Bringing Home the Faith (fifteenth 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.

Last week in letter No. 5: Why Jesus Had to Die, I explained why, since God is just, holy and pure, He cannot overlook any sin.  In ancient Israel, in order for a person’s sin to be forgiven, he had to bring an animal of great cost to be sacrificed on the temple altar.  The shedding of the animal’s blood played an important role in the forgiving of sin.  This week I write about the connection between the animal sacrificed because of human sin and God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, blood from an animal sacrificed to God was collected and used in cleansing ceremonies, like when it was rubbed on the altar and poured out at the base, as I described last week.  They used it to make impure or unclean things pure.   Blood was also used to guarantee protection and to endorse a contract.  You may recall from the book of Exodus that just before the tenth and final plague, God instructed the Israelites to kill a lamb and rub its blood above their doorways. (Exodus 12:1-11) The blood protected them from the angel of death that took the life of all the first-born children in Egypt.

A good example of how blood was used to endorse a contract is found in one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament, from the book of Genesis, Chapter 15.  Here God is speaking with Abraham, now an old man, who is still without a permanent home and land to call his own.  God is promising to give Abraham the very land he is standing upon as a possession.  Yet, while Abraham has faithfully believed God’s promises over the course of many years, he’s not sure about this one.  He’s been waiting a long time for his own piece of land.  He asks God for some sign that this promise, about a land to call his own, will come true.

Genesis 15:12; Illustration from Figures de la Bible (1728); by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733), and others.

So God tells Abraham He will seal His promise in a contract between them.  He instructs Abraham to draw up the terms for this contract, terms that were well-known in ancient cultures.  Abraham is to slaughter a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.  All but the birds are to be cut in two and placed in two rows, each half opposite the other.  It was the custom, when entering into a covenant with another person, for both people to seal their promise in blood by slaughtering animals and laying them out just as Abraham did and, together, walk between the two rows of carcasses.

This action signified that should either of the two persons entering into the contract not live up to whatever agreement they’ve just established a curse would be brought upon him.  The curse being that he would suffer a bloody fate similar to the one the animals suffered whose carcasses both people had passed through.  The amazing thing in this story is that God alone (represented by a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch) walks  through the row of carcasses, not Abraham.  This means that God alone will suffer the consequences should the promises of either God or Abraham go unfulfilled.  God is willing to serve out Abraham’s sentence if Abraham is unfaithful.  This story prepares us for what Jesus will eventually do on the cross for all of us.

Blood and sacrifices played important roles in the Israelites’ relationship with God.  Once a year in Israel there was a special observance called, the Day of Atonement.   The high priest would choose two rams or two goats.  One was sacrificed on the altar, the other was left alive.  The high priest would place his hands on the neck of the living animal and, in a special prayer, would transfer all the sins of the community onto this creature.  It was referred to as the “scapegoat.”  A scapegoat is an innocent person, or in this case an innocent creature, that takes the blame for someone else.  Once the animal becomes the bearer of sins no one can touch it.  It is considered to be unclean.  It is herded away and into the desert, where it eventually dies, forsaken, cut off from the rest of the community.

So there was a system in Israel, for when a person — or entire communities — sinned, that would set them right before God.   Forgiveness was granted when innocent blood was shed, when something of great value took the blame for sin.

It is not just a coincidence that Jesus is called “the Lamb of God”.  In fact, John the Baptist said, when he saw Jesus for the first time,

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  (John 1:29)

a scene from the Isenheim Altarpiece; artist: Matthias Grunewald, c. 1512-16.

Jesus takes the place of those animals sacrificed for the sins of God’s people.  When he sheds his blood and dies on the cross, he is dying for all our sins.  He is setting things right before God for all of us, once and for all.  Because of his death nothing more needs to be done, ever again.  No more sacrifices need to be offered.  His last words, according to the gospel of John are,

“It is finished.” (John 19:30)

The word in the Greek language for this phrase was the word written on a bill once it had been paid.  Jesus is telling us he’s just paid the debt, in full and forevermore, for our sins.

In the letter to the Hebrews it says,

Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.  (Hebrews 9:22)

Now, for those who realize they need to be saved from their sins, (and we all need to be saved, every last person in the world) they can turn to Jesus and confess him as their Savior.  By doing this the price Jesus paid on the cross for sin is now transferred to the believer’s “account.”  He or she is immediately reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ – the spotless sacrificial Lamb of God.

And not only are our sins forgiven, now through placing our faith in Jesus as our Savior, the tendency we all have to sin and to want our own way can be changed.  We can be remodeled from the inside out.  In another letter I will explain how this works.

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

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

1)      Why does blood play such an important role in ancient Israel?

2)      Describe the contract which God “cut” with Abraham in Genesis 15.  Why is it important to know about this passage?

3)      What happened on the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel?

4)      Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God?  How does his death set us right before God?

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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2 Responses to Bringing Home the Faith (fifteenth installment)

  1. Rick says:

    Thanks for this installment, Claudia.

    I don’t remember having heard or read about God only going between the sacrificed animals putting all the consequences on Him, but I may have. It’s good to have read it now.

    And the “It is finished” meaning is also, with the rest you wrote for today, good to be reminded of.

    All of this makes Jesus’s death so much more understandable.

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