Archive for the month “April, 2014”

If Only I Were in Control

ImageI’d roll my eyes at group assignments in school, for one or two of us would end up doing the lion’s share of the work and at least one schmuck would do nothing. The only sport I’ve ever been gung-ho about is running, where winning or losing depends on Chad and Chad alone. I chose a career path while I was in my early 20’s, scratched the right backs, quoted the right scholars, and soon landed the teaching position I coveted. I like to fly solo; and I like to plan my own flights. I am a man who likes to be in control.

I was even in control of God for a time. Well, I never would have admitted it, much less phrased it that blasphemously, but if my assumptions had been voiced, they’d have affirmed that I believed this lie. God was doing my bidding, catering to my whims. Why? Because I believed all the right things, of course, taught all the right theology, even sang all the right church songs. And as long as I did, God would watch as I plotted my own course in life and would bless me along the way. If I stayed in control, my life would be just the way I wanted it to be.

Are you nodding your head? Have you been the wife who thought that if she provided her husband with a hot supper and steamy sex whenever he hungered for either, that he’d never stray, and by and by you’d be smiling for the camera behind your 50th wedding anniversary cake? And then he cheated. And your world crumbled. Have you been the parent who thought that if you sent your child to Sunday School, taught them right from wrong, and bankrolled their university training, that they’d keep on the straight and narrow and make something of themselves? And now as you tuck your four-year-old grandson into bed and he cries for Mommy, you fight back tears and whisper a prayer that your daughter’s second trip through rehab will stick.

We build our castles of sand during low tide, in seeming control of our perfect little kingdoms, then the waves come lapping closer and still closer. We stand there helpless, watching as all we labored over is swallowed by the ocean’s mouth. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

If I were in control, I’d arrange my life so that heartaches were avoided, sins uncommitted, disasters averted. If you were in control, you’d plan your life so that children lived, marriages survived, careers prospered, cancers were cured. If we were in control, we’d never slide into the dark, dank pit of depression. We’d never fall asleep praying that we wouldn’t wake up. We would plan our lives, smile as all our desires were fulfilled, and know that God above was giving us a standing ovation for doing such a fine job of mapping out an earthly journey of unalloyed happiness.

But we are not in control. Indeed, the few things we stubbornly insist we still control are mere phantasms. Why, there are days we can’t even control our own bowels, so, tell me, why do we think we can control anything else? Indeed, the control we crave is nothing more than a manifestation of our desire to be the gods of our lives, as well as the lives of others.

The believer does not live by control, but by faith. This faith does not demand a laissez-faire approach to living, as if we abandon all planning. Rather, to live by faith is to affirm that, whatever happens in this life, someone bigger than this life, someone better than this life, will hold us and help us through it. To live by faith is not to affirm that, like that misleading “Footprints in the Sand” poem, the Lord carries us through the hard times, but to affirm that the Lord carries us through all times. To live by faith is to know that, when we are going through a divorce, Christ will never divorce us; when our children go astray, they remain children of the heavenly Father; when our lives fall apart, that we live in Jesus, whose resurrection life sustains our life.

We do not exchange, “I am in control of my life,” for “God is in control of my life,” for control is a word of coercion and law. Instead, we say, “I am baptized into Christ.” My life is not my own, but His. His Father is my Father, His God is my God. I am more precious to God than even His own life, for He gave His life that He might have me. I am baptized into the one who causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. I am baptized into the one from whom neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate me, for I am a beloved member of His body, flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone.

I am not in control; I am in Christ. And that is all that ultimately matters.

+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

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Reading Braille in Divine Wounds

ImageWe don’t just call him Thomas; we call him Doubting Thomas. Why he, of all the apostles, had an insult attached to his name, I don’t know. Peter denied Christ three times, but no one calls him Denying Peter. Even Judas, who committed treason against Jesus, is not given the epithet Betraying Judas. But poor Thomas cannot rest in peace as just Thomas. No, he is Doubting Thomas, forever branded.

I do not deny that Thomas doubted. That much is certain. He did, and with great gusto at that. He wasn’t there with his fellow disciples when Jesus appeared to them that first Easter evening. When they told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas replies, “Unless I see in His hand the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe.” He demands visible, tangible proof before he’ll budge a fraction of an inch. He is pig-headed, recalcitrant, a mule of a man. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.

And for all that Thomas is, I thank God. Yes, for his pig-headedness, for his doubt, for his denial, for his dyed-in-the-wool skepticism – for all that, I thank God. Why? Because, as St. Gregory put it, “More does the doubt of Thomas help us to believe, than the faith of the disciples who believed.” I thank God that Thomas doubted, for when he later “touched the wounds in the flesh of his master, he healed in us the wounds of our unbelief.”

Read the full sermon on the Alien Righteousness blog here

Living the Victorious Christian Life at McDonald’s

ImageYesterday I stopped at McDonald’s on my lunch break to grab a cup of coffee and write about the victorious Christian life.

I had just cashed several checks from folks who’d ordered my book of sermons and meditations. As if divining that my wallet was full of cash, twice the number of local homeless people stuck out their filthy hands to me as I walked from my truck to the McDonald’s. But, by God, I was eager to write, so I just quickened my step and played deaf.

No sooner did I get my cup of coffee, find a table, and begin to type my ideas into my iPhone than out of the corner of my eye I spotted a pair of long tan legs, crowned with hot pink shorts, saunter into the establishment. I was three sentences into my article when my train of thought totally derailed in a crash of testosteronic proportions.

While my eyeballs were still locked on the legs, I reached for my cup of coffee but, not looking where my hand was going, I hit the side of the cup, tipped it over, and spilled half the hot java all over the table, and even on my lap. Now this was a public place, of course, so I was forced to settle for an under-my-breath, profanity-riddled implosion of anger at my lack of grace.

I grabbed some napkins and began sopping up the mess. Some of the coffee had splashed on my iPhone, so I worked on it first. As I dried it, I pushed the button to open the lock screen and saw there the date, April 25. I didn’t need to see that, not at this moment. I don’t care for this month. You see, every time the fourth month rolls around, I get to hear, for thirty days, all day long, in various contexts, the name of my ex-wife, April. Already frustrated from the coffee mishap, seeing her name did nothing to improve my mood. Indeed, I found my mind retreating to another, much bigger mess, marked by black days of heartache and fury.

With only a few minutes left in my half-hour lunch break, I strong-armed myself back into the article on the victorious Christian life. Then, wouldn’t you know it, my phone rang. I saw the number. “Dear God, not him,” I mumbled. It was my least favorite customer, the type who always finds a dark lining in silver cloud. He alone has the knack of making me wish I had a different job, a better job, one in which I could be bossing people around instead pretending to be patient with the likes of this scrooge. So I ignored the call. I had work to do.

Then I saw that I had three minutes left on my lunch break. Three whopping minutes. So I threw my coffee-soaked wad of napkins into the trash, shoved my caffeinated phone back into my pocket, and marched past she-of-the-tan-legs into the hot San Antonio sunshine. I walked over the asphalt, climbed into my Freightliner, and sat there ruminating.

I’d meant to use my lunch break to write a critique of the so-called “victorious Christian life,” the warped view of dynamic Christian living in which the believer daily overcomes one sin after the other, until his bio consists of one long string of spiritual conquests.

As I sat in my truck, I realized, for the millionth time, that my own bio consists of one long, string of spiritual defeats. The hungry I ignore. The women after whom I lust. The anger I indulge. The past I cannot seem to get past. The people I despise. I sin more in thirty minutes than those of the “victorious Christian life” supposedly sin in thirty years.

But I also realized, for the millionth time, that that’s okay. They can have their life of faux spiritual victories. For as much as I sometimes hate myself for the stupid things I do, the destructive words I speak, the immoral thoughts I entertain, there is one who does not hate me. In fact, he loves me through it all. He has already conquered the sins against which I daily struggle. He has already washed away the filth of anger and lust and ingratitude in which I find myself wallowing. Jesus—he is my victor, no matter how many defeats I suffer. On that bloody cross, in his own seeming defeat, he made me a victor by welcoming me into his kingdom of grace and mercy.

And that, dear reader, is the only victorious Christian life I will ever live.

+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

Heaven’s High Lungs: A Poem on the Valley of Dry Bones

In a valley gorged on dead men’s bones,
With femurs and skulls twixt sticks and stones,
A graveyard prophet with Spirit breath
Exhaled a sermon that buried death.
He preached to the bones, strewn on the ground,
And crept to his ears a rattling sound.
Dismembered corpses earless to hear
Heard their living Creator draw near.
Socket to socket the bones re-wed,
Flesh-packed and skin-wrapped from sole to head.
He preached to the winds, “Breathe on these slain!”
From heaven’s high lungs, life they obtained.
They stood on their feet, the Father’s host,
Alive in the Son and Holy Ghost.
When hopes grow brittle and life’s a grave,
The Lord of heaven’s alive to save.

+++ If you enjoy my poetry, please consider purchasing a copy of my book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Included in it are approximately 80 poems and 20 hymns. Click on this link to read more about the book. Thank you for your interest!

A Catechism on Sacrifice: A Resource for Understanding OT Worship

If you’ve ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, however, your head began to spin. All this stuff about sacrifices, priests, blood, fat, entrails makes it sound like a ritualistic butcher’s guide. But it’s not. Believe it or not, Leviticus is packed with the Good News of a God who loves His people, and who provides them with the means of grace whereby they can receive Him and His gifts. Leviticus, far from being an esoteric relic from Israel’s past, is a Gospel book of the church. It teaches of God’s holiness, His love, His sacraments, His worship. It is a book we desperately need to recover.

But, yes, it is hard to understand, especially why there is all this focus on sacrifice. Why all these sacrifices? Why all these details about flesh and blood and fat? What’s the difference between all these offerings? And, finally, what do they teach us about Christ’s sacrifice and the sacraments of the church? To answer these questions, I wrote this Catechism on Sacrifice several years ago. It consists of questions and answers to aid you in your study of Leviticus, as well an any part of the OT that discusses the divine service in Israel.

Read it through. Save it for your next Bible Study. Forward it to your pastor. Use it as you see fit. I offer it as a brief resource for the church.

A CATECHISM ON SACRIFICE

What is sacrifice?

In the liturgy of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordained means of grace by which God gave blessings to His people through the things of creation. The sacrifice belonged to God.  He graciously gave it to His people so that they, by faith, might receive the divine gifts communicated therein.  Some sacrifices were also the means whereby Israel gave thanks to God for His gifts to them.

When did sacrifice begin?

Sacrifice began after mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 3).  “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21).  Although the killing of these animals to provide coverings for Adam and Eve is not specifically called a sacrifice, it did require the death of animals.  Sinners were covered only by the death of another who was killed in their place.  The first explicit reference to sacrifice is in Genesis 4, where Cain “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground” and Abel “on his part brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:3-4).

What kinds of things were sacrificed?

One can divide the various kinds of sacrifices into two main categories:  bloody and unbloody.  Bloody sacrifices were the offerings of animals that were ritually slaughtered.  This ritual slaughter ordinarily took place near an altar, upon which a portion of the animal’s blood would be sprinkled or poured out or smeared.  Not any and every animal could be sacrificed, but only those ordained for slaughter by the Word of God (see question #3).  These animals – which were always domesticated animals – included the following:

Bovine:  bulls, cows, heifers, calves, and oxen.

Sheep/Goats:  he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, lambs

Birds:  turtledoves and pigeons

Unbloody sacrifices were offerings from the agricultural produce of the people of God.  These offering included the following:  wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine.  The unbloody sacrifices were ordinarily offered in conjunction with the bloody sacrifices.

Why could only certain animals be sacrificed?

There were three groupings of animals in the OT:  unclean, clean, and clean plus “sacrificeable”.

  1. Unclean animals were to be avoided totally.  They were not to be sacrificed, eaten, domesticated, or their carcasses touched.  These animals are listed in Leviticus 11.
  2. Clean animals could be domesticated and eaten.
  3. Clean plus “sacrificeable” animals could not only be domesticated and eaten; they were also ordained by God as sacrificial victims.

Various reasons have been put forward to explain these three classifications.  Some of the more common theories are:

  1. ARBITRARY:  The lists, though given by God, are arbitrary.  The classes of animals, and the individual species placed therein, are listed as such by God, but there is no definite and ascertainable reason(s) for why some animals are clean and others unclean.
  2. PAGAN CONNECTION:  The animals deemed unclean represented deities in pagan cultures or were used in pagan sacrifice.  To avoid confusion and possible syncretism, these animals were to be avoided by the Israelites.
  3. ANTI-LIFE:  The animals classified as unclean inhabited locations that were inimical to life, or they were predators or carcass eaters.  Because of the symbolism of death attached to them, they were to be avoided.
  4. HYGIENIC:  The animals were unclean which were common carriers of disease.
  5. ALLEGORICAL:  Positive and negative traits of animals were allegorically applied to people.  Animals whose ways do not exemplify proper conduct were unclean, whereas animals whose ways corresponded to the proper conduct of man were clean.  For example, a cud-chewing animal was clean because the clean and holy man should ruminate on the word of God.
  6. SEPARATION OF ISRAEL:  Just as God chose Israel from all the nations to be a holy people to Him, so He chose certain animals from all the beasts of the earth to be clean animals.  The unclean animals thus represented the Gentiles whose ways, if adopted, would have defiled the people of God.

The last of these theories has OT and NT support to recommend it.  We may first take note of Leviticus 20:24-24, which closely connects Israel’s separation from her pagan neighbors with Israel’s separation of unclean from clean animals:

22 ‘You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 ‘Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 ‘Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] you from the peoples. 25 ‘You are therefore to make a distinction [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 ‘Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.

Secondly, when the Lord gives St. Peter the vision of unclean animals and commands him to kill and eat them, the primary message is that Peter is to receive Cornelius and the Gentiles into the church (Acts 10:1-48).  The Gentiles (formerly regarded as unclean) are not to be regarded as unclean or common for “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:15).

Only domesticated animals which were both clean and “sacrificeable” were to be offered up on the altar.  They alone were ordained by God to be in the holy space and to be placed upon the holy altar.  Like the priests, they were separated from all other animals by God for this holy purpose and this holy place.  Thus the three categories of animals closely correspond to the three groups of people in the world:  Gentiles, Israelites, and Israelite priests.

  1. Gentiles = Unclean animals
  2. Israelites = Clean animals not used for sacrifice
  3. Priests = Smaller group of clean animals used for sacrifice

What were the primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy?

The primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy were the whole burnt offering (olah), the sin offering (chattath), the guilt offering (asham), the peace offering (shellamim), and the meal offering (minchah).

What was the whole burnt offering (olah)?

The whole burnt offering was the foundational sacrifice of Israel (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13).  Every morning and every evening, a whole burnt offering of a one-year-old lamb was sacrificed at the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 29:38-42).  This was the continual burnt offering.  Similar whole burnt offerings were also sacrificed at other times.  What distinguished this sacrifice is indicated by the name:  the whole burnt offering.  All the parts of the animal which were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were wholly burnt upon the altar.  Its smoke “went up” (olah) to God from the altar.

What was the sin offering (chattath)?

The sin offering was sacrificed by individuals or the whole congregation when they broke the law of God (Leviticus 4-5:13; 6:24-30).  The type of animal offered (bull, he-goat, she-goat, lamb, dove or pigeon) depended upon the social rank of the individual.  The blood of the victim was smeared on the horns of the main altar and poured out at its base.  If it was offered for a priest or for the whole congregation, some blood was also taken into the Holy Place to be sprinkled on the veil and smeared on the horns of the altar of incense.  The flesh of the animal was cooked and eaten by the priests (if offered for a layman’s sin) or burned outside the camp (if offered for a priest or for the whole congregation).

What was the guilt offering (asham)?

The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, though this sacrifice was offered for those sins in which reparation could be made to the offended party (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10).  A ram was the designated victim for the guilt offering.  In addition, if applicable, property was to be restored, plus 20% of its value, to the offended party.  The blood was poured out on the main altar and the cooked flesh of the victim was eaten by the priests in the court of the tabernacle or temple.

What was the peace offering (shellamim)?

The peace offering was the sacrifice in which the worshiper received back a portion of the sacrificial meat to be cooked and eaten in a ritual meal (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36).  A male or female animal from the flock or herd was sacrificed, its blood was poured onto the main altar, its breast and right leg were given to the priest and his family (as part of his income), and the rest of the animal was consumed in a communal meal.  The Israelite(s) thus consumed the very animal who died for his atonement.  It was a preview of the Lord’s Supper, in which we eat the very body of the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross.  Peace offerings were sacrificed to give thanks to God (praise), to fulfill a vow (votive), or as free-will offerings.

What was the meal offering (minchah)?

The meal offering was a bloodless sacrifice.  It consisted of wheat or barley and was ordinarily accompanied by olive oil, incense, and wine.  It was part of every morning and evening whole burnt offering (Exodus 29:40-41).

Why was blood so significant?

In the sacrificial liturgy, blood was of vast more importance than any other part of the animal.  For example, no part of the animal was ever taken into the Holy Place, much less into the Holy of Holies.  Indeed, no part of the animal – with the sole exception of the blood – was ever taken any closer to the inner sanctum than the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple.  In certain sacrifices, however, the blood was taken into the Holy Place and even into the Holy of Holies.

Leviticus 17:10-11 explains the importance of blood in the sacrificial liturgy:

10 ‘And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.11 ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’

This passage has several noteworthy features.

  1. The life [literally “the soul”] of the flesh is in the blood.  The very life of the animal is located precisely in its blood.  To have the blood is to have the life.  To be touched by the blood is to be touched by the life.  Life is not an abstraction; it is a visible, tangible fluid.  Life is blood and blood is life.  Where there is no blood, there is no life.
  2. I have given it to you.  Blood is a divine gift from the Lord and Giver of life.  This is His institution.  He has given it to His Church that they might have the life that is located in the blood.  Thus the blood not only has life; it conveys life for the Lord has given it for that very purpose.
  3. On the altar.  God gives His Church the life of the blood on the altar.  The altar is not just a place of death but of life for here the life-giving blood is placed.  The life-blood is drained from the victim and placed on the altar.  Because the altar is most holy (Exodus 29:37), the blood, when it touches the altar, becomes most holy.  Therefore, by the Word of God, the blood of the sacrifice is living and holy and bestows life and holiness.  It is life in the animal; it becomes holy on the altar; and it is life-giving and holy-giving to the Church.
  4. To make atonement for your souls.  The life-blood of the victim atones for sinner.  This is its purpose:  it removes sin, it removes death, it removes unholiness.  This happens not just in the killing of the victim, but in the placing of the victim’s blood upon the altar.  No blood is atoning blood unless it touches the holy things of God.  It is sprinkled, poured out, or smeared on God’s altar, God’s priest, or God’s tabernacle.  It is then atoning blood for it has become holy blood by contact with God’s holy thing.  Atoning blood is therefore holy blood, life-giving blood.  It is given for the removal of sin and the bestowal of holiness.

Why was fat so significant?

In addition to the blood of the sacrificial victim, the fat also belonged exclusively to God.  “All fat is the Lord’s.  It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood,” (Leviticus 3:16-17).  The fat to be removed were the layers of fat beneath the surface of the animal’s skin and around its organs – which can be removed – as opposed to the fat which is inextricably part of the muscle.  No explicit reason is given for the God’s exclusive use of the fat.  Presumably, however, the fat was considered to be the best part of the animal and was therefore reserved for God.  The Hebrew word for fat (cheleb) is often used metaphorically to denote “the best”.  For example, “the cheleb of the land” (Genesis 45:18) and the “cheleb of the wheat” (Deuteronomy 32:14) refers to the best of the land and the best of the wheat.  In the Messianic banquet, the Lord promises to make a feast of fats on His holy mountain (Isaiah 25:6ff).

Who performed the sacrifices?

Leviticus 1:3-5 describes “who does what” in the liturgy of sacrifice:

3 ‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.  4 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf.  5 And he shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.

Thus, the Israelite who brought the animal for sacrifice would kill it near the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple.  The sinner for whom this animal’s blood would be shed – he was the slayer.  The killing, however, was God’s institution and gift for by it the sinner was accepted before the Lord (Leviticus 1:3).  After the victim was killed, the priests assumed responsibility for the liturgical actions involving the blood (i.e., sprinkling the blood on the altar).

The body of the victim (e.g., in the whole burnt offering) was then skinned and cut into its various pieces by the Israelite who brought the sacrifice.  After the skinning and quartering were completed, the priests would place the sacrificial flesh and fat on the altar to be wholly consumed by the fire of Yahweh in His altar.

6 ‘He shall then skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the suet over the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. 9 Its entrails, however, and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:6-9)

There were thus specific responsibilities assigned both to the layman and the priest.  Any contact with the altar, however, was reserved exclusively for the priest.

Where were they performed?

Sacrifices were performed near an altar.  The victim was killed near the altar (not on it or over it [except in the case of birds]) and its blood was placed on the altar or smeared on the horns of the altar.  After the institution of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20), almost every sacrifice was performed at the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple (for an exception, see Numbers 19:1-22).  When an Israelite brought a bovine for sacrifice, it would be killed on the east side of the altar, in the forecourt (Leviticus 1:5; 4:4,15).  The slaughter of a sheep or goat took place on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11; 4:24,29,33).  Doves and pigeons were killed over the altar (as exceptional cases) by the removal of the bird’s head, after which its blood was drained on the side of the altar (Leviticus 1:15).

How were the animals sacrificed?

The OT sacrificial liturgy does not explicitly state how the animal was to be killed (except birds, Leviticus 1:15).  The verb used for the slaughter (shachat), however, does connote the slitting of the throat (cf. 2 Kings 10:7).  This particular manner of slaughter would help in the collection of blood from the animal for placement upon the altar.  The slitting of the throat is also supported by rabbinic tradition.

Why did the Israelite place his hand upon the head of the animal?

The man who brought a sacrificial animal placed his hand upon the head of the animal before he killed it.

And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. (Leviticus 1:4)

A similar action was performed by the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 3:2,8,13; 4:4,15,24,29,33)

Various explanations for this rite have been given:  (1) sin is transferred to the animal; (2) the man is identified with the sacrifice; (3) the man declares his purpose to sacrifice this animal; (4) and that the man owns this animal.

To understand the meaning of the laying on of hand(s), it is necessary to consider the following:

  1. The verbs used for the “laying on” (samak) of the hand implies pressure.  The hand is not merely placed on the head; the Israelite leans on the head of the victim, applying the pressure of his body onto the animal.  The implication is that he is placing himself onto and into this animal.
  2. The laying on of hands is done so that the sacrifice “may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4).  The sacrifice is “for him”; it will die in his place as the ram did for Isaac:  “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son,” (Genesis 22:13).  There is an identification between the man and the animal for the animal is killed in the stead of the sinner.
  3. This killing takes places so that the animal might make “atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4).  His sin is covered by the blood of the one who dies in his place.
  4. The laying of hands (at times) took place in conjunction with the confession of sins.  These two actions took place together on the Day of Atonement:  “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness,” (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 5:5).  By means of the laying on of hands and verbal confession, the sins were transferred onto the animal.  He thus became not only the bearer of the sins, but also the substitute for the sinner.

The four explanations (listed above) for the laying on of hands are thus not mutually exclusive.  The owner of the animal (4) lays his hand on the head of the appointed sacrifice (3), leans on the animal to place himself onto and into this substitutionary victim (2), and confesses his sins to transfer them onto the sacrifice (1).

Did the Israelite confess his sin(s) over the animal?

As noted above, the Israelite did confess his sins in conjunction with some sacrifices.  Confession was done, for example, in connection with the guilt offering:

So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin. (Leviticus 5:5-6)

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed over the scapegoat “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21).  The likelihood is great that confession of sins was also a vital part of the ritual of other sacrifices.

Were the sacrifices for God or for man?

Various pagan cults in the ancient world offered sacrifices as food to their gods and goddesses.  This reason for sacrifice is explicitly rejected by God:

[The Lord says,] “I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me,” (Psalm 50:8-15).

God had no need of the sacrifices of Israel.  Rather, Israel needed these sacrifices.  God gave the sacrificial liturgy to Israel after giving them the Law so that they might have a divinely ordained means by which they could be cleansed of their transgressions of the Law.  The sacrifices were thus not for God but for man.  The Lord gave His Church the tabernacle, the altar, and the sacrificial animals so that through these means He might dwell among His people, hear their prayers, grant them forgiveness, and be their good and gracious Father.

What benefits were received from the sacrifices?

Through the sacrifices, as through means, God gave the Israelites gifts such as the following:

(1)  Forgiveness of sins

Leviticus 4:20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”

(2)  Blessing and Righteousness

Psalm 24:5, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

(3)  Cleansing

Leviticus 12:7, “Then [the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.”

(4)  Acceptance

Leviticus 1:3, “He shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.”

Above all else, however, the Lord gave the sacrifices as the chief means by which He directed His people to look for the coming sacrifice of the Messiah.  Every bull, every goat, every lamb, every dove and pigeon was a preview of the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 8-11).

Is it correct to think of the OT sacrifices as sacraments?

Yes.  The OT sacrifices – especially the bloody sacrifices – were not just plain flesh and plain blood, but flesh and blood included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  To these physical things, the Lord joined His Word of forgiveness and cleansing.  The Lutheran Confessions speak of “covenant-signs and signs of grace or sacraments, such as circumcision, the many kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and holy Baptism,” (Formula of Concord, SD VII 50).  The flesh and blood of these animal sacrifices were prefigurements of the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  As such, they conveyed to the believers the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which would be acquired by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.

+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

Why I Don’t Want to Go Back in Time Anymore

ImageIf I had a dollar for every time I’ve wished I could travel back in time to fix all my screw-ups, then I’d have so much money that I could really screw up my life. Still, I have wished it. Indeed, I still wish I could go back and redo things. And I bet you do, too.

Shift time into reverse, hit the gas, and burn rubber all the way back to “that day.” You know, that day. We all have one, or two, or a few hundred. I bet if an outsider were to spy on you during that momentous day, he might not see you doing anything outrageously evil. But his eyes lie; you see what that outsider doesn’t. You know that on that day you took the first hesitant step that led to the next confident leap that led finally to the all-out sprint toward the cliff of self-destruction. It was the first squabble with your spouse that never got resolved, gradually escalated, and finally grew into a bitterness that makes widowhood look like a dream come true. It was that juvenile moment when you caved to peer pressure and smoked that marijuana, that over time led to cocaine, which ultimately landed you in rehab fighting for your life. It’s your own personal “that day” you wish you could relive and fix. You’d rearrange your life the way it should have gone, the way you had it planned. You’d orchestrate a better existence for yourself in this world.

The thing is, not only is fixing our past impossible; who’s to say we wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes? In fact, who’s to say we wouldn’t make matters even worse? Perhaps the most deeply embedded self-delusion we practice is that we learn from our mistakes and thus don’t repeat them. Sure we do. Almost on a daily basis we duplicate our downfalls. Lying got us into deep water once, but not a day goes by when we speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lust wrecked our marriage, but still we cast wanton glances at women, undressing them with our eyes. So, do we learn from our mistakes? You betcha we do; we learn how to mitigate their consequences, or relish the desire but avoid the deed. For sin dies hard. Sin is like a cockroach: hit it, swat it, slap it, squash it, stomp it, but somehow it manages to scurry for cover in the dark folds of our souls.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I realize now, more fully than ever, why I’ve wished I could go back. It’s because I want to chart the course of my life; because deep down I believe what that poem of self-determination says, that “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” No I’m not. All I’ve mastered is servitude to sin. And the only vessel of which I am captain sank in the harbor, before it ever set sail.

Now, every time I want to shift time into reverse to go back to “that day,” I run smack dab into a huge stone that’s been rolled away from a vacated tomb. And there I stop. I get out and peer into the gloom of that grave, but there’s nothing to see but some ancient, folded linens. Not a corpse, not a single, solitary bone. It’s empty, as empty as my desires to fix the past. I realize that the past has already been fixed. What I wanted to do, and what I would doubtlessly have screwed up, someone else has done perfectly. He has taken “that day” and bled away its very existence. All other days have collapsed into a Friday, onto a man, who hung upon a cross. There, he fixed the past by destroying its dominion over us. All the regrets, all the stupid decisions we’ve made that we wish we could go back and change—they cease to matter. All that matters is that man, that God, that Jesus.

Easter is a time for ceasing to care about times past. The void of that tomb renders null and void every past accusation against us. Christ has redone our lives. He has redone everything. If I could go back in time to fix all my screw-ups, I wouldn’t find a single one. They have vanished into the body of that crucified man, who on the third day rose again, and brought with him from the grave me, and you, and a world that is now filled with hope.

*****

If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

My New Book of Meditations and Sermons!

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I’ve wrestled over the title of an article or blog post for days. Maybe I’m looking for something with irony, or humor, or just the right metaphor to catch the reader’s eye. Because titles matter, don’t they? They should make the reader say, “Hey, now there’s something I want to read.”

The title of my newly published book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is not ironic. It’s not humorous. And there’s not a single metaphor in it. But this title says it all. It lays it all out there. Like St. Paul, who told the Corinthians he had determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, this is a book that focuses unapologetically, unflinchingly on Christ alone.

It is written for everyone.

It is written for mothers and fathers, plumbers and pastors, truck drivers and students. It speaks to your struggles and sins, temptations and downfalls. And it points you to the healing and life and forgiveness found in Christ alone.

It is written for preachers who are always in search of new ways of communicating age old truths. In language that is earthy and colorful, vivid and sharp, poetic but not highfalutin, it delivers the Gospel to the soul sunk in the muck of this world.

It is written for seminary students who are just learning how to preach. Homiletics textbooks are useful, but I remain convinced that if you want to learn how to preach, then study sermons that preach the law with clarity and the Gospel with sweetness. Immerse yourself in sermons that preach without using the vanilla verbiage and asthmatic affirmations that your listeners have yawned at a thousand and one Sunday mornings. In this book is fresh preaching of timeless truths.

And, lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, it is written for me. I am a woebegone sinner with a past stained by the scarlet of a million sins I remember, and a million more I’ve forgotten. But even as I read the words of this book, I hear the Good News being preached to me, by me. It says, “Chad, there is hope even for you. It is not found in your efforts to be a better person. It is not found in your repentance, or even your faith. It is found in Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. That crucified and resurrected God–He is your everything. In the blood of that Lamb your scarlet sins are made white. Your hope, Chad, is in Christ alone.”

I wrote this, dear reader, for all of us. So here it is. Follow this link (Christ Alone) to the site. And thank you. Thank you for your interest, your prayers, your encouragement, your love. My fellow Flying Scrollers, I daily thank God for every one of you.

My New Book of Meditations and Sermons!

Image I’ve wrestled over the title of an article or blog post for days. Maybe I’m looking for something with irony, or humor, or just the right metaphor to catch the reader’s eye. Because titles matter, don’t they? They should make the reader say, “Hey, now there’s something I want to read.”

The title of my newly published book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is not ironic. It’s not humorous. And there’s not a single metaphor in it. But this title says it all. It lays it all out there. Like St. Paul, who told the Corinthians he had determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, this is a book that focuses unapologetically, unflinchingly on Christ alone.

It is written for everyone.

It is written for mothers and fathers, plumbers and pastors, truck drivers and students. It speaks to your struggles and sins, temptations and downfalls. And it points you to the healing and life and forgiveness found in Christ alone.

It is written for preachers who are always in search of new ways of communicating age old truths. In language that is earthy and colorful, vivid and sharp, poetic but not highfalutin, it delivers the Gospel to the soul sunk in the muck of this world.

It is written for seminary students who are just learning how to preach. Homiletics textbooks are useful, but I remain convinced that if you want to learn how to preach, then study sermons that preach the law with clarity and the Gospel with sweetness. Immerse yourself in sermons that preach without using the vanilla verbiage and asthmatic affirmations that your listeners have yawned at a thousand and one Sunday mornings. In this book is fresh preaching of timeless truths.

And, lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, it is written for me. I am a woebegone sinner with a past stained by the scarlet of a million sins I remember, and a million more I’ve forgotten. But even as I read the words of this book, I hear the Good News being preached to me, by me. It says, “Chad, there is hope even for you. It is not found in your efforts to be a better person. It is not found in your repentance, or even your faith. It is found in Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. That crucified and resurrected God–He is your everything. In the blood of that Lamb your scarlet sins are made white. Your hope, Chad, is in Christ alone.”

I wrote this, dear reader, for all of us. So here it is. Follow this link (Christ Alone) to the site. And thank you. Thank you for your interest, your prayers, your encouragement, your love. My fellow Flying Scrollers, I daily thank God for every one of you.

Weaning Christians Off the Gospel

ImageMothers may disagree about the best age at which to wean a baby, but I trust they all agree that, sooner or later, little Johnny’s going to have to get his milk elsewhere. It’s all part of growing up. Before you know it, that child will mature from a baby to a toddler to a teen. Then, if he’s like my son, he’ll devour a steak so quickly you’ll begin to suspect he’s moonlighting as a member of a wolf pack. It’s simple biology: as your body changes, so does your diet.

This process of physical maturity has some parallels to spiritual maturity. The Christian grows in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). The Lord does not wish him to remain a child, tossed here and there by the waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14). In fact, Paul writes to the Corinthians that he couldn’t speak to them as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to “babes in Christ.” He gave them “milk to drink, not solid food,” for they were not able to receive it (1 Cor 3:1-2). Just as you don’t put a prime rib on the plate of a two-month-old, you don’t attempt to teach a newborn Christian everything there is to know about the faith before he’s ready.

The only means by which a person becomes a “babe in Christ,” a believer, is by the Gospel. The Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for you—that Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. If therefore, the Gospel is the means whereby a person becomes a child of God, when he grows up spiritually, he moves beyond that simple, childish Gospel, right? That milk of Good News may be appropriate in the early stages of your life as a Christian, but as you mature, you’ve got to put the breast away. I mean, it’s not as if you need to hear, again and again, that Jesus lived a perfect life for your flawed life; that Jesus died in your stead on the cross; that Jesus rose from the dead that you might have life. Really, once you’ve heard and believed the Gospel, the goal now is to learn more and more about the law of God, so that you can mature into a commandment-keeping, law-loving, obedient disciple of Jesus. Right?

Yes, but only if you want to end up living a life of disappointment and despair that finally lands you in hell. If you are determined to get beyond the Gospel, you certainly may, but what you will find on the other side of that Good News is the bad news that you are a dead man walking, that you have deserted Christ, that you’ve traded in the wooden cross of life for the stone tablets of death. The only maturity you will attain if you suppose you get too big, too much of a “spiritual man” to need the forgiving, life-sustaining grace of Christ every hour of every day, is the maturity of a Pharisee. And we all know how well Jesus got along with them.

Here is the truth: Christians are never weaned off the Gospel. Never. Jesus is our milk, our soft food, our solid food, our every meal, no matter where we are in our growth as Christians. He alone is our meat and drink throughout our lives. So long as you are in this life, you will fall flat on your face, again and again, when you try to live a life of obedience. And, lying flat on your face, you will discover that you landed, not on hard ground, but on the crucified body of Jesus. Eye to eye with him. Face to face with your Savior. He will stand up with you in his arms. He will clean you up, wash you, forgive you, lead you onward.

This Holy Week we will stand at the full cross on Good Friday and the empty tomb on Easter morning. But do not imagine that this is one of many stopping points on the journey of faith. This is The Stopping Point. We get no farther. Why move on when here is Jesus, the God who is for you? Indeed, Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life; you are our eternal life.

Yom Kippur: A Poem for Good Friday

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Within that lightless vestibule
that Roman claws would raze,
See Aaron’s brood with crimson gifts
through wafting incense gaze,
To paint a throne where God unseen
beholds the fruit of veins,
And with the soap of severed life
removes his people’s stains.
‘Til comes the Priest clad but in skin,
no lamb or goat his gift,
Upon the cruel and gory throne
his offering to uplift,
To pave the way, with flesh and blood,
for all those bathed in grace,
To stand as priests within the veil,
before the Father’s face.

This poem, along with almost one hundred others, is included in my book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. To purchase your copy, simply click on this link. Thank you for your interest!

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