Spank the Boy or Shoot the Cow? What Texas Ranch Life Taught Me About Leviticus and Good Friday

ImageNowadays a nine pound, low-riding Dachshund is the only animal who looks to me as his Adam. But it wasn’t always so. At various points in my upbringing, my family and I raised chickens, a lamb, cattle, and horses, along with usual assortment of cats and dogs. As much fun as I had with these animals, I learned at a very early age that owning them also meant a steady, unending list of chores. Water to be hauled, manure to be shoveled, hooves to be shod. I also learned at a very early age that when my father told me to do those chores, it was not a suggestion. It was a command, a command with a rather stinging punishment attached to it should I choose to neglect those duties.

I would have thought my father had lost his mind if, to punish me for refusing to water the cows, for instance, he had whipped the livestock instead. Or if I’d balked at shoveling manure out of the horse pens, he’d gone around spanking the butts of the horses. If there was a wrong done, I was the one doing it. So it only made sense that I was the one who got punished. Animals are not whipping boys.

Perhaps because of my upbringing, every time I read through Leviticus, I always thought the livestock in that book got a raw deal. Think about it. On a daily basis, doves have their heads wrung off, and lambs have their throats slit, because some sinner screwed up. These birds and beasts, of course, did nothing wrong; they’re led to the slaughter as innocent victims. Wouldn’t it have made more sense if God had devised a system of atonement in which sinners suffered for their own commandment-breaking? Shouldn’t they earn forgiveness by paying with their own pain for the wrong they’ve done? You’d confess your wrongdoing to the priest, turn around, put your hands on the altar, and take the whipping you deserve for whatever your iniquity is. But, no, a guilty Israelite doesn’t even get his finger pricked to put a drop of his own blood on the altar. He shows up at the temple with an animal which has to bare the throat, spill the blood, be a stand-in sacrifice for the sinner.

It wasn’t until many years after my youth, that the Spirit opened my eyes to see that the livestock in Leviticus were not only sacrifices, but cooing, mooing, bleating prophets of one who was to come. Every dove that lost his head at the altar foreshadowed the one on whose head the Spirit would land in the form of a dove. Every bull that bled and died as a holy sacrifice was a proclamation of the one who, while being sacrificed on the cross, would pray from Psalm 22, “Many bulls have surrounded me, strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.” Every lamb roasted atop the flames of the altar was a foretaste of the one who was led as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7); the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); the lamb standing, as if slain, on the heavenly throne (Revelation 5:6); the lamb in whose blood our robes are washed to make them white in that cleaning, crimson flood (7:14).

The animals in the liturgy of the Israelites did not get a raw deal; they were ordained, as it were, to the holy office of naming the Adam-to-come, even as the first Adam had named them. His is the name that is above every name—the name of Servant. He serves by substitution His whole life long: serves by a holy conception and birth that cleanses our own; serves by a holy life of commandment-keeping that covers our law-breaking; serves finally at a greater and more perfect tabernacle, where He presents Himself as a stand-in for sinners, as the final and perfect offering for us.

All of Leviticus is but a preface to Good Friday. God did not set up a system of atonement in which sinners suffered for their own wrongdoing, paid with their own blood for transgressions committed. The lamb of God, Jesus Christ, slain from the foundation of the world in the heart of God, and slain as the foundation for forgiveness on Good Friday, He suffers for sinners, pays for their transgressions. He does so willingly, for His will is for our salvation, His will is nothing but love.

In His bleeding, dying, rising love, we see the love of the Father writ large in two simple words: for you. In those two words we behold the depth and the breadth of divine love which gives all, and does all, for us.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

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