bible says that God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).   The Bible also says that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).  What all this means is that it is not in God’s nature to tolerate, or to permit in His presence, anything that is harmful, hurtful, unjust, or unlawful.  And, that’s a good thing.

God hates sin because all sin, no matter how small, eats away at the goodness with which God created the world.  No one is safe if sin goes unpunished. Nowhere is this more true

than at school.  If you have a principal who looks the other way when kids are misbehaving, and bullies are acting out, school will no longer be a safe place for you.  Rules are for everyone’s safety and punishment of rule-breakers is done for the well-being of all kids.   When a principal does not take misbehavior seriously and does not enforce all rules uniformly, there will be chaos and kids will get hurt.

God doesn’t tolerate misbehavior, either.  All sins are a breach of God’s good and just laws and punishment is required, just like at school, even if we think nobody is being hurt, or nobody notices or seems to be affected.  In Psalm 51, verse 4, King David says,

Against You, You only, have I sinned. 

Every sin is always a sin against God since He made the rules and upholds them.  Therefore, before God, a just and holy God, there must be a consequence, a penalty for our sins.  God can’t overlook sin, no matter how small it may seem.

In ancient Israel God established a system that would serve the cause of justice by penalizing sin.  It was also designed to set the sinner right before God, allowing him or her to start over with a clean slate.   This is how it worked: the offender would have to bring something of great value to the priest at the temple and the priest would take it and offer it up as a sacrifice.

We have a somewhat similar system today in our country.  For instance, if I am caught breaking a traffic law, let’s say by driving too fast, I will have to part with something valuable to me – my money.  If I submit my money to the traffic court (offer up a “sacrifice” at the “temple”) I will not face the possibility of going to jail.  My “sin” will be “forgiven” and I will be set right before the judge.

Aaron and his sons preparing a burnt sacrifice; artist unknown

The most valuable possession belonging to ancient Israelites was not money but the animals they herded.  Therefore, to be set right before God, they would need to bring a bird, or a goat, or some other highly prized beast, without defect or blemish, to the priest at the temple.  The idea was that the remedy for sin had to cost the person something.  Giving up an exceptionally fine bird or animal was a great hardship.

The priest would kill the creature (offer it up for sacrifice) and take some of its blood, rub a bit of it on the temple altar, and then pour the rest at the base of the altar.  You may be wondering, “Why did they make a big deal out of rubbing blood on the altar and pouring it at the base of the altar?”  Good question.

Blood held a special significance in ancient cultures.  At that time everyone knew from first-hand experience that blood is essential for life.   The average person, back then, came in contact with blood on a daily basis because they had to kill whatever they were going to have for dinner and draw out its blood before they could roast it.

It’s easy for us to forget that the meat we buy in the grocery store was once a living animal.  It is packaged for us in such a way so as not to remind us that it was once alive.  In our time we would rather forget that something gave up its life so we could live.  The presence of blood is just too unpleasant a reminder for us.  But not for the Israelites.  Blood was held in high regard because it represented life as well as death.

Next week Letter No. 5: Why Jesus Had to Die continues.

Discussion Questions for Fourteenth Installment: Why
Jesus Had to Die.

1)      Describe God’s nature.  In what ways is it different from ours?

2)      Why does God hate sin? Why is all sin a sin against God?

3)      What does it mean to “look the other way” when it comes to sin? Why does God never do this?  Should we?

4)      Describe the system of justice in ancient Israel for being set right before God?  In what ways is it similar to our system of justice?

About Claudia Dickson Greggs

I am an Anglican priest, author, wife and mother. Writing and teaching about Christian life and faith are passions of mine.
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4 Responses to Bringing Home the Faith (fourteenth installment)

  1. Rick says:

    This week’s posting brings up so many thoughts.

    1. We have been attending a “seminar”, actually more of a discussion group, on the Arts and the Church. One of the topics we discussed was how stories have to be sanitized before being presented in church. For instance, a skit about Noah and the Flood is acceptable if it focuses on the saving of the animals and Noah’s family, but unacceptable if the part about the thousands and thousands who died in the flood as a result of the violence that filled the earth. That’s not “family friendly”. Neither is the crucifixion. Nor many of the other stories in the Bible that tech us about the effects of sin. As a result, people in our society are not faced with the reality of blood or the effects of sin, the real cost of our sin. Sin and its effects are not family friendly, and sadly we don’t want something not family friendly talked about plainly, or portrayed plainly in our churches. And because of that the church nowadays insulates itself against the very message it was commissioned to preach.

    2. This goes into society in general. The whole issue of not knowing where our food comes from – that people don’t think about where the hamburger or bacon or chicken they are eating came from. Kids don’t know that potatoes comes from the field, not the grocery. They don’t know that veggies come from the ground, not the clean grocery store shelves or a can. They can’t relate to blood, the death of an animal or the growing of produce. So, the idea that the Israelites slaughtered sheep, etc. for sacrifices for sin seems so barbaric. We do ourselves a disservice by shielding/hiding these truths.

    I would much rather we not be “protected” from these realities, from the reality of the Bible’s message, the Gospel message, or from the reality of blood and death in our food system. Maybe if we were more in touch with all that, more people would value life, though not all will.

    • Rick, thank you for your comment. It leads me to reflect upon a book I just finished reading. It’s the first book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and it’s called, Out of the Silent Planet . The story is about an Englishman who is kidnapped by two others and taken to another planet (Malacandra, a.k.a. Mars) by spaceship. He encounters a civilization that is not fallen; sin has not infected their existence in any way. The two men who kidnapped him are considered “bent” by the Malacandrians because they are greedy, murderous and self-absorbed. The two men think the Malacandrians are inferior creatures because they value selflessness and harmony over money, fame and power. Lewis’ intent is to show how vile sin is — and how we tend to think sinful behavior is natural, even laudatory. Sin is barbaric — and we’ve grown immune to it’s barbarism. Instead we conclude that the cost to remedy it is what is barbaric (and an antiquated theological perspective). Thanks again! Claudia

  2. Rick says:

    I read that trilogy years ago. I wonder if we still have it. Would be interesting reading it again after all these years. I’ll have to see if we still have them.

    Your comment about barbarism reminds me of the statement in the Word that talks about those who call evil good and good evil. We’re saying the same thing, only using different words – our society calls barbaric what is civilized, and civilized what is really barbaric.

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