3. The Grain Offering (Leviticus 2:1-16; 6:14-18; 7:9-10; 10:12-13)
I can well remember the quizzical feeling I sensed as I walked into that remote village in India, late one afternoon three years ago. There was something strange about that village, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was that caused me to think that this was unusual. After several moments I realized that I was puzzled by two things. The first was the fact that the village was virtually empty and almost entirely silent. The answer to this mystery was easy. During the day, every able-bodied man and child goes out to the surrounding countryside with their cattle, so that they might graze. (The elderly, the women and the young children stayed at home, but they remained inside their huts, out of sight until they knew who these strangers were.) The empty streets suddenly came to life in a few minutes, when the cattle were driven home, to their stalls alongside the huts (which could scarcely be distinguished from the huts themselves).
The second puzzle was the one sound that I did hear being emitted from the huts. It was a low, rumbling sound, almost like the sound of a motor, or a poorly lubricated piece of machinery, but I knew this could not be true, for the power lines which ran overhead did not supply any electrical power to the villagers, save to power the street lights, paid for by the government. An Indian friend solved this mystery. The sound was that of the hand-powered grindstones, operated by the women of the village, grinding the grain in preparation for the evening meal—which would consist primarily of a very thin “taco shell-like” bread, which would be cooked over an open fire.
These uneducated village people, whose world was perhaps no bigger than a few square miles, would find it easier to identify with the grain offerings of the Israelites, as regulated in Leviticus chapter 2, than we would. For us, a good “square” meal would consist of meat, potatoes, perhaps another veggie or so, salad, and maybe, dessert. For the Israelites, their meal would be much simpler, much more similar to that of the Indian villager. An offering of grain to God would mean more to these people than to us.
There is one thing which we should not lose sight of, however. While grain was not unfamiliar to the Israelite, it was not a common commodity, either. Remember, the Israelites are not living in Egypt, where grain was common, nor are they yet living in Canaan, where they would grow grain. The Israelites were currently camped at the base of Mt. Sinai. They were in the desert, where grain could not be grown, and where it could not be purchased, either. Thus, the sacrifice of grain was either impossible to do until reaching Canaan, or it was something not easy to do. Offering manna, on the other hand, would have been easy, but this is not what God commanded.
The grain offering is perhaps one of the most difficult offerings of the Book of Leviticus to interpret and apply. Other than by means of resorting to typology, I have seen no works which give a satisfactory explanation of the meaning of the grain offerings, either for the ancient Israelites, or for 20th century Christians. We have before us a task that is not going to be easy, but will be worthwhile, I believe.
Before we begin to analyze the text in greater detail, let me make a comment about the rendering of this chapter in the King James Version of the Bible. You will note that the grain offerings are referred to as “meat offerings.” The word “meat,” as it was used by the translators of the KJV, did not mean “meat” as we now use the term, say in the expression “meat and potatoes.” This was a term which simply referred to food, and thus, in a general way, could refer to grain (either in its raw form, or cooked in some fashion).
Two more comments about the structure and arrangement of our text will help us as we commence our study of the grain offering in chapter 2. First, we should note the structure of the first 10 chapters of the Book of Leviticus. In Leviticus we must consider each offering by consulting two major texts, not just one. There are two sections for each offering, the first regulations are spelled out in chapters 1-5, followed by further regulations in chapters 6 & 7. The second set of regulations generally begin with an expression something like, “this is the law of …,” which then goes on to specify which sacrifice the regulations which will follow pertain to. Thus, we find the regulations for the various sacrifices in two major texts:
(More “laity” directed)
(More Priestly in orientation)
Burnt Offering, ch. 1
Law of Burnt Offering, 6:8-13
Grain Offering, ch. 2
Law of Grain Offering, 6:14-18
Peace Offering, ch. 3
Law of Peace Offering, 7:11-34
Sin Offering, ch. 4
Law of Sin Offering, 6:24-30
Guilt Offering, ch. 5, 6:1-7
Law of Guilt Offering, 7:1-10
Ordination Offering, 6:19-23
Ordination Offerings, 8:1–9:24
Second, we should take note of the basic structure of Leviticus chapter 2. The chapter falls into four basic divisions. Verses 1-3 introduce the grain offering and focus on the offering of the grain in an uncooked form. Verses 4-10 provide the regulations pertaining to the grain offering in several cooked forms. Verses 11-13 deal with that which can and that which cannot be added to the offering. Verses 14-16 prescribe the offering of the first fruits of the grain crop. In summary form, the chapter can thus be outlined:
The Grain Offering in Leviticus 2
Vv. 1-3—The uncooked grain offering.
Vv. 4-10—The various cooked grain offerings.
Vv. 11-13—Ingredients: refused (leaven) and required (salt).
Vv. 14-16—Early grain offerings.
Finally, before we move into our study of the text itself, it is important to keep in mind the three principal terms used for “offering” in the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus. There are three principle terms used for the offerings of the Israelites in chapters 1 & 2. First, there is the general term QORBAN, which is found in chapters 1 through 7 (also chapters 9, 17, 22, 23 & 27) of Leviticus, normally rendered “offering” (cf. Lev. 1:2, marginal note, NASB), and referring to all the sacrifices which the Israelite could offer and that the early chapters of Leviticus describe. Second, there is the more specialized term `OLA, which refers to the whole burnt offering regulated in Leviticus chapter one. Third, there is the term MINHA, which is employed in a technical sense in Leviticus chapter 2 for the Grain Offering.37
Observations Concerning the Grain Offering
The grain offering can perhaps be understood in comparison and in contrast with the whole burnt offering which we have already considered in Leviticus chapter 1. We will begin by noting the similarities of the two sacrifices. Next, we shall seek to note the distinctives of the grain offering, as opposed to the burnt offering. Finally, we shall make some other observations which will help us to determine its meaning and application.
Similarities Between the Grain and Burnt Offerings:
(1) Both offerings required the highest quality offering to be sacrificed. In the case of the whole burnt offering, the animal, whether bull, goat, sheep, or bird (turtledove or pigeon), had to be young, male (except for birds), and without blemish. The grain to be offered had to be “fine.” The term “fine” could mean “fine quality,” which it does by inference, but the “fine” here refers to the finely ground flour which is to be offered.38 To obtain fine flour entailed a great deal of extra effort on the part of the person who ground it, for it was not something which one purchased from the store. Neither was it simply run through an electrically powered mechanical grinder a second time. The flour would have had to have been ground on a primitive grinding stone, a process which, at best, usually produces only a coarse flour. (I suspect that even our commercially purchased whole wheat flour would be difficult to produce on such a primitive grindstone.) Such “fine” flour was that which was fit for a king (cf. 1 Ki. 4:22).
(2) The Grain Offering was, like the Burnt Offering, an offering by fire. Frequently in both chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Leviticus we find the expression, “an offering by fire …” (cf. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 10, 16). Both the Burnt Offering and the Grain Offering were offered to God by fire, on the altar of burnt offerings.
(3) The Grain Offering and the Burnt Offering produced a “soothing aroma to the Lord.” Only the Burnt, Grain, and Peace Offerings (cf. 3:5, 16) were said to produce a “soothing aroma to the Lord.”
(4) There is a close correspondence between the Burnt Offering and the Grain Offering because the two offerings are often carried out together. The Grain Offering was often an adjunct of another offering (cf. Exod. 29:38-46; Lev. 23:9ff.; Num. 6:13ff.; 7:13, 19, etc.; 8:8; 15:1-9). The 28th and 29th chapters of the Book of Numbers most dramatically demonstrate the association between the Grain and the other offerings. The Grain Offering was instructed by God to follow the Burnt Offering (Num. 28, cf. also Josh. 22:23, 29; Judg. 13:19, 23). Thus, while the Grain Offering itself does not atone, there is atonement very near at hand whenever the Grain Offering takes place.
Distinctives of the Grain Offering
Having considered some of the ways in which the Grain Offering is similar to the Burnt Offering, let us now proceed to identify some of the distinctives of the Grain Offering, those characteristics of this offering which set it apart from the first (Burnt) offering. It is in these distinctives, I believe, that we shall find the unique contribution of the Grain Offering.
(1) The Grain Offering is distinguished from the Burnt Offering by that which is being offered up to God. The Burnt Offering was an animal offering; the Grain Offering was a vegetable offering. The Burnt Offering could either be a bull (Lev. 1:3-9), a male sheep or goat (Lev. 1:10-13), or a pigeon or turtledove of either sex (Lev. 1:14-17). The Grain Offering was just that, an offering of grain, which was most likely either wheat or barley.
(2) The Grain Offering differed from the Burnt Offering in that the latter was a blood sacrifice, while the former was not. Since the Grain Offering was not an animal offering, there was no blood shed in this offering. We know that apart from the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins (cf. Heb. 9:22), and thus the Grain Offering did not make atonement for sin. Consequently, the offerer was not instructed to identify himself with the grain he was about to offer, as was the case with the Burnt Offering, with which the offerer identified himself by laying his hand on the head of the animal (Lev. 1:4). The purpose, then, of the Grain Offering was other than that of making atonement for sin.
(3) The Burnt Offerings and the Grain Offerings differed in that the animals for the Burnt Offerings were more accessible than the grain. Grain was common in the ancient Near East, but it was not a common commodity in the camp of the Israelites. Why, after all, was it necessary for God to provide manna for the Israelites to eat, if not because of the absence of grain? The Israelites could not raise wheat in the desert. It would not grow such a crop without rain, and the Israelites were just passing through this place anyway. The grain which the Israelites were to offer was, in my opinion, much more rare, much more precious a commodity than the cattle, which these shepherds had in abundance.
Assuming that the Israelites had grain with them in the camp, grain which they would not eat, but which could be offered to God, what would this grain have been for? I have come to the conclusion that this grain was taken with the Israelites for seed (cf. 2 Cor. 9:10). To sacrifice their seed to God was indeed an act of faith.
The “oil” which was used in this offering (vv. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, etc.) I would take to be olive oil. This would not have been readily available in the desert, either. The same could be said for frankincense, which was probably quite rare and expensive. Thus, the sacrificial materials, the grain, the oil, and the frankincense, were all difficult to obtain in the days of Moses. Once the people entered the land of Canaan, obtaining these goods would have depended upon the bounty of the harvest, for which the Israelites must look to God (cf. Deut. 11:10-12).
(4) The Grain Offering was not a “whole burnt offering,” but only a portion of it was burned on the altar, while the rest was eaten by the priests. The Burnt Offering was totally consumed upon the altar, with the priests benefiting only from the hide (Lev. 1:5-9; 7:8). With the Grain Offering only a handful of the offering was burned on the altar, while the rest was given to the priests:
‘He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons, the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. And the remainder of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons: a thing most holy, of the offerings to the LORD by fire’ (Lev. 2:2-3).
The greater portion of the Grain Offering served as the livelihood of the priests, just as the tithe was God’s appointed means for supporting the Levites (Num. 18:21-24). A handful of the Grain Offering was burned on the altar, while the rest was given to Aaron and his sons. The portion that was offered was called the “memorial portion”39 (Lev. 2:2, 9, 16), while the other portion was called “a thing most holy” (Lev. 2:3, 10; cf. 5:17).40
(5) The Grain Offering was distinct from the Burnt Offering in that the Grain Offering allowed and even encouraged man’s contribution to the offering. The Burnt Offering allowed men to participate in the ceremony of the sacrifice, but not to add anything to the sacrifice. This can easily be understood in the light of the purpose of atonement and attaining divine favor. For sinful man to attempt to contribute to an atoning sacrifice would only defile that sacrifice. The Israelite could add nothing to that sacrifice which atoned for his sins, just as we can contribute nothing to the work of Christ, which atones for our sins.
The purpose of the Grain Offering is not atonement, but worship, acknowledgment of God’s divine provision of the needs of the Israelite for life itself. The Grain Offering praised God for His abundant supply of the “daily bread” of the Israelite. But while men do not contribute to their redemption, they do participate in the growing of the crops by which God sustains their life. Thus, the human element is present in the Grain Offering in a way that it is not in the Burnt Offering.
For example, the kind of grain that can be offered to God seems to be a matter of choice (although perhaps this was simply decided on the basis of what was available). The grain could be offered to God cooked or uncooked, and if cooked in a variety of ways. Verses 1-3 of Leviticus 2 prescribe the offering of uncooked grain, while verses 4-10 regulate the offering of that grain which is cooked in an oven (v. 4),41 on a griddle (v. 5),42 or in a pan (v. 7).43 All of these options suggest freedom as to what form the offering can take, within the parameters God has set. Put in today’s terms, the offering could be that of flour, mixed with oil, of bread, of pancakes, of sweet rolls, or of donuts.
(6) The Grain Offering was distinct in what additional ingredients were either prohibited or prescribed. Forbidden ingredients for the Grain Offering were leaven and honey.44 No specific reason for this prohibition is given, although at the institution of the Passover, leaven was prohibited at this meal (cf. Exod. 12:15, 19). Leaven is not mentioned in the Bible before this. A key to the significance of leaven may be found in Exodus chapter 23: “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor is the fat of My feast to remain overnight until morning” (Exod. 23:18; also 34:25). The blood sacrifice cannot be associated with leaven or with “spoiling.” That is, the blood sacrifice cannot be associated with corruption, which leaven and leaving overnight both are known to produce.
The absence of leaven in the sacrifice was also a reminder of God’s deliverance in the past: “You shall not eat leavened bread with it [the Passover lamb]; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), in order that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 16:4).
Not only are leaven and honey to be absent, but salt and frankincense45 is to be present in the Grain Offering. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling fragrance available in the ancient Near East. I believe that it was a sensory symbol of the pleasure which the offering was intended to bring God. The expense of the frankincense was a reminder that costly sacrifice is worth the price, for pleasing God is the highest good. The salt which had to be offered with the Grain Offering was understood, I believe, in contrast to the leaven and honey. While leaven corrupts, salt preserves and purifies. Salt was thus related to purification and preservation.
Beyond this, the salt that was to be added was identified as “the salt of the covenant of your God” (Lev. 2:13). A “covenant of salt” is found only elsewhere in the Bible in Numbers 18:19 and 2 Chronicles 13:5. In Ezekiel 43:24 God commands salt to be thrown on the Burnt Offerings. We are told that salt was used symbolically in covenants of that day in the ancient Near East. It would seem, then, that salt spoke not only of purity, but even more importantly, of longevity. The salt which was added to the Grain Offering reminded Israel of the covenant God had made with Israel, which was an enduring covenant.
But what covenant is this, and what did it have to do with the Grain Offering? The covenant was the Mosaic Covenant, which promised the Israelites the presence of God and the possession of Canaan, if they kept God’s commandments. In Canaan, God would prosper His people: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey” (Deut. 8:7-8).
The promise included the assurance that God would produce the rain required for the harvests in this land where rain did not predictably fall, and which was not irrigated, like Egypt:
“For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year” (Deut. 11:10-12).
This move to the land of Canaan is going to require a radical change in the way of life of the Israelites. They will cease to be a semi-nomadic people, leading their flocks wherever grass is to be found. They will settle down, still raising cattle, but now growing grain, wheat and barley. The Grain Offering anticipates this radical change, and serves as a reminder that the very grain which they are required to offer will be provided by God. They must trust in Him to provide, as well as to labor diligently in their fields.
In order to determine the meaning of this passage, we must first agree upon the method which we are going to employ to interpret and to apply this Old Testament text. Thus, we will conclude by briefly discussing the hermeneutic which we will employ to interpret this passage. Then we shall seek to identify those principles which were intended to be learned and applied by the reader. We will then seek to find the application of those principles to our lives.
Hermeneutics: A Method of Interpreting This Text
As we move from the distinctives of the Grain Offering to the interpretation of this text, we must pause to consider the crucial area of hermeneutics, the methods with which we endeavor to interpret the biblical text, and then find its application to our lives.
The principle thing we must agree upon is that there is but one primary interpretation of the text. The passage was not written to mean different things to different people, but to convey a message, a lesson, a principle. While there is but one interpretation of the text, that interpretation may have many different applications. Thus, we often are told, and rightly so, “Interpretation is one; applications are many.” There is a message in the second chapter of Leviticus, and it is our task to determine what that message is. Our hermeneutic will define how (the process) we are going to go about trying to discern what the lesson of the text is.
The typological meaning given to a text is seldom, if ever, the principle interpretation of the text. I feel that I must address the “hermeneutic” of typology because of its popularity in the interpretation of the books of the law, such as Leviticus. The biggest problem with typology is that it is so loosely tied to the text, to exegesis, and to the meaning of that text to its original audience. Also troubling and problematic is the fact that so few seem to agree about the meaning of the types which they “see.” My biggest problem is that the typological meaning of any Old Testament text would not have been known to the ancient reader, because a type is best recognized and understood in the light of the coming of its antitype. Joseph did not perceive of himself as a type of Christ, nor did his brothers, nor did any Israelite, until after the coming of Christ. Now, in the light of its typological fulfillment, we understand the meaning and significance of the type. Typology may be of value to us, but it was of little or no value to the ancient Israelite. Typology often serves as a substitute for a careful search for the primary interpretation of an Old Testament text. To be honest, I did not find any commentary who went very far beyond a typological interpretation and application of the Grain Offering.
In a very few instances, for example in Psalm 22, the typological interpretation of the text may be its predominant message, at least for the contemporary saint. But the typological meaning of a passage is one that did not speak to the reader who lived in the days when that text was first written. Typology applies most to those who live after the cross, and not before it. Thus, we should be very cautious about making the typology of a text its principle meaning.
The hermeneutic which we will employ will seek to interpret and to apply this text in the following sequence:
(1) To determine the meaning of the Old Testament text for the Israelite of that day. This is the starting point for our interpretation of all biblical revelation. We must begin by determining what this chapter in Leviticus was intended to teach the Israelites who were with Moses at the base of Mt. Sinai, who had not yet entered Canaan. This is the most crucial step in exegesis (interpretation), and it is also one of the most difficult. It is most difficult because we are most removed from the text in time and in culture. In order to complete this step we must consider:
- What has already happened to the Israelites, which has prepared them to understand what they are now being taught.
- What the text being studied and its context teaches about the meaning of the text.
- What the Old Testament prophets taught (if they did) about the meaning of the Old Testament text. The prophets of the Old Testament often refer to the earlier teachings of the Law, and point out their intended interpretation and application. Thus, the prophets often explain the early passages of Scripture.
- What New Testament might add to our understanding of the interpretation of the Old Testament text. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had a great deal to say about the correct understanding and application of the Old Testament Scriptures. Also, the New Testament writers often used Old Testament texts to buttress or illustrate their teachings. Apostolic interpretation and application of Old Testament passages provides us with a model hermeneutic.
(2) To determine the meaning of the Old Testament text as it was fulfilled in the coming of Christ. In many instances, an Old Testament text is fulfilled by the coming of Christ, or by some facet of His ministry. For example, the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), indicate that the Old Testament sacrificial lamb was, in some way, fulfilled in Christ. When Paul tells us that the rock which followed Israel was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), we have a commentary of the Old Testament passage describing that rock (e.g. Exodus 17). Here is where typology applies, although this method of interpretation must be used with great caution.
(3) To determine its meaning as it is to be applied by the New Testament saint. This is almost entirely based upon a determination of the primary interpretation of the Old Testament text, and then the application of the permanent principles which are evident in that interpretation.
The Grain Offering, Israel, and the Contemporary Christian:
Principles Taught by the Grain Offering
Before we begin to pursue the principles involved in the Grain Offering, let me remind you of some of the practical implications of the exodus and the entrance into Canaan for the Israelite, which bears on the whole matter of the Grain Offerings.
First, the exodus required a radical change in lifestyle for the Hebrew people, from that of semi-nomadic sheep herders, to settled farmers. In the Book of Genesis we see that the patriarchs were shepherds (Gen. 43:32; 46:34), and thus they wandered from place to place. Thus, when the Israelites offered their first fruits of grain, they were instructed:
“You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘I declare this day to the LORD my God that I have entered the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. And you shall answer and say before the LORD your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, …’” (Deut. 26:3-5a; cf. Gen. 37:12-17).
Israel’s wandering was especially the case when there was a shortage of grass or a famine (cp. Gen. 12:10; Gen. 45:5-11). When the Israelites left the land of Egypt, they were to possess the land of Canaan, where each tribe would be assigned a portion of the land. Thus, these shepherds would become settled farmers, with houses instead of tents, with farms which they owned, rather than to wander about like Gypsies. Rather than seeking to buy grain, as they once did, they would raise it themselves.
Second, the exodus from Egypt to Canaan meant that farming would be very different in Canaan than in Egypt. As we have seen previously from the passage in Deuteronomy 11:10-12, the manner in which farming was conducted in Canaan was radically different from that in Egypt. In “Texas terms” it was the difference between “dry” (unirrigated) farming and “deep well” (irrigated) farming. In Egypt, the farmer merely had to dig a trench with his foot and the irrigation waters from the Nile provided the water for this parched land. But in Canaan the people must rely upon God to provide them with the rain which was required for their crops. Thus, Canaan would force the Israelites to farm by faith. The grain which they would raise would be that which God caused to grow and to prosper.
In light of these changes, and of the commands which God gave the Israelites pertaining to the Grain Offering, there are several principles which they were to learn, which are equally applicable to Christians today. Let us consider these principles.
(1) The Principle of Dependence Upon God for the Physical Necessities of Life. The Grain Offering was one means for the Israelite to be reminded (and for him to affirm in worship), that it is God who is not only Israel’s Creator, but also her Sustainer. The great danger for the Israelite, once in the land of Canaan, enjoying the blessings from God’s hand, was to forget where they had come from, and why. Thus we read,
“Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers … to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied, then watch yourself, lest you forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:10-12).
“Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 8:11-14).
What God warned would happen did. The very blessings which God gave to the Israelites were then used in the worship of false gods: “‘Also my bread which I gave you, fine flour, oil, and honey with which I fed you, you would offer before them for a soothing aroma; so it happened,’ declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 16:19).
Some might think that while the Israelites of old were to offer the Grain Offering to develop and to express their dependence upon God, such has no application or bearing on the New Testament saint. Our Lord taught differently. The prayer which He gave as a model for prayer includes the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11).
The independent, self-sufficient attitude about which God warned the Israelites is that same spirit which James condemns in New Testament saints:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil (Jas. 4:13-16).
The problem for 20th century Christians in the Western World is that we have too many margins of safety, too many contingency plans, too much to rely on other than God. The farmer of Moses’ day had to look to God, day by day, for rain, for protection from predators like the grasshopper, and so on. We have crop insurance, bank accounts, and the like. In all honesty, we don’t trust in God because we don’t feel that we need to.
(2) The Principle of Dependence Upon God for the Spiritual Necessities of Life. The dependence which God wants to develop in His people is not just a dependence upon Him for physical food, but it is a dependence upon God for guidance and direction, a dependence upon His word. Thus, even in the Old Testament, God stressed the importance of obedience to the Word of God: “And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).
The daily provision of Israel’s physical needs, and the promise of prosperity in the land of Canaan, was based upon Israel’s obedience to God’s law, as expressed in His covenant:
“Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the LORD your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” (Deut. 28:1-6).
We live under the New Covenant, not under the old. Does this mean that obedience is no longer vital to us? Far from it! You will remember that in our Lord’s testing in the wilderness, Satan sought to get Him to make a stone into bread. Our Lord’s response was to rebuke Satan, based upon the statement in Deuteronomy 8 that man shall not live by bread alone. Thus, in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel we find the disciples urging our Lord to eat, and perplexed when He responded to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The disciples therefore were saying to one another, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:32-34).
When our Lord spoke of Himself as the “living water” in John chapter 4, He spoke of Himself as the Savior of men. Thus, those who drank of His “living water” never thirsted again. But our Lord not only referred to Himself as the “living water,” He also spoke of Himself as the “bread of life” (John 6). He, as the “true” bread, was like the manna which God gave the Israelites in the wilderness, which daily sustained their lives. There is a sense, then, that we must not only, once for all, look to our Lord as our Savior, but we must look to Him daily as our sustainer. In John chapter 15 this daily dependence is described as abiding in Him, as a branch abides in the vine. Just as the Israelites were constantly reminded of their dependence on God by the Grain Offering, so we must also be daily reminded of our dependence upon Christ. Much of our abiding in Him is that of abiding in His word, the bread of life (cf. John 15:7; John 16:13-15; 17:17).
(3) The Principle of Sacrifice. How, then, do we develop the kind of trust in God that we should have? There is one very simply way: to give sacrificially. While Christians today do not offer up Grain Offerings to God, we can offer up sacrifices by giving to others. These “sacrifices” are described by the New Testament writers in Old Testament sacrificial terms. In reference to the gift of money which he had received, Paul said, “But I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).
While it may be true that most Christians give, it is doubtful that most of us give sacrificially, in such a way that we must daily depend on God to meet our needs. What kind of giving, then, is sacrificial? I would suggest that it is the kind of giving which makes us dependent upon God for our next day’s bread. It is the kind of giving which depletes our reserves, and which causes us to look to God for our needs for the next day. This is the kind of giving we see in the Old Testament when the Israelite offered up the first fruits of his fields, trusting God to provide an additional harvest. It is the type of giving we find exemplified by the Gentile widow, who provided for the prophet Elijah, even though her grain container was emptied (1 Ki. 17:8-16). It is the kind of giving we find in the New Testament, when the poor widow gave her last two coins (Mk. 12:42). It is also the kind of giving we see in the Macedonian church, which gave out of their poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-2).
It is in the context of the sacrificial giving of the Macedonians that we find these words, reflecting the terminology of the Old Testament grain offering: “Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor. 9:10).
The generous sacrificial giving of the Macedonian saints is likened by Paul to the offering of grain by the Israelites. When men give sacrificially, Paul says, God replenishes their supply of grain, so that they may give even more. Here is where our faith enters in. When we give, knowing that this depletes our supplies, we must do so trusting in God to replenish our supply. Sacrificial giving requires faith in God as the One who faithfully supplies our needs, and who gives to us our daily bread. In my estimation, one of the greatest hindrances to sacrificial giving today is our lack of faith in God as our sustainer.
(4) The Principle of Support. The Old Testament saints supported the priests by their sacrifices, and the Levites by their tithes. The sacrificial offering of grain (among others) was God’s means of providing for the needs of the priests. We might think that this matter of support is surely something put to rest in the New Testament, but Paul applies the principle of support, based upon the levitical offerings, to the support of those whose time is consumed by their ministry: “Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13-14).
(5) The Principle of Sequence. There is a very important matter of sequence which is suggested by the relationship of the Grain Offering to the Burnt. The Burnt Offering allowed for no human contribution to the sacrifice, while the Grain Offering allowed for much. The reason why the Burnt Offering allowed for no human contribution was because the offering was a blood offering, and was to make atonement for man’s sin. Sinful men can only corrupt an offering, they cannot contribute to it. But since the Grain Offering followed the Burnt Offering, then human participation and contribution are allowed, because man’s sinfulness has been atoned for.
The principle of sequence can be seen in the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians. There was a man living in sin who was allowed to remain in fellowship with the church (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Paul had determined that this man should be put out of the church. He then cites biblical precedent from the Old Testament:
Your boasting is not good. Do you now know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
Paul’s application was based on the celebration of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which started after the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began by searching the house for any leaven and putting it out. Paul was thus pointing to the sequence of these two events. The sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, followed by the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which commenced with the putting away of all leaven). When the first is done, the second should begin.
So, too, Paul reasoned, since Christ is the Passover, and since He has been sacrificed, the putting away of leaven should be under way. The Corinthians should put away this man, whose presence was serving as leaven in the body, corrupting the whole.
So, too, I believe, with the Burnt and the Grain Offerings. Man can add nothing to his redemption, to his atonement, and so man could not add to the Burnt Offering. But since the Grain Offering followed the Burnt Offering, man’s contribution is acceptable to God, based on the atonement of the Burnt Offering.
People cannot give anything to God until they have first received the atonement which the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, has offered. He is the Burnt Offering, who made atonement for our sinfulness. His offering makes it possible for us to make other sacrifices and offerings to God because our sins are atoned for. How sad it is when people violate the principle of sequence and try to offer things to God before they receive His salvation in Christ. How sad it is when people try to clean up their lives in order to be acceptable to God. But once His sacrifice has been accepted, once we have trusted in Christ’s work on our behalf, then our offerings and sacrifices are pleasing in His sight, so long as they conform to the requirements He has given us.
I pray that you have received the atonement Christ has made by the shedding of His blood on the cross of Calvary, and that having done so, you will now offer to God the other sacrifices which will be pleasing in His sight.
35 The principle texts which pertain to the study of the grain offering are: Exod. 29:41; 40:29; Lev. 2:1-16; 6:14-18; 9:4; 23:18; 5:11-13; 7:9-10; 10:12-13; Num. 15:6; the key interpretive texts are: Gen. 18:1ff.; Exod. 29:38-46; 1 Sam. 1:24; 1 Sam. 28:20-25 (esp. v. 24); Judg. 6:19-24 (esp. v. 19); Ezek. 16 (cf. esp., vv. 13, 15, 19).
36 It is puzzling why the editors of the NASB chose to reverse the titles of these two sections. You will note that the headings for the first five chapters begin, “The Law of …” while the headings for chapters 6 and 7 begin, “The Priest’s part in …” They are correct in the observation that the second section does emphasize the part of the priest, but it is in chapters 6 and 7 that the biblical text reads, “The law of …” (cf. 6:9, 14, 25; 7:1, 11, 37). I believe that titles should reflect the text itself, and thus I would choose to differ with the choice of titles in the NASB at this point.
37 “The Hebrew word for cereal offering is minhah. In Leviticus this is a technical term for cereal offerings as defined in this chapter, but elsewhere its meaning is much broader. It may refer to animal sacrifices as well as cereal offerings; for example, both Cain’s and Abel’s offerings are called minhah, though Abel’s consisted of animals and Cain’s of cereals. Other references to minhah in nontechnical passages may well refer to animal sacrifices as well as cereal offerings (1 Sam. 2:17, 29; 26:19).” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 69.
38 Lange informs us that the Hebrew term for “fine” is “… a work of uncertain derivation, but clearly meaning fine flour, whether as separated from the bran, or as sifted from the coarser particles.” John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960 [reprint]), trans. by Tayler Lewis and A. Gosman, 12 vols, first vol., “Leviticus,” p. 32.
39 “Memorial portion … is a technical term used in Lev. 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:8(15); 24:7; Num. 5:26. It is a difficult term to find an exact English equivalent for. It is derived from the verb zakar, ‘to remember.’” Ibid., p. 68, fn. 3.
40 “The term ‘most holy’ is applied to all the sacrificial gifts that were consecrated to Jehovah, in this sense, that such portions as were not burned upon the altar were to be eaten by the priests alone in a holy place; the laity, and even such of the Levites as were not priests, being prohibited from partaking of them … in fact all the holy sacrificial gifts, in which there was any fear lest a portion should be perverted to other objects,—were called most holy; whereas the burnt-offerings, the priestly meal-offerings (chap. vi. 12-16) and other sacrifices, which were quite as holy, were not called most holy, because the command to burn them entirely precluded the possibility of their being devoted to any of the ordinary purposes of life.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 293.
41 Lange writes that the word ‘oven’ “… must here mean a portable oven, or rather a large earthen pot or jar, such as is still in use in the East for baking cakes, such as is mentioned in xi. 35 as capable of being broken; this was heated by a fire inside.” Lange, “Leviticus,” p. 31.
42 “Authorities differ as to whether this is to be understood … of a frying-pan, or as … of a flat plate. … The distinction of this variety of oblation from the former will be more marked if we may understand it of fried cakes, according to the translation of the A. V. in 1 Chron. xxiii. 29.” Ibid.
43 “This is another variety made up with oil and boiled, perhaps also boiled in oil. Lange notes that with each successive advance in the form of the oblation ‘the addition of the oil seems to rise, …” Ibid.
44 Leaven and honey were prohibited ingredients in Grain Offerings which were to be burnt on the altar, but were not forbidden for every sacrifice (cf. Lev. 7:13-14; 23:17; 2 Chron. 31:5).
45 As I understand the text, the frankincense was only added to the portion offered to the Lord. Thus, the text specifies that the priests take the handful of grain and all of its frankincense (Lev. 2:2; cf. also 2:16) and offer it upon the altar of burnt offering.
4. The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-34; 19:5-8; 22:29-30)
As I have studied the Book of Leviticus this past week, I have come to realize several things which greatly motivate and enhance my study. Let me share these with you as we commence our study of the “Fellowship” or “Peace” Offering.
First, I have begun to appreciate the opportunity to consider the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice one-by-one. A friend of mine tells the story of the woman who is trying to decide how she should confess her sins. She asks, “Shall I ’fess ’em as I does ’em, or shall I bunch ’em?”
The problem of “bunching” is very much related to our study of the offerings. The offerings of the Old Testament are something like the tools in John Maurer’s shop: He has a particular tool for each particular task, and you never use the wrong tool for the task.
The Old Testament seems to have more offerings than we can count. That can lead to a fair bit of frustration on the part of the New Testament saint. There is a very important lesson to be learned here, which may help to motivate us in our study of these offerings. There is no one Old Testament offering which sums up the work of our Lord, and thus we must see that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection served to accomplish many different functions, not just one. I believe that it is Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer who lists over thirty things which the death of Christ accomplished.
We tend to “bunch” the benefits of the work of Christ, rather than to deal with them one at a time, and in so doing we miss much of the blessing which could be ours. One great contribution of the offerings in the Book of Leviticus is that they portray the blessings of the death of Christ, the Lamb of God, individually. The Old Testament saint would sacrifice the various offerings and would grasp, to some degree, the blessings God had given him. With each offering was associated some particular blessing. For us, all the blessings of God are realized by one offering, made once for all, the death of Christ at Calvary. In the Old Testament offerings, we are given the privilege to pause and to focus on the particular benefits and blessings we have received in Christ’s death, and to do so one at a time.
Second, every sacrifice that an Israelite offered was of a certain type, and for a specific purpose. Every offering has very exacting rules as to what is offered, how it is offered, and by whom it is offered. For example, the Peace Offering could be eaten on the day it was sacrificed, or on the day after, but not on the third day. To eat this sacrificial meat on the third day would have serious consequences (Lev. 19:5-8). A burnt offering had to be a male, while the Peace Offering could have been a male or a female, but not a bird. An ox or a lamb with an overgrown or stunted member could be offered for a freewill Peace Offering, but not for a votive Peace Offering (Lev. 22:23). Because of the consequences for failing to observe the “laws” of the offerings, one must be very certain what offering he was making, and then do it in accordance with all the laws God had laid down.
If you would, the law prescribed the plan, the way in which every offering was to be made. Before men could follow the plan, they had to determine the purpose, that is they had to decide which offering they were about to make, and why. Thus there was a built-in safeguard against mindless ritual, in which one went through the motions of making an offering without really thinking about what he was doing or why. The Israelite’s worship was to involve his whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. The precise regulations encouraged the Israelite worshipper to engage his mind in his worship.
Third, the only meat which an Israelite ate from their cattle was that which was offered as a Peace Offering. I know this is hard to believe, but listen to the command of God as given in Leviticus chapter 17:
“Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or a lamb, or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of the meeting to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people” (Lev. 17:3-4).
These are strong words indeed! Any animal that was slaughtered had to be offered to God as a sacrifice. Any blood that was shed, was shed as a part of a sacrifice. Thus, any meat that was eaten (at least from the cattle of the Israelites) had to be that which was first offered to God as a part of a sacrifice at the tent of meeting. And since the Peace Offering was the only sacrifice of which the Israelite could eat, every time the Israelite wanted to eat meat for dinner, he had to offer a Peace Offering.
There are three principle passages in the Book of Leviticus which deal with the Peace Offering. They are:
A. Leviticus 3:1-17—the mechanics of the sacrifice
B. Leviticus 7:11-34—the meaning of the sacrifice
C. Leviticus 19:5-8—The “law of leftovers”
Leviticus 3 is structured similarly to the first chapter of Leviticus. The regulations for the sacrifice of the Peace Offering are dealt with in terms of the kind of animal sacrificed. Thus, in chapter 3 we find the following structure:
A. Leviticus 3:1-5—offerings from the herd
B. Leviticus 3:6-17—offerings from the flock
1. a lamb (vv. 7-11)
2. a goat (vv. 12-17)
Leviticus chapter 7:11-34 is structured differently:
A. Lev. 7:11—Introduction
B. Lev. 7:12-14—Grain Offerings which accompany the Peace Offering
C. Lev. 7:15-34—The flesh of the Peace Offering
1. Its Defilement— vv. 15-27
a. By delay, vv. 15-18
b. By contact with unclean thing, vv. 19-21
c. By definition, vv. 22-27
2. Its Distribution—vv. 28-34
The Peace Offering
Imagine for the moment that you are an Israelite in the days of Moses, and that you are about to make a Peace Offering, according to all of the regulations in the Pentateuch. You could offer a Peace Offering as an act of thanksgiving (Lev. 7:12; 22:29-30), or to fulfill a special vow (Lev. 7:16; 22:21), or as a freewill offering (Lev. 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23). These were all optional offerings, which an Israelite could offer at any time, except for the feast of Pentecost (Lev. 23:19) and the fulfillment of the Nazarite’s days of separation (Num. 6:13-20), when the offering was mandatory.
You would begin by selecting an animal without any defect, either male or female, from the herd or from the flock (Lev. 3:1, 6). You would then bring this animal to the doorway of the tent of meeting, where you would lay your hand upon its head (3:2, 8, 13), thus identifying your sin with this animal, and yourself with its death. When you have slain the animal, the priests will collect the blood which is shed and sprinkle it around the altar (3:2, 8, 13).
The animal would then be skinned46 and cut into pieces. The priests would then take the fat of the animal, along with the kidneys and the lobe of the liver, and burn it on the altar of burnt offering (3:3-5; 9-11; 14-16). God’s portion of the Peace Offering would be the blood and the fat (Lev. 3:16-17; cf. 17:10-13). The priests would be given the breast and the right thigh of the animal (cf. Exod. 29:26-28; Lev. 7:30-34; 10:14-15). Aaron and his sons receive the breast (7:31), while the thigh goes to that priest who offers up the Peace Offering (7:33).
Along with the fat which is offered up to God there would also be the appropriate offering of grain. In the case of a thanksgiving offering both leavened and unleavened cakes were to be offered, some of which was burned on the altar, and the rest of which was to go to the priests (7:12-13). This was not the only grain offering which was leavened, for the celebration of Pentecost included the offering of leavened bread (Lev. 23:17). Those who would tell us that leaven is always a symbol of evil, and that, as such, it can never be used in conjunction with Israel’s worship or offerings, have some explaining to do here.47
Since the fat48 and blood are offered to God and the breast and the right thigh are given to the priest, the rest of the sacrificial animal is left for the offerer to eat. Thus, after the offering of the fat portions on the altar, the Israelite would eat a meal,49 partaking of the portions of the sacrificial animal which remained. Not much is said about the meal that is eaten. In contrast, there is considerable emphasis placed on the disposal of the meat of the Peace Offering (cf. Lev. 7:15-18; 19:5-8). I call this, “the law of the leftovers.”50 The meat of the thanksgiving Peace Offering must be eaten on the day it is sacrificed (7:15); if it is a votive offering or a freewill offering, it can be saved and eaten on the next day, but then must be burned (7:16-18; 19:5-8). The one who disobeys this regulation must be cut off from his people (19:8).
Distinctives of the Peace Offering
There are several distinctives of the Peace Offering, as compared with the Burnt and Grain Offerings of chapters 1 and 2. It is these distinctives which provide us with the key to the unique role of this offering.
First, the animal sacrificed in the Peace Offering could be from the herd or from the flock (but not a bird), whether male or female.
Second, the offering was shared by God, by the priests, and by the offerer. All of the Burnt Offering was the Lord’s (except for the skin). Most of the Grain Offering was for the priests. But the Peace Offering was shared by all, each receiving their appointed portions.
Third, three of the occasions on which the Peace Offering was appropriate were for thanksgiving, for completing a vow, and for a freewill offering.
Fourth, the Peace Offering was unique in that there was a meal associated with this offering.
Fifth, the thanksgiving Peace Offering included leavened bread (Lev. 7:13).
The Origin and Meaning of the Peace Offering
Sacrifices were not new to the Israelite, nor to the pagan, for that matter. The laws of Leviticus which pertain to the offerings do not initiate sacrifice, they merely seek to regulate it. The reason for these regulations, as for most all laws, is that men are abusing certain privileges. Before we seek to discern the meaning of the Peace Offering, let us take a moment to trace the history of sacrifice from the biblical data we are given.
Sacrifice was first offered by Adam and Eve and by their sons. Animals had to be slaughtered for the skins which covered the nakedness of Adam and his wife (Gen. 3:21).51 Then, in Genesis chapter 4, Cain and Abel made offerings to God (Gen. 4:1-5). Abel offered a blood (animal) sacrifice. It is especially interesting to note the wording here: “And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4a, emphasis mine).
In the first recorded animal sacrifice by men, we are told that the “fat portions” are offered. And thus we read in Leviticus, “… all fat is the LORD’s” (Lev. 3:16b). Then, after the flood, Noah offered animal sacrifices to God as burnt offerings (Gen. 8:20), and as a result, God made a covenant never to destroy mankind in this way again (Gen. 8:21-22). God then pronounced a blessing on Noah and his sons, and gave the animals to them for food, seemingly for the first time (Gen. 9:1-3). There was the stipulation, however, that the blood of the animals could not be eaten (Gen. 9:4-5), which, if it is not the precedent for this command in Leviticus, is surely somehow related: “‘It is a perpetual statue throughout your generations in all your dwellings; you shall not eat any fat or any blood’” (Lev. 3:17). The prohibition against shedding man’s blood is then stated, along with the institution of capital punishment, as the penalty for murder (Gen. 9:5-7).
It is my speculation that from this time on, no animal was sacrificed apart from some kind of sacrificial ceremony, at which time the blood was poured out, and perhaps the fat was offered up in fire to the Lord. I believe that this practice persisted, in a perverted form, by the pagans who descended from Noah and his sons. I say this on the basis of two biblical texts:
So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play (Exod. 32:6).
“The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to the LORD, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer up the fat in smoke as a soothing aroma to the LORD. And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations” (Lev. 17:5-7).
Before Moses had descended from Mt. Sinai with God’s instructions, which included the sacrifices, the Israelites were offering “peace offerings” as a part of their heathen worship. They did not learn to make peace offerings from Moses, and so they must have known similar offerings from their past. The text in Leviticus 17 is even more explicit. The reason why God ordered the Israelites to slaughter every animal as a sacrifice before the tent of meeting (Lev. 17:1-4) was because they were slaughtering their animals outside the camp in the open field, not in a neutral way, but as a part of a heathen ritual which involved the worship of “goat demons” (17:7). Thus, the regulations of Leviticus pertaining to the offerings were to deal with the corrupted form of offering, which I believe stems from the sacrifices of Abel, and later of Noah.
The killing of animals by the shedding of their blood thus was originated by God, and was normally associated with atonement (covering sin) and with God’s blessing, as expressed in His covenants. The Book of Genesis thus laid a vital foundation for the origins of worship and of sacrifice, intended to correct the distortions and perversions of it over time by sinful men. Much of Israel’s understanding of the Peace Offering (and the rest) was therefore based on the divine revelation of Genesis.
In the Book of Exodus we find further revelation concerning the Peace Offering, which would assist the Israelite in understanding the significance of this offering. God spoke specifically of the Peace Offering in Exodus 20:24: “‘You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.’”
Again, in Exodus chapter 24, we find the Peace Offering. You will recall that God has just proclaimed the details of the Mosaic Covenant to Moses, and in chapter 24 this covenant will be formally ratified. Thus, we read:
And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. … Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Exod. 24:4-5, 9-11, emphasis mine).
Numbers chapter 7 is an account of the gifts and offerings which were initially offered by the leaders of Israel (7:2), which includes peace offerings. It seems to me that in both Exodus 24 and Numbers 7 the leaders are acting representatively for the people in making their peace offerings. While it is not stated per se in Exodus 24, it would seem to me that the meal which was eaten by the leaders of Israel in God’s presence was the prototype and predecessor of the peace offering which would be made in conjunction with the tabernacle. Where did the leaders of Israel get the food which they ate in God’s presence? I think that it was that which remained from the peace offerings of 24:5.
It is against the backdrop of Genesis and Exodus, in the light of the previous sacrifices and peace offerings of God’s people, that the Israelite was to understand the peace offering. But this is not all the information we have concerning the meaning of the Peace Offering. In addition, we have (1) the meaning of the original term employed for the Peace Offering, (2) the instructions and regulations pertaining to the Peace Offering, (3) biblical examples of the Peace Offering, and, (4) the ability to distinguish this offering from the others (knowing the primary significance of the other offerings at least enables us to discern what facets of Israel’s relationship to God have not yet been enacted by their sacrificial ritual). Let us briefly consider each of these, so that we can discern the meaning of the Peace Offering to the Israelite of Moses’ day.
(1) The meaning of “peace.” There is considerable difference of opinion as to exactly what the Hebrew term employed for the “Peace” Offering actually means. Nevertheless, there is some help to be gained from a consideration of the general meaning of the root word. Essentially “peace” has the connotation of “wholeness” or “completeness.”
An illustration of biblical “wholeness” can be seen in marriage, specifically in the marriage of Adam and Eve. When God made Adam, he was initially alone. When Adam named the animals, they all passed before him—in pairs! There was Mr. and Mrs. Sheep, Mr. and Mrs. Ox, and so on. Adam began to feel incomplete, and rightly so. God said that Adam’s aloneness was not good, and so he made a mate for him—Eve. When the two were joined together, they became one flesh. Adam became “whole” when he became one with Eve.
So the Israelites became whole when they become one with God in worship. “Peace” describes this wholeness. I believe “peace” refers to the condition of acceptance (cf. Lev. 19:5, “So that you might be accepted”) which the Israelite experienced with God by virtue of the sacrifices, resulting in an inner peace on the part of each Israelite. Since the offerer places his hand on the animal that is sacrificed, the element of sin is clearly present. This offering assures the offerer that he has peace with God, based upon the shedding of innocent blood.
(2) The instructions pertaining to the Peace Offering. In particular, the most striking features of this offering are that the offerer personally partakes of the sacrificial meat by means of a festive meal. I take it, that in so doing the focus here is more upon the experiential benefits to the offerer than in the previous offerings. In the Burnt Offering, the offerer received none of the sacrificed animal at all. In the Grain Offering, the same was true, although the priests fared better here. But it is in the Peace Offering, indeed, only in the Peace Offering, that the offerer gets something back, something like a rebate. I believe this suggests that the emphasis falls on the benefits to the offerer, that the offerer is here more in view than previously has been the case.
(3) The biblical examples of the Peace Offering. In 1 Samuel chapter 1, Hannah made a vow to the Lord that she would dedicate her son to the Lord if He would but give her a boy child. When God answered her prayer, she fulfilled her promise, thus completing her vow. Thus, in obedience to the instructions found in Leviticus pertaining to the Peace Offering, Hannah went to Shiloh and gave her son to the Lord, offering her Peace Offering at this time (1 Sam. 1:22-28). As she had experienced the “wholeness” of child-bearing and of being able to fulfill her vow, she offered her “peace” offering.
In many other instances the Peace Offering was offered in the history of Israel. Interestingly, this offering was made both in times of great sorrow (e.g. Judg. 20:26; 21:4) and in times of great joy (e.g. Dt. 27:7; Josh. 8:31; 1 Sam. 11:15). In each instance the Peace Offering focuses on the benefits, the wholeness, which Israel is experiencing, or which she had lost (and for which she hopes), the offering then being an act of faith, a looking forward to a future wholeness or peace, which God will grant His people.
(4) The Peace Offering as contrasted to the Burnt and Grain Offerings. I said at the outset of this message that each of the sacrifices focuses on one particular facet of God’s grace and of the benefits which God’s people experience through the sacrifices. The Burnt Offering focus on the satisfaction of God’s righteousness because of the sacrificial death of the animal offered. Here, as it were, the emphasis falls on God, and the satisfaction of His anger, due to the general fallen condition of man. The Grain Offering focuses on the Israelite’s dependence upon God, not only for forgiveness and spiritual life, but for physical life. The Peace Offering focuses on the Israelite’s “peace with God,” the joys and the peace of mind which comes from knowing that God is at peace with us. Thus, whether it is the joy that God has enabled the Israelite to fulfill his vow, or in thanks for some gracious act of God, or a freewill offering, the Israelite’s peace with God is in view.
The Peace Offering and the Contemporary Christian
(1) Christ is our Peace Offering. The primary significance of the Peace Offering of the Old Testament is to be found in its antitype, Jesus Christ. In the offering of the Peace Offering the Israelite was benefited by the peace of knowing and experiencing God’s forgiveness. In fact, it was more than this. God’s anger was not just appeased, God was no longer angry with the offerer, His favor was with him. There is the sense in which Christ’s death appeased (propitiated) God’s anger, but the “Peace Offering” aspect of Christ’s work went beyond this. Because of Christ, God is no longer angry with the one who has identified with Him by faith, He is favorably disposed to Him. And because this is true, we can experience the inner peace that comes from knowing God’s favor is directed toward us. Just as our love for God is reflected in a love for man, so our “peace with God” also manifests itself in a peace with men. This is the message which Paul proclaimed:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. and He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:13-18).
Some versions have translated the “Peace Offering” the “Fellowship Offering.” Both terms, “peace” and “fellowship” are appropriate, in my opinion. Through Christ’s death we have peace and fellowship with God and peace and fellowship with man. The meal that the offerer of the Peace Offering enjoyed, along with his fellow-Israelites, whom he invited, signified the peace which the sacrifice brought about.
Years ago, Dr. Billy Graham wrote a book entitled, Peace With God. There are a lot of expressions used for conversion which I do not care for, because they are not really biblical, but this expression, “peace with God” expresses, perhaps better than any other, the blessing which salvation brings to the believer. Have you experienced this peace with God my friend? The Bible tells us that we are born at enmity with God. That is our natural state (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). That condition of hostility, Paul tells us in the second chapter of Ephesians, is remedied and removed by the blood of Christ, and enmity with God is replaced by peace with God, and with our fellow men.
We are hearing a lot of talk these days about “fulfillment” and “self-realization” and the like. We can read much about “reaching our full potential” and having a “positive self-image,” but all these goals fall far short of the joy of having peace with God, through faith in our great Peace Offering, Jesus Christ. I urge you, if you have never received this gift, do so today, by simply trusting in Jesus Christ as your Peace Offering to God. When you receive Christ as your Peace Offering you will be able to sing with conviction and assurance, “It Is Well With My Soul,” for this is the peace which God offers us in Christ.
(2) The meaning of a meal. Throughout the Bible, the meal has a meaning much greater than that which our culture attributes to it. I believe that for the people of God, and often for the pagans (cf. Exod. 32:6; Num. 25:1-3), the meal had a deeply religious significance. I do not think that the Peace Offering was the origin of this significance, but rather a reflection of it. Before Leviticus, Abraham offered meat and a meal to his unknown visitors (Gen. 18), as did Lot (Gen. 19). Later on, it was significant when the Levite was seeking a meal and a place to lodge without success (Judges 19). The festive meal which was a part of the Peace Offering simply added to the significance which the meal already had. Here, the meal was a symbol of the peace which the Israelite had with God and with men, through the sacrifice of the innocent victim.
When you stop to think of it, the New Testament is saturated with stories and teachings related to the dinner table. In Luke chapter 14 the entire chapter is dealing with “meals,” precipitated by the fact that our Lord associated with the “wrong kind of people” at the table, at least in the minds of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Mark 2:16). Our Lord taught, for example, that one should not invite those to dinner who are wealthy and influential, and who can thus return the favor to us in some way (Lu. 14:12-14). Was not this especially applicable at the meal associated with the Peace Offering, when the poor would only be able to participate if the more affluent invited them? (Remember, there was no “poor people’s” alternative for the Peace Offering, as there was for the Burnt Offering, for example.)
The story of the “prodigal son” takes on even more significance once we understand the nature of the “Peace Offering.” What was it that the prodigal son missed so much in that foreign land, when he was longing to eat the pods which the pigs were eating, but his father’s table? And what was it that angered the older brother, if it was not the father’s slaying of the fatted calf? Now, in the light of what we know of the Peace Offering, what would the father have had to do, before the fatted calf could have been eaten? It would have been offered first as a Peace Offering. What, then, did the fatted calf signify, if not the fact that the son had been accepted by the father, and that there was “peace” in the family again? The Peace Offering deepens our grasp of the significance of meals in the New Testament.
So, too, the significance of meat and of meals enhances our grasp of the problem which Paul dealt with in 1 Corinthians of eating meats, especially those eaten in the home of an unbelieving neighbor, who may very well have obtained meat which was involved in a pagan ritual, or which might take place in the meal itself.
The Peace Offering helps the Christian to understand the significance of a meal, especially since the Lord’s Table was initially conducted as a part of a meal (cf. 1 Cor. 11). The Lord’s Table, or Communion, is, in large measure, the New Testament version of the Peace Offering festive meal. The Peace Offering sacrifice is not offered, for our Peace Offering is Christ, who died once for all, to make peace between men and God, and between men and men. The celebration goes on, however, and so in the communion service we are reminded of our unity with others, as well as our unity with God: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
Because of the significance of the Lord’s Table, as it pertains to the peace which Christ has accomplished on the cross, misconduct at this table is taken most seriously, even as infractions of the regulations pertaining to the Peace Offering are sobering.
The newly born church manifested its life and fellowship by sharing meals from “house to house” (Acts 2:46). One of the greatest barriers between the Jewish believers and the Gentile saints was that of eating (cf. Acts 10 & 11). Thus, when Peter departed from what God had taught him in this passage, Paul rebuked him for departing from the very essence of the gospel (Gal. 2:11-21).
The coming of our Lord and joy and peace experienced by true believers at this time are thus appropriately described in “banquet terms”:
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude and as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready … And he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Rev. 19:6-7, 9).
The dinner table has become much more secular to us than it ever was to the people of earlier times. I suspect that some of this is due to the pace of our lives, and to the instant “TV” dinners, which are eaten before the TV, rather than at the table, or which are gulped down at a “fast food” chain outlet. How much we can make of the meal table is suggested by the Peace Offering meal of the Old Testament, and by the Lord’s Table of the New. May God enable us to make more of the meal table, and to meditate more on the peace which Christ has won for us on the cross.
46 The skinning of the animal is not mentioned anywhere that I can find, but it is surely implied, as in the case of the other sacrifices (cf. Lev. 7:8).
47 I am not certain what significance leavened bread has here, but I do know that we dare not insist that leaven is a symbol of sin, either.
48 The fat is what is offered primarily here; all the fat is the Lord’s (cf. Lev. 3:16-17; 6:12; Amos 5:22; 1 Ki. 8:64; 2 Chron. 7:7; 29:35).
49 The fact that a meal was associated with the Peace Offering helps to explain why the size of this offering is often significantly larger than the other offerings. Cf. Numbers 7:17, 23, 29, 35, 41, 47, 53, 59, 65, etc.; 1 Ki. 8:63.
50 No reason is given why the meat cannot be kept for a longer period of time. Perhaps it is because there was the possibility of it spoiling, and thus negating the value of the offering (cf. Lev. 7:18-27). It is also possible that the necessity of totally consuming the animal quickly encouraged the one who was making this offering to invite as many as possible to share with him in the sacrificial meal. (If you could keep the leftovers, you might not invite as many to share the meal with you.)
51 Is it possible that God burned up the rest of the animals from which these skins were taken? Something had to be done with their carcases, and it seems that men did not yet eat meat (cf. Gen. 9:1-7). It is interesting to note that in the first sacrifice the skin was used and the rest was disposed of, while in later sacrifices it is almost the opposite.
5. The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30)
Too many years ago to admit, while I was a student in Seminary, Haddon Robinson gave the men in one of our classes a stirring appeal to be creative, and to avoid getting into a rut. He suggested that instead of driving home the same old route, that we take a different one, and take the time to “smell the roses.” All-in-all it was a great encouragement. A friend and I happened to be walking out of class together. It was almost lunch time and my friend had a sack lunch in his hand. Not to overlook the point of Dr. Robinson’s exhortation, I turned to my friend, Bob, and said, “Hey, Bob, why don’t you do something different today? Why don’t you eat your sack and throw away the lunch?”
If we had not been such good friends, my friend might eaten his lunch and fed me the sack. Most of the time it would be foolish to throw away your lunch and eat the sack. I did read of one study where rats were fed a certain breakfast cereal. A control group of rats were fed the box. In this instance, the rats which ate the box got more nutritive value from the box than the others got from the cereal. As we read the account of the Sin Offering in Leviticus, we come to the rather amazing realization that to our way of thinking God instructed the Israelites to “eat the sack and throw away the lunch.” That is, the Israelites were commanded to kill the sacrificial animal, make use of its blood and its fat, and then dispose of the rest. Of all the things which a slain animal provided, what was the least useful? I think I can say that it would be those very things which the Israelites offered up to God—the fat of the animal, and its blood. The most valuable portion of the animal, the meat and the hide (plus some other, not so useful, things), were burned and left on the ash heap or they were given to the priest to eat. Thus, they ate the sack and threw away the lunch.
I have to tell you that this would have been a very difficult sacrifice for me to offer, if I had been living in Israel in those days. I used to work for a company that made add-on automobile air conditioners. One of the greatest agonies I experienced was to look at all the “goodies” which were thrown on the scrap heap, to be sold for a few cents a pound. Can you imagine being required to offer one of your best animals, having its blood and fat offered to God, and then watch two sides of “prime” beef being hauled off outside the camp to be incinerated and thrown on the ash heap? We would have to say, like those who agonized over the “waste” of the expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus, “What a waste!” (John 12:3-5).
In the case of the use of the expensive perfume to anoint the feet of our Lord, we can understand that it was not waste to expend the finest on Him who is the most worthy object of our worship. But what was so valuable to the Israelite that he could be persuaded to offer up his finest livestock in a way that appeared to be utterly wasteful? The answer to this question will be found when we discover that which is of higher value than a prime animal. That answer will be the result of our study of the Sin Offering of Leviticus. Let us listen well to this inspired portion of the Word of God.
In this message we will seek to discover those things which made the Sin Offering distinctive, and to find the unique contribution of this offering to the Israelites’ walk with God. We will then identify the principles which underlie this offering and attempt to apply them to 20th century Christianity.
When we come to the fourth chapter of the Book of Leviticus we can sense a change from the first three chapters. By and large, the offerings in Leviticus 1-3 can be found earlier in the Pentateuch (e.g. the Burnt Offering is found in Genesis 8:20; 22:2), while those in chapters 4 and following cannot be found until the Israelites reach Mt. Sinai and are given the law (e.g. the Sin Offering is first mentioned in Exodus 29:36).52 The offerings in chapters 1-3 are organized according to the animal being sacrificed, and usually begin with an expression like, “If his offering is …”
In chapter 4 the material is organized in accordance with the social categories, from the high priest to the common Israelite. The introductory formula is, “If _____ sins …” The expression, “a soothing aroma,” frequently found in chapters 1-3 is but seldom found in chapters 4 and 5 (4:31). The term “atonement,” on the other hand, is found but once in the first 3 chapters of Leviticus (1:4), but 9 times in chapters 4 and 5. The terms “guilt” and “guilty” are not found in chapters 1-3, but are each found 9 times in chapters 4 and 5. Chapters 1-3 are more concerned with the process of the sacrifice, while chapters 4-6 have more emphasis on the product of the process—forgiveness (not found once in chapters 1-3, 8 times in chapters 4 & 5).
An Overview of Leviticus Chapter 4
The structure of the passage dealing with the Sin Offering is somewhat baffling to me. Almost all of the commentaries understand the Sin Offering to be described in 4:1–5:13. The division is not as neat as this in my opinion because there is a kind of merging of the Sin Offering with the Guilt Offering in 5:1-13. For example, we read, “‘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’”(Lev. 5:6).
In the same sentence the terms “guilt offering” and “sin offering” are employed, seemingly with respect to the same offering.
The fourth chapter of the Book of Leviticus deals with the Sin Offering of four different categories of people: the high priest (vv. 3-12); the whole congregation of Israel (vv. 13-21); a leader (vv. 22-26); and a commoner (vv. 27-35). In the first 13 verses of chapter 5 the approach changes. In verses 1-6 the reader is given some examples, which serve to illustrate what sins are or are not included in the category of “unintentional.” In verse 1 we are given an example of a sin which is not unintentional. The one who gives false testimony and has done so under oath has done this in a premeditated fashion. Thus, the person must bear his sin. Verses 2 and 3 suggest how a person might inadvertently and unknowingly come into contact with something unclean, and thus become guilty and in need of a Sin Offering. Verse 4 includes a case of inadvertent sin in one’s speech.
Verses 7-13 of chapter 5 are gracious in providing an exception for those who are poor. The one who cannot afford to sacrifice a lamb or a goat is allowed to sacrifice two turtledoves or two pigeons. The one who is so poor as not to be able to afford two birds is allowed, in verses 11-13, to offer a small quantity of grain. Thus, while not everyone could afford a Peace Offering, everyone was afforded the opportunity to make a Sin Offering. How gracious.
In this lesson I will be focusing largely on chapter 4. In order to convey the overall organization of chapter 4 I have summarizing its four major sections in chart form below (see chart at end of lesson). From this chart we can better visualize certain characteristics of the Sin Offering, as outlined in chapter 4.
Note from the chart those items which are common to all four categories of the Sin Offering. First, there is the common element of sin and of guilt. Regardless of the category, whether the high priest, the whole congregation, a leader, or a common citizen, all are in a condition of guilt due to sin. In all categories, an animal is sacrificed and its blood is shed and applied for atonement. Further, the fat of the animal was burned on the altar of burnt offering and the offerer got none of the meat.
Also, note the unity of the first two categories, as well as that of the second two categories. In the first two divisions (vv. 3-12, 13-21) the whole nation is guilty, and a bull is required for the Sin Offering. The blood is likewise used in the same way in the first two categories. Some of the blood is taken into the tent of meeting, where it is sprinkled onto53 (or in front of) the veil. Finally, the bull in both instances is burned up outside the camp. Thus we see that the first two sections are quite similar in scope and function.
So, too, with the second two categories (vv. 22-26, 27-35). In the case of the leader of Israel (vv. 22-26) or of a common Israelite (vv. 27-35), the sacrifice could be either a goat or a sheep, of either sex. The blood of this animal was not taken inside the tent of meeting, but was placed on the horns of the brazen altar of burnt offering, and the remainder of the blood was poured out at the base of this altar. The meat of these sacrificial animals could be eaten in a holy place by the male priests (Lev. 6:24-30).
The Uniqueness of the Sin Offering
This is but one of the offerings of Leviticus. We will understand it best by focusing our attention on what is unique about it. Let us consider several of the features of this offering which set it apart from the others:
(1) The Sin Offering is an offering for a specific sin. All of the blood sacrifices are related to sin, but the Sin Offering of Leviticus 4 is an offering for a specific, defined sin. It is not an offering for sin in general, or for a general state of sinfulness (which I believe is the function of the Burnt Offering). While chapter 4 deals with guilt in a more general way, chapter 5 begins to get very specific about sin: “‘Now if a person sins, after he hears a public adjuration to testify, when he is a witness, …’” (Lev. 5:1a). Thus, the Sin Offering was required when a person was aware of a specific act of sin, which needed to be atoned for.
(2) The Sin Offering was an offering for a known sin. Especially in chapter 4 the sins which are dealt with are those which, for some reason, were not immediately apparent, but which, in the course of time, came to a conscious level. The impression which we get is that the Sin Offering was to be made immediately after the knowledge of sin was present.
(3) The Sin Offering was a sacrifice for those sins which were unintentional (cf. 4:2, 13, 22, 27). The term “unintentional” is more carefully defined by God elsewhere:
‘Also if one person sins unintentionally, then he should offer a one year old female goat for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be on him’ (Num. 15:27-31).
In some cases, the “unintentional” sin is one which is not recognized at the time committed. We might call this a “sin of ignorance.” In the case of the one who has given false testimony under oath (Lev. 5:1), this person has knowingly and deliberately sinned, and thus his sin cannot be called unintentional, and the Sin Offering cannot be offered. Instead, this person must “bear his guilt” (5:1).
(4) The Sin Offering made a different use of the blood and the body of the animal which was offered. In the case of a sin which brought guilt on the entire congregation,54 some of the blood of the bull was to be taken into the tent and sprinkled on the veil and placed on the horn of the golden altar of incense. The rest was poured at the base of the altar of burnt offering. In previous blood sacrifices, the blood was to be “sprinkled around on” the altar (cf. 3:2). The fat of the animal offered for the Sin Offering was burned like the Peace Offering, but the body of the animal was either burned completely outside the camp (the bull, Lev. 4:11-12, 21), or it was eaten by the males of the priests (Lev. 6:29). The offerer received none of the meat.
Principles to Be Learned From the Sin Offering
It stands to reason that the Sin Offering should teach us something about sin. There are several important principles to learn which relate to sin which are evident in the texts pertaining to the sin offering.
(1) Sin is that which God defines as evil. Sin is that which is inconsistent with the righteousness of God. Thus, it is only God, who alone is righteous, who can define sin. Leviticus informs us that sin is that which is contrary to God’s revealed Word: “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them” (Lev. 4:2, emphasis mine). Sin is whatever God declares to be evil. There are some “sins” which nearly any culture recognizes as sin, and which are thus forbidden. Stealing, lying, and murder, for example, are almost universally defined as evils. These “sins” are also “crimes.” But there are a number of sins which are not crimes. In fact there are a number of sins (by God’s definition) which are considered beneficial by society. Self-seeking, for example, is considered a positive thing. There are other attitudes or actions which, if not commended, are at least accepted with charity (homosexuality, for example).
It is evident that our culture is not particularly interested in what God calls sin. So long as it is legal, it is possible. Sometimes even what isn’t legal (e.g. smoking pot or cheating on income tax) is socially acceptable. Those who are incarcerated in prison are not necessarily more sinful, but have erred by offending society’s standard of what is acceptable (crimes involving the money of others are especially detested).
I find that a number of the “sins” which are enumerated in the Pentateuch are not really those things which men might consider evil. Eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for example, seemed wise. God’s prohibition seemed unduly harsh, as Satan portrayed it.
Some have tried to show a good reason for every prohibition. For example, they would try to demonstrate that the “unclean” foods of the Bible were those which would be detrimental to a society which had no refrigeration, or whatever. I think this misses the point. Sin is whatever God says is sin, whether or not we have a good explanation for why it is evil. Obedience is best evidenced by our willingness to do something which we would rather not do, for reasons we don’t understand, simply because God says so. Some sins of the Old Testament are arbitrary, in my opinion, and purposefully so, to teach the people of God to trust and to obey a God whose thoughts are higher than the thoughts of men.
(2) Sin may be either ignorant or willful; active or passive. The guilt which the Sin Offering atones for is that from a sin which was unintentional and unknown at the moment the sin was committed. This means that we can sin even when we don’t intend to. Our culture tends to condemn only those sins which are intentional. God condemns all sin. Indeed, there is no provision made in the law for intentional sin. The kind of sin for which the Sin Offering is applicable is that which was unintentional.
We may console ourselves that we are not guilty because we did not mean to hurt another. If, however, our negligence has caused injury to another, we are guilty. If we fail to do what we should have done, we have sinned. Though we may not have intended to hurt a loved one by a harsh word, we have nevertheless done them harm. Sins of inaction or of ignorance are sins. God says so.
Let me get very practical for a moment. We have made a great deal of the “strong-willed child.” To us, there is nothing more offensive than a child who bows his neck, looks us in the eye, and defies us. I agree, this is sin, and it is offensive to me. But we often fail to recognize that sin also has its passive form. Is the child who says, “No!” any more sinful than the child who says he will obey, only to fail to do so? Is the child who resists to get his way any more sinful than the child who gives in, only to get what he wants? God’s Word informs us that passive sin is sin, that sins of inaction are sins, too, that ignorance is no excuse for wrong-doing.
(3) Sin results in defilement. Repeatedly in the Old Testament we find that sin brings defilement, not only to the sinner, but to others, and this even includes places.55 After a list of prohibitions, God said to the Israelites,
‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have spewed out its inhabitants … Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your God’ (Lev. 18:24-25, 30).
“And I brought you into the fruitful land, To eat its fruit and its good things. But you came and defiled My land, And My inheritance you made an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).
Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations; and they defiled the house of the LORD which He had sanctified in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 36:14).
It is most enlightening to take note of those sins which Israel committed which were said to defile the people, the land, and even the dwelling place of God:
Sexual immorality (Lev. 18:24-30)
Bloodshed (Num. 35:29-34)
Occult practices (Lev. 19:31; 20:6)
Infant sacrifice (Lev. 20:1-5)
Divorce (Jer. 3:1)
False worship (Jer. 16:18)
Most of these defiling sins are summed up in the Book of Ezekiel:
“For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. Thus they have committed adultery with their idols and even caused their sons, whom they bore to Me, to pass through the fire to them as food. Again, they have done this to Me: they have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and have profaned My sabbaths” (Ezek. 23:37-38).
(4) Sin is exceedingly costly. A number of years ago our family went to Six Flags with another family from the church. As we sat there watching the rides I turned to my friend and said, “Now here is a beautiful illustration of sin: the price is high and the ride is short.” That is just how it is with sin. When you think of what it would cost an Israelite who wished to maintain his walk with God, it would have been a religion almost too costly to be able to afford. No wonder God promised to prosper this people greatly!
(5) The only solution for the guilt of sin is blood atonement. In chapter 4 there is a sequence of terms which are repeated. In essence, the sequence is as follows:
There is sin, resulting in guilt.
There is a blood sacrifice, resulting in atonement and forgiveness.
If sin defiles, blood that is shed in accordance with God’s commandments purifies and sanctifies. Thus, it was through the sprinkling of shed blood that the tabernacle, all of its furnishings, and the priests were purified (cf. Lev. 8). The Sin Offering was holy, and what it touched was also made holy: “‘Anyone who touches its flesh shall become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on’” (Lev. 6:27).
I agree with those who hold that the principle function of the Sin Offering was to purify those people and things which were defiled by sin.56 Only by the shedding of innocent blood, in accordance with the instructions of God, could one’s sins be atoned for.
This explains why only the blood and the fat of the Sin Offering were used, while the rest was disposed of. By using the blood and throwing away the rest of the animal, God was demonstrating in a very dramatic fashion that it was only the blood that atoned for Israel’s sin; only the blood cleansed the tabernacle, the priests, the people, and the land from the defilement caused by the sin of the people. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “… without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
(6) The death of Christ, who died once and for all, has made atonement for man’s sin, and assures him of forgiveness. The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 53 spoke of the Messiah, whose shed blood would atone for men’s sins:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isa. 53:4-6, cf. also vv. 7-8, 10-12).
And so it was that when John the Baptist saw our Lord he proclaimed to the nation Israel, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Book of Hebrews demonstrates that the Lord Jesus Christ was the sinless Lamb of God, whose death was vastly superior to that of bulls and goats, thus making atonement for men, once for all:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:11-14).
With these words the apostle Peter agrees (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13-21). Jesus Christ is the Sin-bearer, who died once for all, that the wrath of a holy God might be appeased and that the defilement of sin might be cleansed. In the words of the hymn writer, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
From these principles there are several immediate levels of application. The first pertains to the matter of your personal salvation.
Do you see the value which God has assigned to the blood of an innocent victim, which is shed in place of the sinner? Have you come to personally accept the shed blood of Christ as God’s provision for your sins? The terms “salvation” and “born again” are all too frequently misunderstood because we use unbiblical terminology to define what they mean. We talk, for example, about “asking Jesus into your heart,” a totally unbiblical phrase, and one which completely ignores the shed blood of Christ.
Liberal theologians, along with countless Americans, who are lost in their sins, want to retain certain things about Jesus, but choose to reject the most important part of His person and work. They want to honor Him as a humanitarian, a healer, a teacher and philosopher, a great example, but they do not want anything to do with His sacrificial death, His shed blood. By God’s definition this is taking the sack, but throwing out the lunch. The essence of Christ’s work for sinful man is the shedding of His blood. I urge you to trust in His blood for your salvation, for the cleansing from your sins.
The teaching of Leviticus on the Sin Offering has something very important to say to the Christian about personal sanctification. Whenever we sin, we need to remember that it is the shed blood of Christ which God has provided for our forgiveness. Repentance and confession is the means for experiencing that forgiveness and cleansing on a daily basis.
Knowing the high price which Christ has paid for our forgiveness should also cause us to take sin very seriously. Every sin, no matter how insignificant it may seem, required the blood of Christ to be shed. Let us never forget that while forgiveness is free, it was not obtained cheaply. Here is a motivation for godly living.
Then, too, let us be reminded of the seriousness of sin. God takes sin very seriously. God takes unintentional sin more seriously than we take willful sin. And God takes willful sin even more seriously than we wish to think about:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26-29).
I am not for a moment suggesting that Christians are not eternally saved and secure, but I am suggesting that the willful sin of a wayward saint is a very sobering matter, and one which will not allow that wayward believer to sense any safety and security in what he or she is doing. Let us learn from both the Old and the New Testament how much God hates sin.
Finally, I must say to you that “ignorance is not bliss,” in spite of those who would have you think so. The Israelites were held accountable for the sins they committed ignorantly. Many contemporary Christians seem to think that if they don’t study their Bibles, if they don’t familiarize themselves with the standards and principles God has given in the Bible, they will not be responsible for their sins committed in ignorance. Not so! The Sin Offering strongly suggests that we had better become careful students of the revealed Word of God, for it is disobedience to His word that constitutes sin.
The Sin Offering in Leviticus 4
Anointed priest sins;
The whole congretation (v 13)
One of Israel’s leaders (v 22)
One of the common people (v 27)
Male Goat (v 23)
Female Goat or
Animal brought to the doorway of the tent of meeting.
Some of the blood is taken into the tent of meeting and sprinkled seven times in front of the veil.
Some blood put on horns of the altar of incense in the tent.
The rest of the blood poured out at the bse of the altar of burnt offering.
Some of the blood put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering.
The rest of the blood poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.
(vv 30, 34)
The fat of the sacrificial animal was burned on the altar to God.
(vv 31, 35)
The remainder of the bull burned in a clean place outside the camp.
The priest who offered the animal ate it in the court of the tent of meeting.
52 “The sacrifices treated in chap. i.-iii. are introduced by their names, as though already known, for the purpose of giving them a legal sanction. But in chap. iv. and v. sacrifices are appointed for different offences, which receive their names for the first time from the objects to which they apply … a clear proof that the sin and debt offerings were introduced at the same time as the Mosaic law.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 302.
53 Wenham thinks that while the expression may refer to the blood being sprinkled before the curtain, it more likely suggests that the blood was sprinkled on “… the face (surface) of the curtain.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 90, cf. fn. 7.
54 The sin of the “anointed priest,” apparently a synonym for the high priest, could bring guilt upon the whole congregation. The nature of the work of the priest (in and about the tent of meeting) would explain the way in which the tent could be defiled, and thus all the people pay the price. The high priest also serves as the representative of the people, and thus when he sins, he sins on the people’s behalf. This seems to be an illustration of the principle of federal headship (cp. Heb. 7:1-10). While the principle works to the detriment of the people in the case of the sinful high priests, it is to the benefit of believers in the perfect High Priest, Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 7).
55 In the Old Testament sin is said to defile: (1) the people (cf. Jer. 2:23; Ezek. 20:43; Hos. 5:3; 6:10); (2) the place (Lev. 18:24-30; 20:2; Num. 19:20*; Deut. 21:23; 2 Chron. 36:14*; Ps. 106:38; Isa. 24:5; Jer. 2:7*; 3:1, 2, 9); and, (3) the name of God (cf. Lev. 20:3; Ezek. 43:8).
56 “The word hatta’t comes from a verbal form meaning ‘purify,’ so that the noun signifies ‘a sacrifice procuring purification.’ The function of this offering is thus to purify the place of worship, making it holy to the Lord …, and enabling God to dwell once again amongst His people.” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 61.
“Purification is the main element in the purification sacrifice. Sin not only angers God and deprives him of his due, it also makes his sanctuary unclean. A holy God cannot dwell amid uncleanness. The purification offering purifies the place of worship, so that God may be present among his people. This interpretation of the term seems to be compatible with its root meaning, and to explain the rituals of blood sprinkling peculiar to it.” Wenham, p. 89.
11. The Nearness of God (Exodus 33:1-16; 34:8-10; Deuteronomy 4:1-7)
It is interesting that a number of the books written on the attributes of God have little if anything to say on the subject of God’s omnipresence. A. W. Tozer comments about God’s omnipresence:
Few other truths are taught in the Scriptures with as great clarity as the doctrine of the divine omnipresence. Those passages supporting this truth are so plain that it would take considerable effort to misunderstand them. They declare that God is imminent in His creation, that there is no place in heaven or earth or hell where men may hide from His presence. They teach that God is at once far off and near, and that in Him men move and live and have their being.83
What Bible-believing Christian would challenge the truth that God is omnipresent? And yet I fear that while we believe this doctrine to be true to Scripture, we do not sense it to be true to life, a truth which applies to the way we live. But it does affect our daily lives! I have approached the subject of the omnipresence of God as “The Nearness of God,” for as we shall soon discover the nearness of God is one of the Christian’s highest aspirations—the greatest good. This truth greatly impacts our attitudes and actions. Consider then the nearness of God, the constant presence of God in our lives.
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of Thee in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:6-10).
It would seem that before the fall of Adam and Eve these two were privileged to enjoy intimate fellowship and communion with God. From verse 8, we can infer that God daily walked in the garden in the cool of the day, and that Adam and Eve enjoyed this time with Him. But when they chose to trust the devil instead of God and to disobey the command of God, they sinned. Their sin caused them to withdraw from God out of fear. They hid themselves from Him. Sin results in separation from God:
1 Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
The rest of the Bible is about the plan and purpose of God to deal with man’s sin so he can once again enjoy fellowship with God in His presence. In Genesis 3:15, the first promise of salvation is recorded in the Bible:
15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The rest of the Bible is the story of how God fulfills this promise of salvation so that sinful men can once again draw near to a holy God.
The Exodus and Nearness to God84
The exodus was not just a time when God freed captive Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. It was a time when God set Himself apart from all other “gods” (especially the gods of Egypt) and when He set apart the Israelites from the Egyptians (Exodus 9:4-6; 11:7). God distinguished His people Israel from the Egyptians by the plagues, but most significantly, He distinguished Israel by His presence:
15 Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. 16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).
7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? (Deuteronomy 4:7).
And so it was that God was to be near His people Israel. The great dilemma was that the Israelites were a stubborn and sinful people. His presence as a holy God would prove to be dangerous because His holiness required Him to deal with sin:
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2 And I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way.” 4 When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, ‘You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now therefore, put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I will do with you’” (Exodus 33:1-5).
God promised to see that Israel possessed the promised land of Canaan, but He declined to promise He would be present among His people. This sinful people simply could not survive in the presence of a holy God. Moses, however, would not settle for anything less than for God to dwell in the midst of His people. This distinguished Israel from the other nations.85 Notice how Moses pleads with God, refusing the promise of God’s personal presence with him, and pressing for God’s presence among His people, Israel:
13 “Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people.” 14 And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. 16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:13-16).
If the problem of God’s presence was rooted in the sinful nature of the Israelites, the solution was to be found in the character of God. God is not only holy, He is also gracious and forgiving. Here was the key that Moses was looking for, and God held it out before Him as He manifested His glory to him on the mountain:
5 And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. 6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O LORD, I pray, let the LORD go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 34:5-9).
There was only one way a sinful people could possibly dwell in the presence of God, and that was by grace. God could dwell in the midst of a sinful people because He is a God who forgives sin. It was not yet clear exactly how this forgiveness would be accomplished, but the Mosaic covenant foreshadowed it (see Colossians 2:16-17). The Law of Moses defined what was pleasing and displeasing to God, what was clean and unclean (or defiling) to the nation. Avoiding defilement was impossible, but the Law also made provision for man’s transgressions of the Law. The Mosaic covenant introduced the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system, whereby God could dwell in the midst of a sinful people by being separated by the barriers of the tabernacle. Only certain Israelites (the Levitical priests) were allowed to draw near to God in the performance of the religious rites and rituals of the nation. God’s presence was manifested in the holy of holies, where the gaze of men was prevented lest they die. And men were informed that only by means of the shedding of blood could they approach their God in worship. This whole system foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah, the “Lamb of God,” who would bear the sins of the world and whose shed blood would cleanse men from their sins.
In spite of the distance which the Israelites must keep from their God under the Law, the people of God looked forward to a future day when they would enter into an intimate communion with God. This was symbolically represented by a meal, first anticipated in Exodus, and then frequently referred to in the Psalms:
9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).
5 Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:5-6).
4 One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to meditate in His temple (Psalm 27:4).
It would be wrong to conclude that enjoying the presence of God was but a future hope for the Old Testament saint. Psalm 73 speaks of God’s presence in the midst of affliction. Asaph, after considerable agony over the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the saints (or so he supposed), came to understand that the ultimate blessing in life is not prosperity or the absence of pain, but the presence of God, even if that becomes real to us in poverty or in pain:
25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:25-28, emphasis mine).
Psalm 139 is David’s expression of his enjoyment of God’s presence in his life. It is one of the great psalms of the psalter and one in which we find comfort as well:
1 For the choir director. A Psalm of David. O LORD, Thou hast searched me and known me. 2 Thou dost know when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou dost understand my thought from afar. 3 Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down, And art intimately acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, Thou dost know it all. 5 Thou hast enclosed me behind and before, And laid Thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it. 7 Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, 10 Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” 12 Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee. 13 For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works, and my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from Thee, When I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. 16 Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Thy book they were all written, The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. 17 How precious also are Thy thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. When I awake, I am still with Thee. 19 O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. 20 For they speak against Thee wickedly, And Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. 21 Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? 22 I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; 24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:1-24).
The prophets spoke of the time when God would draw near to His people to save them from their sins and to dwell with them in intimate fellowship. The prophets exposed the hypocrisy of those Israelites who feigned nearness to God but whose hearts were distant:
13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13, emphasis mine).
Mere ceremonial righteousness was not enough. Men would not experience nearness to God until they understood true religion. True religion was to possess and to practice the character of God, to live out the character of God in our conduct, rather than to repetitiously carry out rituals or make meaningless professions:
1 “Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me day by day, and delight to know My ways, As a nation that has done righteousness, and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed, And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. 11 And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. 12 And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell (Isaiah 58:1-12, emphasis mine).
The prophets warned that if the people of God did not repent, professing and practicing true righteousness, then they would find God drawing near to judge rather than drawing near to save:
5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:5, emphasis mine).
God is ever near in the sense that He sees and hears what men are doing, and He will deal with men accordingly:
23”Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far off? 24 Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD. 25 “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26 How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27 who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal?” (Jeremiah 23:24-27, emphasis mine).
Those who would not “draw near” to God by faith would be condemned:
2 She heeded no voice; She accepted no instruction. She did not trust in the LORD; She did not draw near to her God (Zephaniah 3:2, emphasis mine).
Those who would repent and trust in God’s coming Messiah were promised a God who would be near, dwelling in the midst of the New Jerusalem:
35 “The city shall be 18,000 cubits round about; and the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The Lord is there’” (Ezekiel 48:35).
God drew near to men in the incarnation. Our Lord drew near to save His people in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, His name was Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The New Testament writers made it clear that Jesus was God drawn near to save (see Matthew 1:23; John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1-3; 4:12-13; Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:1-4). There were those who were drawn to Jesus as the Savior, but those who rejected Him as their Messiah did not want Him around (see Mark 5:17; Luke 4:28-29). At the cross of Calvary, the crowds yelled, “Away with Him!” They were more comfortable with a murderer than with the Prince of Life (Luke 23:18).
It is the writer to the Hebrews who makes so much of the superiority of the work of Christ to the Old Testament sacrifices. The Old Testament system could not remove a man’s sin, making him fit to enter into the presence of a holy God. It is the shed blood of Jesus Christ which provides the forgiveness of sins and enables one to enter into the presence of God with confidence:
16 Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16, emphasis mine).
19 (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:19, emphasis mine).
25 Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25, emphasis mine).
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near (Hebrews 10:1, emphasis mine).
19 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22, emphasis mine).
Not only does the blood of Christ remedy the problem of man’s sin, allowing men to “draw near” to God, it also remedies the breech in men’s relationship with men, removing once and for all the barriers between those who are fellow-saints:
11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Heaven is not so much a place where the saints indulge themselves in God’s blessings as the place where the saints enjoy God’s presence:
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them (Revelation 21:2-3).
3 And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; 4 and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:3-5).
Hell, on the other hand, is the place where men are eternally separated from the presence of God: 10 Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the LORD and from the splendor of His majesty (Isaiah 2:10).
19 And men will go into caves of the rocks, and into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD, and before the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble. 20 In that day men will cast away to the moles and the bats their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, 21 In order to go into the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, Before the terror of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble (Isaiah 2:19-21).
9 And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
15 And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17).
11 And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
While not an exhaustive study of the doctrine of divine omnipresence, we can summarize a number of principles taught in the Scriptures on this important and comforting doctrine.
(1) God is omnipresent in His creation, for He is ever mindful of all that is happening anywhere. He is constantly aware of injustice, of sin, of faithfulness. His eyes are ever watchful; His ears (speaking anthropomorphically—speaking of God in human terms) are always attentive to the cries of men, especially the oppressed and the penitent (2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 34:15; Proverbs 5:21; 15:3; Amos 9:8; Zechariah 4:10; 1 Peter 3:12).
(2) God sovereignly chooses some for eternal salvation, which draws them nearer than others, and thereby distinguishes the Christian from unbelievers (Numbers 16:5; Psalm 65:4; Exodus 33:16; Deuteronomy 4:7; Proverbs 18:24).
(3) God’s presence is not only among His people but is now in His people, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:11; 139:7; John 14:17-18, 23; 16:7-15). I have often wondered how Jesus could tell His disciples it was better for Him to depart from them (John 16:7). I am finally beginning to understand why. While on the earth in His physical body, our Lord was present among His people, especially the disciples. But when the Lord ascended into heaven, He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in His people, so that He is ever-present with every believer, no matter where he or she might be. It is the Holy Spirit of God who conveys the presence of God in His people.
(4) God is present with us through His Word.
14 “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:14, emphasis mine).
151 Thou art near, O LORD, And all Thy commandments are truth (Psalm 119:151, emphasis mine).
(5) God is always present with His chosen ones (Psalm 139:7-12). He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
(6) God is especially near to us a certain times. He is ever near us in “time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).86 He is near when we confess and forsake our sins (Psalm 76:7; Isaiah 59:2; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). He is near the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18; compare Matthew 5:3ff.; 2 Corinthians 7:6). He is with us (even two or three of us) when we exercise church discipline in His name (Matthew 18:20). He is with us as we carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). He is with us when we are being disciplined by Him as a loving Father (see Hebrews 12:3-13). He is near when we call upon Him in truth (Psalm 145:18). He is near when we treat Him as holy (Leviticus 10:3). He is near to us when we “draw near” to Him (James 4:8).
Our study leads us to ponder several areas of application. First, I would like to ask you a question which I urge you to answer honestly in your own heart and soul: Do you believe the nearness of God is your highest good? If not, you are pursuing a goal less than the best. Moses was a man who had the most intimate fellowship with God of all the Israelites (see Exodus 33:11), and yet he was not content with this. He wanted to know God even more intimately, to be even nearer to Him (see Exodus 33:17-18). Let us examine our hearts to see if we desire to be near Him. If our desire to be near Him is lacking, it is little wonder that we have no great yearning for heaven. If we do not desire nearness to God, our desires are distorted at best and likely destructive.
Second, let me ask another question: Assuming you desire to have the kind of nearness to God of which the Bible speaks, do you actually sense God’s nearness to you? If not, the problem is really very simple—sin. Sin separates men from God. It may be that you do not enjoy a sense of God’s nearness because you are a lost sinner, doomed for eternal separation from God, apart from His grace. In Jesus Christ, God draws near to men to reveal Himself and to provide a way whereby the problem of sin can be remedied and fellowship between men and God can be restored. He, the sinless Son of God, bore the penalty for sin, the penalty for your sin. By receiving God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ, you can become a child of God and enjoy for all eternity the blessedness of being near to the heart of God.
If you are a genuine believer in Jesus Christ and yet do not feel the “nearness of God,” your problem is rooted in sin as well. The solution to this dilemma is simple: repent. These words, written to the complacent and loveless church at Laodicea, express the invitation which our Lord offers to all those who have trusted in Him and grown cold, grown apart. These words are the offer of intimate fellowship—nearness to God—for all who will repent and return to Christ as their first love:
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21 He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’” (Revelation 3:14-22).
Over the years, I have observed that many Christians have embraced a false set of standards for determining the presence of God in their lives. Many television preachers (and others) teach that the test of spirituality and God’s presence in your life is health, wealth, and success in life. Our study should have indicated otherwise. God is near the brokenhearted, not necessarily near the beautiful people whose lives seem so “blessed.”
I am reminded of the stories of Moses and Elijah, whose experiences I had never actually compared. I believe there is a lesson for us to learn from Elijah after he fled from Jezebel and sought to find God and be reassured of His presence at Mount Horeb, where Moses had such a dramatic encounter with God:
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” 3 And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” 5 And he lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, “Arise, eat.” 6 Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.” 8 So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 Then he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 And he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11 So He said, “Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13 And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 Then he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:2-14).
Elijah had been instructed by God to simply inform the king that the drought would shortly end because it was about to rain (1 Kings 18:1). Elijah seems to have thought up the great confrontation on Mount Carmel by himself.
It was a dramatic display of the power and presence of God, but it completely failed to bring the nation Israel to repentance. Elijah was devastated. He wanted to die. He was no better than his fathers, the prophets who had gone before him.
I have spoken on this text a number of times, but somehow I have always passed over the clearly stated fact that Elijah ended up on Mount Horeb, the “mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:8). In the strength of the food which the angel of the Lord provided (19:5-8), Elijah made his way to Mount Horeb. Did Elijah want a rerun of the events of Exodus 19:16-20? It would seem so:
16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. 20 And the LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19:16-20).
Moses and the Israelites had a spectacular view of God’s glory as He manifested His glory from atop the holy mountain. It would seem that Elijah wanted to reproduce this experience for his own reassurance:
11 So He said, “Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13 And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
I believe Elijah thought if he could but get to that holy mountain and reproduce the experience of Moses he would be overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord in a spectacular way. But even though Elijah saw some of the same things Moses did, God was not in any of these dramatic events. God’s presence was revealed in a small, still voice. Occasionally, God may reveal Himself to us as He did to Moses but most often He will disclose Himself to us as He did to David (in Psalm 119) and Asaph (in Psalm 73). He will disclose Himself to us in the difficult times of our lives and in ways that we would not necessarily anticipate. Let us learn to rejoice in the presence of God in the little ways which do not seem as dramatic and exciting as we might wish.
Finally, the (omni) presence of God should inspire us to “practice the presence of God.” I must admit I have heard this expression often, but I have never truly grasped what it meant “to practice the presence of God.” As I now understand Paul’s teaching on this matter, practicing the presence of God is living each day as though God were present—which He is! Paul’s life was lived out before God and constantly viewed as being witnessed by our Lord (not to mention others). Let us remember that our conduct, our witnessing, our service, is always conducted before Him who is ever present (see Jeremiah 17:16; John 1:48; 2 Corinthians 2;17; 4:2; 7:12; 8:21; 12:19).
And let us look forward to that day when our Lord returns to this earth to defeat and destroy His enemies and deliver us to live forever in the presence of God, as we now say continually,
28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good . . . (Psalm 73:28a).
83 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 80.
84 See especially Exodus 3:5, 12, 17:7; 19:22; 24:2; 33:1-16; 34:8-17; Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 17:13; 18:3-4; Deuteronomy 4:1-7; 5:27.
85 I cannot help but wonder if we would have clung as tenaciously as Moses to the petition that God be present among His people. So often, God is but a means to the end. For Moses, God was the end. Moses did not want God’s blessings without God, for in his mind, the ultimate blessing was for God’s people to dwell in God’s presence.
86 Note the instances in the Book of Acts when our Lord (or an angel) appears to the apostle Paul to encourage and strengthen him (for example, Acts 27:23-26).
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
6. The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-6)
Guilt has two distinct aspects: legal and emotional. Legal guilt is the outcome of a legal or a moral violation. If a break the law or a moral code, I am “guilty” of breaking it. Put another way, the breaking of law or code imparts guilt to the law breaker. Emotional guilt is the outcome of the conscience that God has given us. It is the spiritual organ that causes us to feel pain when we do wrong. Rightly tuned, it is a good thing to have. As Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
Legal and emotional guilt may be paired in any one of four ways:
1. No legal guilt with no guilt feelings. This, of course, is where we would like to be all the time. I have neither broken a law nor do have any sense of conviction.
2. No legal guilt with guilt feelings. This can come about by a misunderstanding of the intent of a law, or it can be a sign of an overly sensitive conscience. A girl, raised with the teaching that make-up is of the devil, who tries a little blush, may feel guilty.
3. Legal guilt with no guilt feelings. On the good side, this comes from convicting an innocent person. On the serious side, this comes from the reprobate who feels bad for being caught in his or her law breaking, but has no sense of wrongdoing. As Proverbs 30:20 says, “This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’”
4. Legal guilt with guilt feelings. Not the best place to be but it certainly presents cause for hope. It’s the stuff from which repentance comes.
The story of Stephen in the Book of Acts gives us an example of wrong legal guilt for which the legally guilty person has no guilt feelings. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, for being one of Jesus’ followers. They found him guilty of blasphemy and stoned him. Stephen was legally guilty as far as the Jewish criminal justice system was concerned. He had incurred a legal debt that demanded his death. From the standpoint of a higher truth, however, he was not guilty, and in fact, his conscience was not inflamed at all.
The men who stoned Stephen took Stephen’s clothes and placed them at the feet of a man named Saul. Saul did not feel guilty either; in fact, Scripture says he approved of the stoning of Stephen. Saul was quite innocent before the Sanhedrin, yet he was morally guilty before a higher Truth.
It’s clear that guilt is a complex subject that affects all of us. We are, of course, in the best of situations when code and conscience, at the level of highest truth, are in agreement. Note again Hebrews 5:14” But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” A proper functioning conscience is a mark of maturity.
Guilt is universal. We have all felt guilty and have been guilty. If we examine the philosophies of the world, we find that, whereas many of them do not recognize the biblical concept of sin, they will invariably recognize the concept of guilt and try to deal with it. This includes not only many religions but also the fields of psychology and psychiatry. This demonstrates the degree to which guilt and guilt feelings trouble the human race.
Some religious groups stir up guilt as a means of control. They seek to expand the scope of guilt.
Conversely, Humanistic philosophies try to narrow the scope of guilt. They do not affirm valid guilt except in regard to violating the space, privacy, or short-term welfare of another person.
Psychiatry often takes the blame-shifting approach to guilt feelings. The comedian Anna Russell wrote a poem that pokes fun at this.
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find
And here’s what he dredged up from my subconscious mind.
When I was one my mommy hid my dolly in a trunk
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
And when I was two I saw my father kiss the maid one day
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomaniae.
At three I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy now I’ve learned a lesson this has taught
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.58
Although true Christianity offers a solution to guilt, there is a charicature of Christianity that portrys it as a producer of guilt feelings instead. This has led some to attack Christianity as being harmful to good mental health, as the following quote from The Humanist magazine demonstrates. The article it comes from is called “The Fundamentalist Anonymous Movement.”
At long last, the best kept secret in America is being revealed to the public: the fundamentalist experience can be a serious mental health hazard to perhaps millions of people. … At this time, more than ten thousand people, hardly a significant number compared to the population from which it claims to come, have called or written us. Even though they come from all fifty states and constitute a cross-section of American society, there is a common list of complaints that we hear again and again: years of overwhelming guilt, fear, and anxiety after leaving the fundamentalist fold, loneliness, chronic depression, low self-esteem, years in therapy, and sometimes even attempts at suicide.59
They are saying that fundamentalists are really pouring on the guilt. Although there are some religious groups, Christian and otherwise, that use guilt to manipulate their members, we still have to realize that guilt feelings are God-given, just like our emotions of fear and anger. All emotions, however, have been warped by sin. Just as there are those who develop sinful anger patterns or are too fearful, there are those who have destructive guilt. Then again, there are others who do not feel guilty enough. What seems clear is that a proper balance must be the goal to which we strive for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
The Guilt Offering and the Sin Offering
Leviticus chapters 4 through 7 present the Sin and Guilt offerings. The two themes intermingle throughout. Thus, the Bible, contrary to our modern culture, closely ties sin and guilt together. Look at how both relate to each other in the following texts.
Leviticus 5:5-6 When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
Leviticus 5:15 When a person commits a violation and sins unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, he is to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering.
Notice the two passages! On the one hand, if a person is guilty he may need to bring a sin offering. On the other hand, if a person sins, he may need to bring a guilt offering. The two concepts are seemingly inseparable.
Guilt Offerings in Israel’s History
The Bible describes a number of occasions when guilt offerings were made. A guilt offering was part of the ceremonial cleansing of a leper. A guilt offering was required when a man or woman, under a Nazarite vow, came in contact with a dead animal or person and unintentionally broke their vow.
The most interesting illustration is told in 1 Samuel 6. The Philistines had captured the ark of God. Their excitement turned to dismay as problems mounted from their having the ark in their possession. In particular, their god Dagon kept falling over and the people suffered from tumors. Their recourse was to “invent” a guilt offering, presumably for sinning against the Lord’s holy things.
1 Samuel 6:1-5 Now the ark of the Lord had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its place.” And they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you shall be healed and it shall be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.” Then they said, “What shall be the guilt offering which we shall return to Him?” And they said, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for one plague was on all of you and on your lords. So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land.
Another example is related at the end of the Book of Ezra. The exiles had returned from their captivity, and guilt and sin offerings had been made. Afterwards, the leaders came to Ezra and told him that the priests, Levites, and others had married foreign wives. Ezra 9:2 says, “They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” Ezra was so distraught at the marring of the racial purity of Israel that he literally pulled his own hair out. He asked the Levites to repent and put away their foreign wives. Many offered guilt offerings. They perhaps had sinned without knowledge or had violated the holy things of God, i.e. “the holy race.”
Structure of Our Text
The passages in Leviticus that concern the guilt offering have the following structure:
1. Leviticus 5:14-16 The Guilt Offering is required for violating the Lord’s holy things.
2. Leviticus 5:17-19 The Guilt Offering is required when one sins without knowing it.
3. Leviticus 6:1-7 The Guilt Offering is required for extortion or robbery.
4. Leviticus 7:1-6 The details of the Guilt Offering.
The Lord’s Holy Things
Leviticus 5:14-16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If a person acts unfaithfully and sins unintentionally against the LORD'S holy things, then he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD: a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.”
What are the Lord’s holy things?
1. The Lord’s name is holy. We are commanded to not misuse it or take it in vain. Swearing falsely by the name of the Lord violates and brings dishonor to the Lord. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray for the sanctity of the Lord’s name.
2. The Sabbath was to be kept holy. An unintentional Sabbath violation would be one of the things that required a guilt offering.
3. The offerings and the temple rites were holy. Much of the temple ceremony dealt with maintaining its holy character. An improperly trained priest could violate any part of the ordinance and be guilty. Leviticus 19 directs that any remains of the peace offering was to be burned on the third day. Leviticus 19:7,8 says, “So if it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an offense; it will not be accepted. And anyone who eats it will bear his iniquity, for he has profaned the holy thing of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from his people
4. National purity was holy. The Israelites were to be holy just as their Lord God was holy. Not maintaining purity in their worship of the one true God and by their inter-marrying, they violated the Lord’s holy things.
What are some of the Lord’s holy things for Christians?
1. The Lord’s Name. As stated above, Jesus taught us to pray “Hallowed be Thy name.”
2. The Gospel. Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”
3. Our Bodies. As Paul says again in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or, do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body”
4. The Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 10:14f, Paul associates the table of the Lord and partaking of it with the “most holy” offerings in Leviticus:
Therefore, my dear friends flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf. Consider the people of Israel: do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?
There is more to be said about the holiness of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:27, Paul writes:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Many would say that this means we are not to partake of the Lord’s table with unconfessed sin, but I do not think that is true. Paul says, whoever eats or drinks in an “unworthy manner.” If we take both this passage and what we see in Leviticus, the Lord’s table is one of the most holy things of the Lord. We are to regard it as holy.
I am certainly not saying there is a transubstantiation of the elements when we serve the Lord’s table. But it is “most holy” for us. Paul clearly associates this with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Paul says it is a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ, and through the one loaf, it is a communion among us with fellow believers. I think we recognize it is emblematic of the Lord’s death and resurrection; we recognize it as one of the symbols of our salvation, but we sometimes lose sight of the fact it is also holy.
All of us are believer priests and may eat—both men and women. The Levitical priests would violate the Lord’s holy things if they ate anything with blood in it. Yet we freely participate in both the body and the blood of Christ. Here’s why: when the priest ate the guilt offering, he was ingesting the sin of the offerer to make atonement for him. The blood was excluded because the life was in the blood, and the life had to be shed because of guilt. For us, Christ has made the perfect atonement. We partake of His sinless body and drink His life, which is in His blood.
Guilt for Unknown Sin
Leviticus 5:17-19 Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment. He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him. It is a guilt offering; he was certainly guilty before the LORD.
Unknown sin is a class of unintentional sin. A sin can be unknown because you didn’t know that an action violated the Lord’s command. It could also be because circumstances hid from you the sinful nature of your actions. Here is an example:
When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac answered him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.” Then Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the men might have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Genesis 26:8-10).
One debate in our modern age is between situational ethics and absolute morals. Between Abimelech and Isaac, there was no such debate. A Philistine would have been guilty of adultery if he had slept with Rebekah, even though the situation suggested differently. Incidentally, this is the first occurrence of the word “guilt” in the Scriptures.
Another incident that combines elements of unknown sin and the Lord’s holy things occurs in Joshua chapter 9. The Gibeonites, marked by the Lord for destruction by the Israelites, dressed up and pretended to be from a distant land. They asked Joshua to make a treaty with them. Though Joshua asked some probing questions, he did not inquire before the Lord before making the treaty, and he swore by the Lord to make the treaty. When the truth became known, Joshua stood by the treaty he had made by swearing on the Lord’s name, but obviously he was guilty of an unknown violation of the Lord’s commands. In this case, the guilt was incurred in ignorance. Ignorance, however, is no excuse. The guilt exists and must be dealt with.
Will any of us ever know the Scriptures in such a way, or be so led by the Spirit, as to never commit an unknown sin and thus incur guilt in our lives? Probably not. Anyone who says we can live sinlessly before our resurrection has a shallow view of the human heart and no understanding of God’s righteous character. This offering demonstrates God’s grace to the Israelite by making a provision for not knowing it all, not understanding it all, and feeling a sense of God’s righteousness and of falling short, yet not knowing why.
In a study on Proverbs that Dr. Bruce Waltke taught many years ago, he described four Hebrew words translated “fool” in Proverbs. They are: (a) pethi: Naive, simple one, not committed; (b) kesil: Dull insensitive, foolish; (c) evil: A hater of wisdom; (d) qalas: The scoffer. These words suggest a continuum between the ignorant and uncommitted, and the premeditated sinner. Everything we do falls somewhere within this continuum.
Intentional sin is brash, bold, direct, premeditated, and consuming. There are many descriptions of those who plan the next day’s evil when they go to sleep at night. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 5:18-23:
Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, to those who say, “Let God hurry, let Him hasten His work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it.” Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering. Then he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Leviticus 6:1-7)
According to Leviticus, if you cheat your neighbor, you need to bring a guilt offering. If you find property and do not return it, you need to bring a guilt offering. Along with the guilt offering, you also return what was stolen, plus 20 percent.
I am immediately reminded of the words of Jesus: “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23, 24). The gift Jesus is referring to may be a peace offering or a tithe. Regardless, it is made worthless by the offense someone has received from you.
Legal and Moral Debt—Handling Guilt Biblically
Guilt is legal and/or moral debt. Both the Levitical offerings and Christianity claim to resolve guilt in our lives. But the enemies of the church are able to accuse us of generating huge amounts of guilt. What gives? Are we innocent of the charge? Mostly so, but partly not. The emotion of guilt, like anger and fear, can be distorted by sin. An overactive conscience is one of the liabilities of spiritual warfare, especially as we draw nearer and nearer to God. Neither do Christianity’s detractors understand that a deadened conscience is also damaging to the person.
How do we handle guilt biblically? For true guilt—whether against the Lord or man, whether known or unknown—the Levitical combination of restitution and the guilt offering absolved the offender of all legal and moral debt. For the Christian, restitution and the death of Jesus Christ, our guilt offering (Isaiah 53:10) also absolves us of legal and moral debt. This statement is important because one of the reasons we carry our guilt is that we refuse to recognize that the debt has been paid.
When I was a teenager, I was hired as a lifeguard, but did not take my position as seriously as I should have. One day I was sitting on the sidelines of the pool talking with some girls (rather than up in the chair). Suddenly I saw a man running along the edge of the pool, in violation of the rules. I blew my whistle, but he didn’t quit running. Instead, he dove into the pool and brought up a young boy out of the water. His face was very blue. The Lord was good to me; the boy revived quickly and no permanent harm came to him. This is an illustration of the kind of guilt that can be damaging to us if we don’t leave it behind. I can’t bring up the memory of this incident without reliving it very vividly. I repented right away, and after that time became a conscientious lifeguard. But it would be pointless to condemn myself each time I remembered the situation. I sinned, incurred guilt, and repented. Jesus, my guilt offering, paid my debt to God. Therefore, I can let the past be the past and move on with a clear conscience.
Here are some concrete ideas for handling guilt:
1. Our conscience must be correctly trained. It must alert us when we have failed to do, as we ought. This requires faithful teaching:
1 Timothy 1:3, 5 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer … The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Hebrews 5:11-12, 14 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk not solid food! … But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
2. Not all of our sin will be known to us. This is really an extension of the first point, but it also covers those times when we just feel unworthy. The sin nature is a deep, festering pool. Now that we know the Lord instituted an offering for this, we may have confidence that this is normal and covered by the cross.
3. Confession is better than denial. First John 1:9 validates the role confession has in the life of the believer. It contains the promise of cleansing, and by faith, we know that our known failings will eventually be behind us, and our unknown failings brought to light and cleansed. Confessing unknown sinfulness is appropriate.
4. When restitution is possible, make it. When restitution is offered, accept it. Restitution is what uniquely distinguishes the guilt offering from the sin offering. Restitution brings healing, and cancels the legal and moral debt on the horizontal level between men.
5. Learn the lesson, and leave it behind you. I suspect that it is here that we drop the ball. But consider the Israelite who appears before the priest with the property of his neighbor, plus 20 percent of its value in grain, plus the ram. When all has been offered, what else is there to do? The moral and legal debt is paid. What more can he do? Nothing. Continuing to carry it around as baggage is not faith and may violate the holiness of the guilt offering and the atonement of the priest.
For the believer, our guilt offering is Jesus Christ. Restitution is our responsibility, and confession and cleansing are offered to us. Even if it is a recurring sin, we need to confess it and leave the guilt behind us.
Christ Our Guilt Offering
We are guilty of violating the Lord’s holy things. We are guilty of unknown sins, and we have wronged our neighbors. The good news comes from the prophet Isaiah who wrote:
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many and he will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:10-11).
Messiah was prophesied to be our guilt offering. The word “justify” means to declare “not guilty.” The moral and legal debt is canceled, but there is more. The author of Hebrews wrote:
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts; and I will write them on their minds.” Then He adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-18).
Jesus Christ, our sin offering, is the eternal solution to our guilt. He offered Himself for your guilt, but you must acknowledge your guilt and accept this guilt offering He made for you. Then you can rejoice in the knowledge that you will be made holy.
57 This message was preached by Don Curtis (email) an excellent student of the Scriptures, teacher, and good friend. Don graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1974 with a degree in Philosophy. He has since become a Senior Computer Programmer with the IBM Corporation. For a number of years, Don and his family attended Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas, until his job took him to Atlanta, Georgia. Partly from Bob Deffinbaugh’s influence, biblical studies and teaching have become a passion in his Christian life. Don is currently an elder and teacher at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, GA.
58 Adams, Jay E., Competent to Counsel, 1971, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, p. 8.
59 Luce, James J. D., “The Fundamentalists Anonymous Movement,” The Humanist, January/February 1986, pp. 11, 12.
12. The Immutability of God
After deciding to replace their automobile, a family I know finally determined their best course of action was to buy a brand new mini-van. Although it would be expensive, they planned to take good care of the vehicle and make it last for many years. While it was still virtually new, they took a trip. The one serpentine belt, which drives everything from the power steering and alternator to the water pump, broke, and the car overheated. They wondered how much damage the overheating had done, and I was not able to give them much encouragement. The dealer assured them a new belt fixed the car entirely. On their way home from a church picnic, they were caught in a sudden storm and pelted with golf ball-sized hail just long enough to give the car a whole new, rather dimpled look. Shortly after, while driving downtown, someone ran into the back of the mini-van damaging it even further. My friend told me they had reached the point where they stopped even washing the car.
My friend’s “new” car aged rapidly in a short time. Things do change all too quickly. Most often, change is an unpleasant reality of life which we would avoid if we could. I recently came across one of our earliest church directories. Wow, have some of our folks ever changed! Some no longer have what they used to, and some of us have a lot more of some things than we had back then. One look at a 20-year old world map reveals the existence of nations which were not even conceived of 20 years ago. The recent changes in the former USSR came suddenly and unexpectedly.
Technology has seen perhaps the most dramatic changes in recent times. Computers I once dreamed of owning I now see in garage sales and choose to walk away from with hardly a twinge of temptation, even though the price may be under ten dollars. The computer on which I am writing this message is 50 times as fast as the first IBM desktop I used, which cost twice as much money. Things change so fast we cannot rely on a daily newspaper for up-to-the-minute news; we must have news programs all day long. A farmer we met recently has a computer terminal on his kitchen table running constantly so he can keep up to date.
Some changes are welcome; some are not. A great comfort for the Christian living in these turbulent, troubled times is the confidence we have that God does not change. Theologians refer to this attribute of God as the “immutability of God.” God does not change. This truth is referred to a number of times in the Scriptures and even in the hymns we sing in church. Let us reflect on this great attribute, the immutability of God, before considering applications of this truth to our lives.
29 “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29).
Saul had become king of Israel. As such, he was to lead the Israelites into battle with the Amalekites. He was instructed by God to utterly destroy the king and every living creature, man, woman, child, and even all the cattle (1 Samuel 15:2-3). Saul only partially obeyed God’s instructions, allowing the king to live and keeping the best of the cattle (verses 7-9). Saul simply did not take God’s Word seriously. As a result, God took his kingdom away from him (verses 22-26). Saul then uttered a desperate plea to Samuel, hoping that God would restore his kingdom; instead, Samuel uttered the words of verse 29. Samuel informed Saul that God, the Glory of Israel, was not a man. But as the immutable God, He could not and would not alter His word or change His mind to reverse the consequences He had just pronounced upon Saul’s sin.
Saul, like all too many people today, willfully disobeyed God’s Word hoping God would somehow fail to do as He said. Saul had too little regard for God’s Word and did not see how serious God is concerning disobedience to His Word. He hoped God would also take His own Word lightly by reversing the sentence He had pronounced on the sinner. God always takes His Word most seriously. He not only expects and requires us to obey it, He most certainly will keep His Word regarding the punishment of those who disregard it. God, because He is God, is immutable, and we can be certain He will keep His Word. Everything else in creation is subject to change except the Creator, for He, as God, will not change:
12 But Thou, O LORD dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations. . . 25 Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. 26 Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. 27 But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end. 28 The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee” (Psalm 102:12, 25-28, emphasis mine).
6 “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6, emphasis mine).
In Malachi, the prophet is warning the nation Israel of the coming wrath of God. He speaks of the coming of both John the Baptist and of Jesus, the Messiah (3:1). The day of His coming will be a day of wrath, and yet it will also be a day of deliverance and salvation. No one can endure the day of His coming, apart from divine grace (verse 2), and yet somehow Israel will be purified, and her sacrifices and worship will thus be acceptable to God (verses 3-4). God will draw His people near for judgment (verse 6). In the midst of these words of warning and comfort, the Lord speaks of His immutability as the reason Israel is not totally consumed in divine judgment (verse 6).
What irony when we compare this text with 1 Samuel 15:29. Saul’s “hope” was in the possibility that God might change and not carry out the consequences for Saul’s sin. Malachi’s prophecy tells us the exact opposite. Like Saul, Israel has sinned, and divine judgment is certain. The immutability of God means that God will follow through with judgment. It also means God will follow through with His promise of salvation. How can one find comfort and be assured of salvation while also being assured of divine judgment? The answer is simple when viewed from the perspective of the cross of Christ. God’s certain judgment fell on His Son, Jesus Christ, and thus by faith in Him, men are saved from their sins and from God’s wrath. Our hope is not in wishful thinking that God will not follow through with punishing sin; our hope is in the certainty that, in Christ, God has judged sin in the flesh once for all so that we may be saved. The immutability of God is a significant part of our hope, for He who has promised to judge sin is the same God who has promised to save us from our sins by judging sin in the person and work of Jesus Christ, His Son.
7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Hebrews 13:7-9).
The Book of Hebrews was written to Jewish saints who were beginning to face persecution, probably from their unbelieving Jewish brethren. They were tempted to fall away by renouncing their faith in Christ and embracing Judaism once again. The author of this epistle has repeatedly demonstrated that the old Mosaic covenant was never intended to save men but to prepare them for the new covenant which was fulfilled in Christ. This new covenant is “better,” a key word in Hebrews, and should not be forsaken to return to the old. These saints are exhorted to persist in their faith, even in the midst of persecution. The exhortation to follow in the footsteps of the faithful men through whom they came to salvation is immediately followed by this reminder of the immutability of Jesus Christ.
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
This statement is very important, for it is a claim of deity. Only God is immutable; only He cannot and does not change. For the writer to tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever is to remind us that He is God. No wonder His sacrifice is superior to any and all Old Testament sacrifices! It also is an incentive for faith. Who better to entrust our salvation and eternal well-being to than He who is not only God, but He who cannot and does not change. Our eternal destiny could not be in better hands.
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
Like the writer to the Hebrews, James writes to those who are suffering for their faith. He instructs them to rejoice when they enter into trials, knowing that this is divinely intended to strengthen our faith by producing endurance (James 1:2-4; compare Romans 5:3-5). If one lacks the wisdom to know how to respond to the trials of life, he need only to ask God for wisdom. He must not waver in doubt, for such a person is unstable in all his ways (verses 6-8). Those who persevere under trial will, once he has been approved, receive the crown of life (verse 12).
While God tests us through trials and tribulations, He never tempts us to sin. Such temptation comes from another source. The world and the devil certainly seek to lead us astray, but we must also look within ourselves for the explanation for our sin. A man who is tempted and then sins does so because he has given way to his own lusts. We most certainly must not blame God (verses 13-15). God is not the source of evil, but the source of good. Every good thing comes from God as a gift. Only good things come from God. Since He is immutable, we can say this is the rule, and there are no exceptions. The God who is good, and the source of all that is good, is consistently good to those who are His own (verse 17; see also Romans 8:28).
In these four texts, two of which come from the Old Testament and two from the New, we see that the immutability of God is clearly taught in the Bible and that it is an intensely practical truth. Before considering the practical implications of God’s immutability, let us first deal briefly with two circumstances in which one might wrongly conclude God is not immutable.
On several occasions, the Scriptures speak of God “repenting” or “changing His mind” (see Genesis 6:5-6; Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10; 2 Samuel 24:16). Do such texts undermine our confidence in the immutability of God? Most certainly not! First, we must clarify what immutability means. Immutability applies to the nature of God. He is always God, and He is always infinitely powerful. Never will God fail to accomplish His will due to a change in His power to accomplish His purposes. Second, God is immutable with regard to His character or attributes:
“. . . God is immutable in His attributes. Whatever the attributes of God were before the universe was called into existence, they are precisely the same now, and will remain so forever. Necessarily so; for they are the very perfections, the essential qualities of His being. Semper idem (always the same) is written across every one of them. His power is unabated, His wisdom undiminished, His holiness unsullied. The attributes of God can no more change than deity can cease to be. His veracity is immutable, for His Word is ‘forever settled in heaven’ (Ps 119:89).
His love is eternal: ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love’ (Jer 31:3) and, ‘Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end’ (Jn 13:1).
His mercy ceases not, for it is ‘everlasting’ (Ps l00:5).”87
When Jonah protested against God’s dealings with the Ninevites, he made it clear God was not acting inconsistently with His character but rather He was acting predictably. Jonah sought to flee from the presence of God in a futile attempt to thwart God from acting consistently with His character:
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:1-2).
When God “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon” the Ninevites, God was not only acting consistently with His character; He was acting consistently with His Word:
7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
This very hope prompted the king of Ninevah to repent, along with the rest of the city (Jonah 3:5-9). God’s actions are predictable because He is immutable. This was the hope of the repentant king of Ninevah and the dread of the pagan-hearted prophet, Jonah.
Third, God’s purposes and promises are immutable (see Romans 11:29).88 God finishes what He starts. This was the basis for Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32 (verses 11-14). Here, God’s actions in response to Moses’ appeal were not a contradiction to His immutability but an outworking of that immutability.
The various dispensations evident in the Bible89 are not a contradiction to God’s immutability. God’s immutability does not preclude Him from incorporating different economies into His overall plan of redemption. In Romans 9-11, the apostle Paul shows how all of history is a part of God’s one eternal plan. The failure of the nation Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles were a part of this plan. The Old Testament Scriptures frequently spoke of such matters, although the Jews were not open to listen or to learn. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus reminded His Jewish brethren of God’s purpose to bless Gentiles as well as Jews, consistent with the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) and with many other texts (see Luke 4:16-27; Romans 9-11).
As I have considered the subject of God’s immutability, I have become impressed with Peter’s emphasis of this reality. The immutability of God permeates his thinking and is the basis for much of what Peter teaches. We first find this doctrine referred to in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. Peter was proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, not only as a historical fact to which the apostles were witnesses, but also as fulfillment of the Scriptures (see Acts 2:22-35). He was also arguing that the resurrection of our Lord was a theological and practical necessity, stemming from the doctrine of the immutability of God:
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—23 this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I WAS ALWAYS BEHOLDING THE LORD IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. 26 THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL ABIDE IN HOPE; 27 BECAUSE THOU WILT NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY” (Acts 2:22-27).
Peter maintains that “it was impossible” for our Lord not to rise from the dead (verse 24). Why is this so? Peter then quotes from Psalm 16, verses 8-11, where the prophecy states, “NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.” Decay is a change in state, a downward change. Since Jesus Christ is God and God cannot change, God cannot decay. It was not impossible for Jesus to rise from the dead as some might contend. Rather, it was impossible for Him not to rise since He is immutable, and corruption is change. There may have been the stench of death in the tomb of Lazarus after three days (see John 11:39), but there was no stench in the grave where they laid Jesus. It was impossible for Him to undergo corruption. The resurrection of our Lord was a theological necessity.
In Peter’s first epistle, the immutability of God and His works are prominent. In 1 Peter 1:3-9, Peter speaks of our salvation as that which is imperishable rather than that which is perishable. He speaks of our inheritance as imperishable (verse 4) and also our faith (verse 7). In verses 18-19, Peter speaks of the shed blood of our Lord as precious because it is imperishable. The atonement by which our salvation was accomplished was by means of an imperishable sacrifice so that our salvation is likewise imperishable. In verses 22-25, Peter goes on to speak of God’s Word as imperishable. It is this Word which served as the imperishable seed by which we were begotten. Since our birth is through an imperishable seed, not only is the Word imperishable, but also our life and our love which is born of the Word. Finally, in 1 Peter 5:4, Peter speaks to elders of their imperishable reward, the “unfading crown of glory.” Our salvation is secure because it is imperishable. Thus our salvation, like God, is immutable.
The immutability of God is far from just a theological observation or a hypothetical truth. It is a life-transforming truth from which we can draw a number of implications for our lives.
(1) The immutability of God has tremendous implications regarding the Bible, the Word of God.
J. I. Packer, in his excellent book, Knowing God, includes a chapter on the immutability of God, where he emphasizes the relevance of this attribute to our lives as Christians:
“Where is the sense of distance and difference, then, between believers in Bible time and ourselves? It is excluded. On what grounds? On the grounds that God does not change. Fellowship with Him, trust in His word, living by faith, ‘standing on the promises of God’, are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers. This thought brings comfort as we enter into the perplexities of each day: amid all the changes and uncertainties of life in a nuclear age, God and His Christ remain the same—almighty to save. But the thought brings a searching challenge too. If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs? If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.”90
The immutability of God is closely related to the immutability of the Word of God (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:22-25), which means His Word is never out of date, never irrelevant to our lives or our times.
(2) The immutability of God is an assurance for Christians
Assurance provides stability and confidence in times of uncertainty and circumstances that appear threatening. Because our God is unchanging, His promises and His purposes are certain; they cannot, and they will not fail. We have an incorruptible sacrifice, the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has accomplished eternal redemption for all who receive it (1 Peter 1:3-9, 17-21; Hebrews 9:12). We have a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). We have a God who deals with us consistently with His character and His Word (see James 1:12-18). We have a Great High Priest who “abides forever and holds His priesthood permanently” (Hebrews 7:24). Our hope and confidence is not in the “uncertainty of riches” but rather in “God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). The prophet Isaiah contrasted the “changing creation with the unchanging Creator” as an encouragement to endurance and faithfulness, even in the dark days of history (Isaiah 50:7-51:16).
(3) The immutability of God is a standard for Christians.
As the “sons of God,” we are to emulate God, to reflect Him in our daily lives (see Matthew 5:43-48). While there is much need for change in our lives (of which we will speak in a moment), there is also the need for us not to change. We are not to allow the world to change us by conforming us to its ungodly mold (Romans 12:1-2). We are not to change by losing heart and abandoning our confession of faith (see Hebrews 6:11-20; 10:19-25, 32-39). We are not to change by forsaking our commitments when fulfilling them is costly to us (Psalm 15:4).
(4) The immutability of God is also an awesome warning that God will fulfill His Word regarding judgment for sin.
God’s immutability is not only a comforting assurance concerning the blessings which God has promised, but also an awesome warning that God will fulfill His Word regarding judgment for sin. When God spoke to Judah concerning the judgment about to come upon this nation for their sins, He spoke of a judgment that was certain, which would not change because He would not change His mind:
27 This is what the LORD says: “The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. 28 Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.” Jeremiah 4:27-28
In Jeremiah 18:7-8, God promised He would relent of the disaster He pronounced against a wicked nation if they would repent. Here in Jeremiah 4, God indicates the judgment of which He speaks is irreversible. There is a time for repentance, and during that time men may repent with the assurance that God will forgive their sins and turn from the judgment He threatened. But the time for repentance ends, and then men must face the consequences of their sins. In Jeremiah 4, God urges Judah to repent (see verse 14), but this plea will be ignored, and so judgment will come. Once the time for repentance has passed, God’s wrath is sure to follow. From this point, God will not turn from the judgment He has announced through His prophets. Such was the case in the days of Noah. The gospel was proclaimed for over 100 years, but once God shut the door of the ark, the time for repentance was past and the time for judgment had arrived. God will most certainly not “change” regarding judgment, once the time for repentance has passed. Do not err by looking upon God’s grace and mercy in giving a time for repentance as an evidence of divine apathy and assurance that God will not judge men for their sins. Judgment is certain and sure for sinners who rebel against God.
“Here is terror for the wicked. Those who defy Him, break His laws, have no concern for His glory, but live their lives as though He did not exist, must not suppose that, when at the last they shall cry to Him for mercy, He will alter His will, revoke His word, and rescind His awful threatenings. No, He has declared, ‘Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them’ (Eze 8:18). God will not deny Himself to gratify their lusts. God is holy, unchangingly so. Therefore God hates sin, eternally hates it. Hence the eternality of the punishment of all who die in their sins.
The divine immutability, like the cloud which interposed between the Israelites and the Egyptian army, has a dark as well as a light side. It insures the execution of His threatenings, as well as the performance of His promises; and destroys the hope which the guilty fondly cherish, that He will be all lenity to His frail and erring creatures, and that they will be much more lightly dealt with than the declarations of His own Word would lead us to expect. We oppose to these deceitful and presumptuous speculations the solemn truth, that God is unchanging in veracity and purpose, in faithfulness and justice (J. Dick, 1850).”91
(5) The wicked frequently misapply the immutability of God, making it a pretext for living in sin without fear of retribution.
Sinful men and women often abuse the doctrine of the immutability of God. The immutable God is the One who is the sustainer of all things. Of course, all things continue as they have from the foundation of the world (Col 1:16-17; see also 2 Peter 3:3-4). The constancy of the world in which we live is a matter of common grace, and it is one which testifies of His goodness and grace. Unbelievers misinterpret the consistency of the order of creation, making of it a “proof” that God is not going to judge the world for sin (2 Peter 3:3-4). How then can we be certain of His judgment? (1) Because God’s Word warns us of judgment, and God’s Word, like God, does not change. (2) Because Bible history is filled with examples of God’s intervention into human history to judge sin. This judgment sometimes takes a spectacular form, such as seen in the flood (Genesis 6-7) or in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). At other times, judgment is delayed so that men might repent and be saved. And sometimes God’s judgment comes in a form not readily recognized as divine judgment. This is the case in Romans 1:18-32. God’s wrath is evident in allowing men to suffer the downward degradation and corruption of sin so that they are defiled both in mind and body. He judges sinners by allowing them to persist in their sin without divine interruption, thus reaping the whirlwind of consequences for sin. Today in our culture many look at immorality, perversion, and twisted thinking as progress, as a blessing. But we should see it for what it is—divine judgment—a small sampling of what is to come.
(6) The unchanging God is the only means by which sinful men can be changed so as to enter into God’s eternal blessings.
While God does not change, sinful men must change in order to enter into the kingdom of God. This “change” is from one who is a vile sinner, deserving of God’s eternal wrath, to a forgiven sinner, who now stands clothed in the righteousness of God, through faith in Christ. It is God who provides the means whereby sinners can be changed, transformed to new creations, forgiven, justified, having an imperishable hope. What is required of men is to repent, to cease thinking and acting as they once did, acknowledge their sins, and trust in Jesus Christ.
This is not a good work which men do in order to gain God’s favor. Rather, it is a good work which God accomplishes in our lives, the result of His goodness and grace. The only change God will accept is the change which He produces in and through us, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. There is no greater dread than knowing we are sinners, and that God not only hates sin but He will certainly judge sinners. There is no comfort to be found in the immutability of God for the sinner. But for those who have trusted in God’s provision for sinners, there is no greater comfort than to know that the God who chose us, called us, and promised us eternal salvation changes not.
87 Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), pp. 35-36.
88 Some of God’s purposes are temporal and temporary. The Mosaic covenant, for example, was a temporary provision which did not in any way alter or set aside His eternal covenant with Abraham (see Galatians 3:17).
89 It should be said that even non-dispensationalists believe in dispensations, that is in certain distinctions in God’s program over the course of biblical history. Disagreement arises not over the fact of such differences but over the interpretation of these differences. As a rule, dispensationalists tend to emphasize the differences while covenant theologians emphasize the unity of the whole plan which encompasses the various dispensations.
90J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 72.
91Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 37.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
13. The Joy of God
I must confess I have never been big on the “smiley face” found on bumper stickers and personal letters. In particular, I have never cared for the “smiley face” as a Christian logo or symbol. Sadly, if the truth were known, most people do think of God in terms of a frowning face. God does hate sin, and if I understand the Scriptures correctly, He even hates sinners. He is a God of wrath who is angry toward sinners. But this is only one of God’s emotions, only one aspect of His character. God is also a God who finds great pleasure in His creatures and creation. Our God is both joyful and the source of our joy. How grateful we should be for this attribute of our great God.
As one looks through many of the works on the attributes of God, the topic of the “joy of the Lord” is not often found. For some reason, the “joy of the Lord” seems to be a neglected aspect of God’s nature and character. Years ago, one of my seminary professors called this to our attention when he referred to 1 Timothy 1:
9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:9-11, emphasis mine).
The word blessed used here by Paul is the same term our Lord employed in the Sermon on the Mount, which is rendered “blessed” in the King James Version, the New King James Version, the NIV and the NASB. J. B. Phillips and a few others render the term “happy.” My professor indicated that one could render the expression in 1 Timothy 1:11, the “happy God,” a suggestion which took me by surprise. The term employed could be used in this sense, and biblical theology does not prohibit it. For some reason, we seem to seldom think of God as being happy.
Unfortunately, the word “happy” has been redefined and so trivialized in our culture that it is little wonder we hesitate to use it in reference to Christians or to our God. Yet I believe we should redefine and seek to reclaim the term. For the present, however, we may be safer to use the term joy, a term more frequently used of God and of Christians. In Nehemiah, we find this familiar statement:
18 “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
I always thought of the joy referred to here as the joy which God gives, and so it is. I now realize this does not say quite enough. It is also the joy which God possesses and experiences. God gives us joy because He is joyful. He is the source of joy, just as He is the source of love, of truth, of mercy, and so on. Joy is both a description of God and a description of what He gives.
We will begin by surveying the Scriptures in search of evidences of God’s delight and pleasure (His joy). We shall next consider the joy of our Lord Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the Old Testament prophecies and in the New Testament. Finally, we will attempt to show how the “joy of the Lord” can impact the lives of men, especially those who are true believers in Jesus Christ. May this lesson be a reflection of God’s joy and a source of true joy for each of us.
Some may say I am overreaching here, but it seems as though God took pleasure—He found joy—in His creation. Repeatedly in Genesis 1 we find the expression, “and God saw that it was good” (see verses 4, 10, 12, 17, 21, 25, 31). I believe Moses was indicating God’s pleasure by repeatedly telling us that God saw His creation to be good. When someone serves us a piece of homemade pie and we exclaim, “This is good!” we are expressing not just our approval, but our pleasure. Often, when I “create” something in my garage, I find myself going back to it several times in the next few days taking pleasure in what I have made. The Father seems to have joy in what His hands have made. When men sin, God’s joy turns to sorrow:
5 The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them” (Genesis 6:5-7).
God’s creation enters into the joy of its Creator:
8 And they who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Thy signs; Thou dost make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy (Psalm 65:8). 13 The meadows are clothed with flocks, And the valleys are covered with grain; They shout for joy, yes, they sing (Psalm 65:13).
12 Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy (Psalm 96:12). 8 Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together for joy (Psalm 98:8).
God the Father takes pleasure in choosing or selecting. God delighted over the nation Israel, selecting this people as the object of His blessings, just as He would also delight over Israel as the object of His wrath (Deuteronomy 28:63), not because God takes pleasure in the death of men, even wicked men (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11), but because God disciplines His “son” in order to bring him to godliness (see Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:3-10).
God likewise took pleasure in making David king over Israel and then in rescuing him from danger.
20 “He also brought me forth into a broad place; He rescued me, because He delighted in me” (2 Samuel 22:20).
9 “Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9).
According to the prophet Isaiah, the promised Messiah is the One in whom the Father delights (42:1). He is described as the One who will “delight in the fear of the Lord” (11:3). And, He is the One who will be characterized by joy, a joy which surpasses that of all of His brethren:
6 Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom. 7 Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Thy God, has anointed Thee With the oil of joy above Thy fellows (Psalm 45:6-7).
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the Lord Jesus as being motivated to carry out His work on the cross of Calvary by the joy into which He would enter by His sacrificial atonement:
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Jesus told His disciples they would have great joy. The joy they would experience was first and foremost His joy, a joy into which they would also enter.
11 “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11).
13 “But now I come to Thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13).
In Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable which has much to teach us about joy.
14 “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves, and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 And to one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. 16 Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. 17 In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. 18 But he who received the one talent went away and dug in the ground, and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 And the one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me; see, I have gained five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 “The one also who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted to me two talents; see, I have gained two more talents.’ 23 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 “And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed. 25 And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground; see, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I scattered no seed. 27 Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. 28 Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ 29 For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30 And cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14-30, emphasis mine).
This parable has much to teach us about Christian service. We must conclude that of these three servants, only the first two were true believers. The third “slave” was cast into outer darkness, a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (verse 30). The first two “slaves” were good and faithful, and the third was unfaithful and wicked. I find it interesting and instructive to consider this story from the perspective of joy.
The first two slaves were faithful, and their reward was to “enter into the joy” of their master. Do these words not indicate that their master was joyful and that these slaves were blessed by entering into his joy with him? The master was (or would be) joyful, and his faithful slaves would enter into this joy as well. The “master” in this story most surely represents our Lord and the faithful “servants,” His followers. The blessings of the master and his slaves are summed up by the word “joy.”
This third slave fascinates me. In the past, I have always focused on what this wicked, lazy slave did not do. This time, I am especially interested in why this slave failed to do as he should have done. Was this slave lazy because he did not work to gain a profit for his master? Of course. But was he not evil in thinking wrongly of his master? He thought of his master as one who expected a profit where he made no provisions.
24 “‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed’” (Matthew 25:24).
This slave’s assessment of his master was wrong. It is true that Jesus judges this man on the basis of his view of his master, but it is nevertheless a wrong perception. God is not a cruel master, who expects us to gain a profit where He has given us no provision. He deals with us in grace. He gives us the means to do that which He expects and requires. We can fulfill our responsibilities to Him only by His grace. This is why we can only boast in Him and not in what we have done. This slave was wicked because he did not see his master as gracious and (may I be so bold as to say) happy. The reward of the faithful slaves was to enter into their master’s joy. The master was joyful. The faithful servants were to enter into this joy. And the wicked man had no grasp of God’s joy at all. How many of us have this same distorted view of God as a grouchy, demanding slave master rather than a joyful master into whose joy we too may enter? And the service He requires of us even now is to be done joyfully rather than sullenly.
Luke 15 is yet another example of the joyful disposition of our God. God’s joy (at the repentance and salvation of sinners) is contrasted with the sullenness of the scribes and Pharisees and their grumbling over our Lord’s association with tax-gatherers and sinners (15:1-2). In response, Jesus tells two parables, both of which make a point of God’s joy over the fact that one who was lost has been found:
3 And He told them this parable, saying, 4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ 10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:3-10, emphasis mine).
In both stories, something was lost, sought after, and found. When the lost object was recovered, the one who searched for it rejoiced and invited others to join in the celebration in the joy of this recovery. The lost items—a sheep and a coin—were found because the owner who had lost them sought for them.
Jesus makes it clear that these two stories are understood as illustrative of His seeking after lost sinners and then rejoicing over their salvation. One of the “joys set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2) was the salvation of lost sinners. Others were expected to rejoice with our Lord over the fact that lost sinners were coming to faith in Him and were “found” in Him. The scribes and Pharisees could not enter into this joy because they were still lost and did not wish to be found. They were angry that Jesus was manifesting grace toward these unworthy sinners. They did not want such folks in “their” kingdom.
The words spoken here by our Lord are very familiar to me, but somehow I have failed to take them seriously enough. I always thought Jesus was saying it was the angels who rejoiced at the salvation of lost sinners. No doubt the angels do rejoice, but this is not the emphasis of the text. In the first story, Jesus said there was “joy in heaven” over the one who repented (verse 7). In the second story, Jesus declared there was “joy in the presence of the angels.” The angels are not alone in their rejoicing; the angels are rejoicing along with God. God is rejoicing in heaven and in the presence of the angels. The implication of our Lord’s words is that because God rejoices over the salvation of one lost sinner, the angels do likewise. In the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, they “enter into the joy of their Master.” The fact that the scribes and Pharisees were not rejoicing is therefore a serious problem. They are not in harmony with heaven and, most of all, with God. Why? Because they do not believe they are sinners, and they do not want God’s grace. They do not want to think of themselves as citizens who have entered into the kingdom of God in the same way as these tax-gatherers and sinners. In fact, they are not saved at all. Like the wicked slave of Matthew 25, they are unbelievers, who think badly of the Master and who have no share in His kingdom or in His joy.
The last half of Luke 15 is the story of the prodigal son, which continues to emphasize the dramatic contrast between God and the host of heaven and the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees. The prodigal son repents and returns to his father. The father rejoices and calls for a time of celebration and rejoicing. Does the older brother rejoice that the lost son has returned? Most certainly not! He is angry with the brother and with his father as well. He cannot understand why he has not been allowed to celebrate. He oozes self-righteousness rather than gratitude and joy, which should characterize a sinner’s response to the grace of God in both his life and the lives of others. The father of the prodigal once again portrays the joy of the Heavenly Father at the repentance and conversion of lost sinners.
Lest we think joy or “happiness” is an attribute only of the Father and the Son, let me call your attention to these verses which link the joy of the believer with the Holy Spirit:
52 And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).
17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
The Holy Spirit is the means by which the joy of our Lord, the joy of our Master, is conveyed to the believer. The presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit produces joy in the life of the Christian. We must imply from these verses that those who are not Christians, in whom the Holy Spirit does not dwell, do not and cannot experience God’s joy. This was certainly true of the scribes and Pharisees described in Luke 15 and elsewhere in the Gospels.
God is a God of joy, a “happy God,” if you would. He rejoices in His creation, and He especially rejoices in the salvation of lost sinners. If we are God’s children, then we are in tune with the heart and character of God and should thus be characterized by joy as well. This joy comes from God and is mediated through the Holy Spirit to every Christian. “The joy of the Lord” should characterize our service and our worship. It is a joy that will be even greater in heaven, a joy we will enter into in heaven. For the Christian, joy is not an option, for we are commanded to experience and to express joy as Christians:
12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
20 “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
36 “Already he who reaps is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for life eternal; that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:36).
20 “Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy” (John 16:20).
22 “Therefore you too now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you” (John 16:22).
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
10 And again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people” (Romans 15:10).
26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:26).
6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).
11 Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11).
27 For it is written, “Rejoice, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more are the children of the desolate Than of the one who has a husband” (Galatians 4:27).
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice (Philippians 1:18).
17 But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. 18 And you too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me (Philippians 2:17-18).
1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you (Philippians 3:1).
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! (Philip. 4:4).
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. (Col. 1:24).
9 For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account (1 Thessalonians 3:9).
16 Rejoice always (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials (1 Peter 1:6).
8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).
13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:13).
7 “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7).
You might think that lacking joy is one of the lesser evils, but this is not the case. God spoke of Israel’s sin as being evident by her lack of joy:
45 “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. 46 And they shall become a sign and a wonder on you and your descendants forever. 47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:45-48).
The lack of a glad heart was the source of Israel’s sin and divine judgment. Lack of joy leads to sin. And, conversely, sin leads to a lack of joy:
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Thy presence, And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, And sustain me with a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways, And sinners will be converted to Thee (Psalm 51:10-13)
In addition, we see that joy is the motivation for Christian witness and service. All too often we try to motivate Christians to witness by making them feel guilty. This text indicates that the “joy of Thy salvation” acts as the motivator of our service, not guilt or fear. “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The Spirit of God and the Word of God are two primary means by which the joy of the Lord is conveyed to men (see Psalm 119:111; Jeremiah 15:16; verses on the Holy Spirit and joy above).
We do a great disservice to God and others when we portray God in a way that matches the false perception of the wicked slave of Matthew 25. The wicked slave feared his master, but rather than prompting him to serve his master, his fear produced just the opposite response. God takes great pleasure and finds great joy in His creations, including the new creation of believers in Jesus Christ. He also delights in the growth and godliness of His people.
Joy serves as a tremendous source of guidance concerning the “will of God.” Many think and speak of the “will of God” as some great mystery, difficult to discern and even harder to defend. But the Bible does not speak of God’s will this way. In Romans 7, Paul did not say the will of God was hard to know; he said that it was impossible to do. He knew what was right, he just did not do it. He knew what was wrong, yet he persisted in doing it. It is not the knowing of God’s will, but the doing of it, which is hard.
If you want to know the will of God, approach the decisions you must make in life by this standard: What pleases God, what gives Him joy, and what grieves God? This is the way Paul approached life:
9 Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).
10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:10).
20 Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, 21 equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20-21).
The Bible leaves no doubt about what pleases and displeases God. God delights in His people (Psalm 149:4). He finds joy in uprightness (1 Chronicles 29:17) and loyalty (Hosea 6:6) and undying love (Micah 7:18). He is pleased with lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:24). He delights in the “sons” whom He disciplines (Proverbs 3:12; see Hebrews 12:3-13). He loves just weights (Proverbs 11:1) and the blameless (Proverbs 11:20). He has pleasure in those who deal faithfully (Proverbs 12:22). God does not delight in mere religious rituals, divorced from godly living (Psalm 51:16-17; see also verses 18 and 19). Those things which impress us God takes no pleasure in, such as the strength of a horse or the legs of a man (Psalm 147:10-11). He finds no joy in fools (Ecclesiastes 5:4) or in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11).
Note carefully that the world’s form of “joy” is not the same joy which the Christian possesses. The two “joys” are very different. In fact, the Christian can be distinguished from the unbeliever by those things which are the source of our joy. Evil men delight in their abominations (Isaiah 66:3) and choose that in which God does not delight (Isaiah 65:12; 66:4). They do not delight in the Word of God (Jeremiah 6:10). They are pleased with a thief, and with adulterers (Psalm 50:18), and in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:12).
The child of God has a very different source of pleasure or delight. His joy is in the Lord (Psalm 37:4; 43:4), from His Word (Psalm 1:2; 112:1; 119:16, 24, 70, 77, 92, 143, 174). He has joy in doing God’s will (Psalm 40:8) and in praising God (Psalm 147:1). He chooses that which is pleasing to God (Isaiah 56:4). He rejoices in justice (Proverbs 21:15). His delight is not in personal, selfish, sensual pleasures, but he finds pleasure in God:
13 “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word, 14 Then you will take delight in the Lord, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
So many non-Christians seem to think that becoming a Christian spells the end of pleasure and the commencement of a dull and joyless life. The term “puritan” or “puritanical” is far from a compliment to anyone today, because the Puritans are thought of as a pleasureless people of the past. Such characterization of the Puritans is simply not true.92 Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no joy like that of knowing God and serving Him, no joy like that of knowing that our sins are forgiven and we are right with God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. There is no joy that endures pain and suffering and persecution like the joy of the Christian, whose hope and joy are in the Lord, and not in our circumstances.
Author John Piper has recently taken up the theme of pleasure in a refreshing way which I recommend to the reader. His first book entitled, Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, was followed with The Pleasures of God, which focuses on the attributes of God. More recently, he has authored a book entitled, Let The Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Piper sometimes tends to contrast pleasure or joy with duty, when the two should be viewed together. Our duty should be our delight. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend his writings as a source of edification and a stimulus to the pursuit of joy.
Piper says something very important about joy or pleasure. He insists that it is not wrong for a Christian to have pleasure or to seek pleasure; it is only wrong to seek pleasure in the wrong place. Let us seek joy in God and in serving and worshipping Him. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
92 I recommend for your understanding of the Puritans J. I. Packer’s excellent book, A Quest For Godliness, a study of the Puritans which corrects many contemporary misconceptions (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990). I also recommend Worldly Saints, subtitled “The Puritans As They Really Were,” by Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986).
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
14. The Invisibility of God (Genesis 32:22-30; Exodus 24:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:17)
One finds little on the subject of God’s invisibility among the books on the attributes of God. Some may reason that God’s invisibility is obvious. Because we cannot see God, why attempt to prove He is invisible? Another might look upon God’s invisibility as a problem, an embarrassment, perhaps even a hindrance to faith and godly living. But this simply is not so. We should remind ourselves of Jesus’ words concerning His departure from this earth, and thus His invisibility, as we begin our study:
18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me; because I live, you shall live also. 20 In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. 21 He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:18-21).
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:7-11).
16 “A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me” (John 16:16).
We might wrongly suppose Jesus is saying to His disciples that they see Him now, but shortly He will be invisible for three days, and then visible once again after His resurrection. I do not believe He is saying this at all. Jesus is saying that His disciples see Him physically at the moment, but after His death, burial, ascension, and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, they will “see” Him in a much clearer way. He will speak to them clearly and openly, and they will understand (something not true of His teaching while on the earth with them—see Matthew 15:17; 16:11; Luke 2:50; 9:45; John 10:6; 20:9). And while He will be invisible to the world after His ascension, He will be very evident to those who believe in Him. They will sense His presence more surely, and He will no longer dwell among them but in them. The “invisible” presence of our Lord is better than His visible presence was. We are privileged to know God more intimately now after our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension, than men ever knew Him before.
Some may believe the Bible is self-contradicting regarding God’s invisibility. Some texts clearly indicate that God is invisible, that He cannot be seen:
18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:18).
17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17).
But there are also texts where men claim to have seen God:
30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30).
11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses returned to the camp, his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent (Exodus 33:11).
14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of this people, for Thou, O Lord, art seen eye to eye, while Thy cloud stands over them; and Thou dost go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Numbers 14:14).
Should the Christian throw up his hands in despair? Is the Bible “full of errors and inconsistencies,” as some skeptics have alleged? We will begin by addressing these seeming contradictions. Then we will consider the invisibility of God and the visible incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, we will address some of the numerous implications of the doctrine of the invisibility of God.
In light of the statements of some texts that God is invisible and others that God has been seen by men, let us lay down applicable biblical truths to help us resolve these apparent contradictions.
(1) God has no physical form.
12 “Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).
37 “And the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form” (John 5:37).
Both the Old Testament and the New indicate to us that God has no form, that is, God has no physical body.
(2) God is spirit.
The reason for this is explained by our Lord in His words to the woman at the well:
24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
This woman made reference to the dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans over the place where God was to be worshipped. The Jews were to worship God at Jerusalem, and Jesus could have corrected her by pointing this out. But He did not do so. Jesus informed her that because of His incarnation, worship would never be the same. Specifically, worship would no longer be restricted to any one place. Men were to have worshipped God in Jerusalem because that is where God chose for His presence to dwell. But when God took on humanity at the incarnation (the coming of Christ to the earth), God chose to dwell not only among His people, but in His people. When Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit came to indwell the church, the church can worship God anywhere because God’s presence among men is spiritual, not physical. God is spirit, so that He is not restricted to one place nor is worship any longer restricted to one place. God is invisible because He is spirit, not flesh.
(3) When God appears to men, He appears in a variety of “forms.”
One might think this statement contradicts what has previously been said, but it does not. God has no physical form, but in the Bible, He does appear to men in various forms. These “forms” are both vague and various.
When God does appear to men, the descriptions of His appearance are sometimes vague. In Genesis 32, we read the account of a very strange wrestling match. From the description of the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled, we would not expect this was other than a man:
24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 And when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:24-30).
What changed Jacob’s mind to cause him to realize this “man” was none other than God Himself? It does not seem to be from anything unusual about this person’s appearance. It certainly does not seem due to this person’s infinite power. The only indication that this being is God is contained in the words he spoke to Jacob:
28 “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there (Genesis 32:28,29).
I can almost see the wheels of Jacob’s mind beginning to spin: “When did I ever strive with God? And how can this ‘person’ bless me but not even give me his name?” Suddenly he knew. He had been struggling with God. Here was something he would ponder for a long time. Just how had he been struggling with God?
Since we are studying the invisibility of God, the important thing to observe here is that when God appeared to Jacob, as He did, His appearance was as a man. No mention is made of glowing white garments or brilliant light. We would not have known it was God by mere appearance. But from the words God spoke, His identity becomes evident.
Other appearances or manifestations of God to men are more spectacular and show more indication of His majesty and glory. Nevertheless, the “descriptions” of God as He appeared are far from detailed:
9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11).
This is indeed a most unusual incident hidden away in the middle of the Book of Exodus. Seventy-four men beheld God and ate a festive meal in His presence. There is no question that this is God and that these men all looked upon Him in some fashion. The wonder is that they lived to tell about it. But if one were to describe God solely on the basis of this description of a most unusual encounter with God, how much would you know about the way God looks? The only thing this text tells us is that when they saw God, they saw feet (verse 10). We are told more about what was under God’s feet than anything else. This is surely a most vague description. God may have been visible here, but certainly not fully so.
One of the great texts of the Old Testament describing an appearance of God to men is found in the early chapters of the Book of Isaiah:
1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs (Isaiah 6:1-6).
Isaiah most certainly saw the God of Israel, and it had a tremendous impact on him. But what do we know about how God looks from this passage? How would you describe God based upon Isaiah’s description of Him? Isaiah himself has more to say about the appearance of the angels than about the appearance of God. God was seated on a throne, and He wore a robe. The angels did not proclaim what God looked like, but what He was like. They proclaimed the character of God. They spoke of His holiness and of His glory. The impact on Isaiah was an enhanced awareness of his own wretchedness as a sinner. This revelation of God’s character caused Isaiah to see how woefully short of God’s glory he fell. As Isaiah grew in his knowledge of the character of God, he grew in his knowledge of himself. The picture Isaiah saw of himself was not pretty.
(4) To see God’s “face” would be fatal.
In those instances where men are said to have seen God, surprise is expressed that they lived to tell about it. Jacob marveled that his life had been preserved (Genesis 32:30). Moses noted that God “did not stretch out His hand” against the 74 men who are said to have seen the God of Israel (Exodus 24:10-11). God informed Moses that He could not see Him and live (Exodus 33:20). When Gideon realized he had seen the “angel of the Lord face to face” (Judges 6:22), he was encouraged with the assurance that he would not die (verse 23). Manoah and his wife, soon to become the parents of Samson, were amazed they did not die for having seen God as the “angel of the Lord” (Judges 13:21-23). Paul seems to be saying that men cannot see God and live when he declares that God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16). Getting close to God is like drawing near to a blast furnace. It is dangerous to one’s health (see also Exodus 33:2-5).
(5) There is a difference between seeing God “face to face” and “seeing God’s face.”
The expression, “face to face” is a figure of speech. It is clear in the Scriptures that seeing God “face to face” is not the same thing as seeing God’s face. Consider the example of Moses, where, in the early portion of Exodus 33, Moses is said to have spoken to God “face to face:”
9 And it came about, whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would arise and worship, each at the entrance of his tent. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses returned to the camp, his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent (Exodus 33:9-11, emphasis mine).
The point of these words is not that Moses actually saw the face of God but that he spoke intimately with God. This becomes particularly clear in the verses that follow:
18 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” 19 And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” 21 Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; 22 and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23, emphasis mine).
God spoke to Moses “face to face,” but He would not allow Moses to “see His face.” Therefore, seeing God “face to face” is not the same thing as seeing God’s face. Speaking “face to face” means speaking with someone on a personal, intimate basis as a friend speaks to a friend. A similar figure of speech is found in Numbers 14:
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Thy strength Thou didst bring up this people from their midst, 14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of this people, for Thou, O Lord, art seen eye to eye, while Thy cloud stands over them; and Thou dost go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:13-14).
God was “seen eye to eye” by the Israelites. In the context, this means that God made His presence known to the Israelites by the cloud which led them and which became a pillar of fire at night. It does not mean God has physical eyes and that the Israelites saw these eyes. God’s presence was with His people, and He made that presence known. But nowhere did anyone see the face of God, because God has no face. God is Spirit and is not made of flesh. He is invisible to men because He has no body, and He becomes visible to men by various means. He appeared as a mere man, which was the angel of the Lord. He made Himself known by means of a cloud and through various other appearances, but none of these were the full revelation of God. And none were an occasion where men saw God’s face.
The same tensions found in the Old Testament regarding the invisibility of God and the appearances of God to men arise again in the New Testament with the appearance of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only One who has seen the Father and who now speaks for Him:
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. 3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:18).
46 “Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46).
38 “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (John 8:38).
Jesus was with the Father from the very beginning (John 1:1-2). He alone has truly seen the Father (6:46), and He spoke the things He saw when He was with the Father (8:38). He is God’s final and full revelation to men (Hebrews 1:1-3a). We would do well to take heed to what He has spoken and to what has been recorded by those who saw Him, whose reliability as witnesses was confirmed by the signs and wonders God performed through them (Hebrews 2:1-4).
Jesus did take on human flesh, yet without diminishing His deity:
14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
14 Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Hebrews 2:14-15).
This body of flesh, which the Lord in all His deity put on, was not made so physically attractive that men and women would be attracted to Him in a fleshly way, as Isaiah made clear:
1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him (Isaiah 53:1-2).
When the disciples finally concluded that Jesus was indeed God’s promised Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus said Simon Peter, the spokesman for the disciples, was blessed because he had not come to this conclusion through “flesh and blood:”
17 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Jesus was spiritually recognized through spiritual means. It was not human deduction but divine revelation which enabled the disciples to “see” that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, for whom the Jews looked but did not see.
Even though God appeared to men in human flesh, men did not and could not “see” Him as such apart from a divine work in their hearts:
36 “But I said to you, that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe” (John 6:36).
38 that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 For this cause they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, 40 “He has blinded their eyes, and He HARDENED THEIR HEART; lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them.” 41 These things Isaiah said, because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him. 42 Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue (John 12:38-42).
44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. 45 “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be TAUGHT OF God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. 46 “Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. 47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:44-47).
65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65).
For the unbelieving, seeing was not believing. They saw numerous signs and wonders, but this did not convince them that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, they asked for more and more signs:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40).
It was not for lack of evidence that men refused to believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah. Their hearts were so hardened they even denied evidence that was irrefutable (John 9:18). When Lazarus had been raised from the dead, the Jews could not deny it, and so they sought to kill him (John 11:47-53; 12:9-10). Their rejection of the evidence made them all the more guilty:
24 “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well” (John 15:24).
Even those who believed in Jesus did not see His full glory. That glory was veiled in His incarnation (Philippians 2:6-7). Only occasionally were glimpses of this greater glory revealed to a few of His followers. At the transfiguration, some of our Lord’s future glory was unveiled for a moment before the eyes of Peter, James, and John:
1 And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him (Matthew 17:1-3).
But this glory seems to fall short of the greater glory which is yet to be revealed to our Lord’s followers in the kingdom of God. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed that His disciples would see this glory:
24 “Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
We must realize that while our Lord came to manifest God’s presence among men, He has not been seen in His fullness. Seeing Him fully, seeing His “face” as it were, is something to which we still look forward:
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).
One final observation must be made concerning the “visibility” of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He was visible in the flesh for but a very short period of time. Since the time of His resurrection and ascension, Jesus has no longer been visible to men. Jesus told His disciples of His return to the Father, and that this would mean that they would see Him no longer. This invisibility of the Lord Jesus held the promise of numerous benefits, however:
15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me; because I live, you shall live also. 20 In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:15-20).
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. 12 I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said, that He takes of Mine, and will disclose it to you. 16 A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” 17 Some of His disciples therefore said to one another, “What is this thing He is telling us, ‘A little while, and you will not behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18 And so they were saying, “What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is talking about.” 19 Jesus knew that they wished to question Him, and He said to them, “Are you deliberating together about this, that I said, ‘A little while, and you will not behold Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me’? 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy. 21 Whenever a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she remembers the anguish no more, for joy that a child has been born into the world” (John 16:7-21).
The benefits of Jesus’ physical absence, and His coming and presence through the Holy Spirit (as described in the verses above), can be summed up in these statements:
(1) Jesus’ physical absence results in the sending of the Holy Spirit, who will be our Helper and will abide with us forever (14:16).
(2) The world cannot see or know the Holy Spirit, but we can (14:17).
(3) While Jesus dwelt among men during His earthly life, He now dwells within every believer through the Holy Spirit (14:17).
(4) The Holy Spirit will bring about an intimacy with God greater than anything previously experienced by men (14:20).
(5) The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” (14:17). He will not only convey the presence of Christ in the saints and reveal to His church all that we need to know about God (16:12-15), He will convict sinners of the truths which are essential to their salvation (16:8-11).
(6) Although the world will no longer “see” Jesus in His physical body, He will be “seen” by His saints. This “seeing” is not physical or literal, but spiritual. We “see” Jesus by faith, being assured that He is with us and in us (14:19; 16:16).
The God who is Spirit, and who is thus invisible, has graciously chosen to manifest Himself to men in various forms throughout history. God disclosed Himself finally and fully in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3a; 2:1-4). We worship a God whom we cannot see, a God who is invisible. This truth may seem like a theological “gnat,” a truth overshadowed by many more practical theological “camels.” But the doctrine of God’s invisibility is a truth with many very significant implications and applications. As we conclude, I would like to point out some of the practical ramifications of the invisibility of God.
(1) The invisibility of God is inseparably linked to our faith, our hope, and our love.
Faith, hope, and love are the three prominent themes of the Bible. Paul speaks of these in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Notice how the New Testament writers link each of these three crucial elements of our Christian faith and life to the invisibility of God.
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the men of old gained approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible (Hebrews 11:1-3).
24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:24-25).
8 And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).
(2) The invisibility of God, one of the attributes of God, is a fundamental attribute to many of the blessings we possess as Christians.
While we have already stressed this truth in this message, it certainly bears repeating. The invisibility of God is not a liability which we should seek to deny or to overcome. In Jesus’ own words, “It is to your advantage that I go . . .” (John 16:7). He is not less present among us because He is gone and not physically visible. He is more present, through His Spirit, whom He has sent to us. The Holy Spirit conveys the presence of Christ. The Holy Spirit indwells the believer and thus the church. The Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to remember and then record the words and teachings of our Lord. The Holy Spirit regenerates and converts unbelievers and He illuminates and empowers believers. We are not spiritually poorer but richer for His invisibility.
(3) The invisibility of God can also be a problem for the saints.
Unfortunately, Christians do not always appreciate the benefits we have because of the invisible presence of our Lord with us through the Holy Spirit. There are times when we want to be assured that He is with us. When we lose sight (pardon the pun) of the benefits of the invisibility of God, we begin to seek Him through visible means. We may be inclined to “look at things as they are outwardly” (2 Corinthians 10:7), rather than focusing on the unseen things, the invisible things, which are eternal:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Worse yet, we might be tempted to put God to the test, demanding that God prove His presence by performing some visible miracle, as the Israelites did in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 14:1-25). This is exactly what Moses cautioned the Israelites not to do (Deuteronomy 6:16). This is also what Satan sought to tempt our Lord to do (Matthew 4:5-7). And it is what Paul urged the Corinthians not to do (1 Corinthians 10:9).
(4) The invisibility of God indicates to us that we look to things other than those which are seen.
I have friends who are blind. Because they are blind, they must not rely on sight; instead, they must rely more keenly on their other senses. The invisibility of God (and of much that makes up our spiritual walk and warfare) means that we must rely on senses other than our physical sight. We must, in the words of Paul, “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). The writer to the Hebrews spells out the relationship between faith and the unseen:
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the men of old gained approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible (Hebrews 11:1-3).
7 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith (Hebrews 11:7).
13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13).
What then do we base our faith upon if it is not by sight? We base our faith on the Word of God. This is the way it was always meant to be. It was God’s word that Adam and Eve chose to disobey. They trusted in a serpent, rather than in God, and ate the forbidden fruit because it looked good. As a result, their eyes were opened, but what they “saw” was not good (Genesis 3:1-7).
The spectacular visible evidences of God’s presence at Mount Sinai were not a revelation of God’s form. The Israelites wanted to “see” their God, and so they made a golden image, representing God in the form of a golden calf. God, however, wanted to represent Himself through His Word. It was God’s Word that was embedded in stone, not His physical image. It was the possession of God’s Word that distinguished the Israelites above all the other nations, and God confirmed His Words with the mighty works which He accomplished in their sight (Deuteronomy 4:1-8). The things which the Israelites witnessed at Mount Sinai were done so that this people would trust and obey God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:9-18). God punished the Israelites for disobeying His Word in spite of the visible evidences of His presence and power and the truth of His Word (Numbers 14:22).
Interestingly enough, it was not just the visual revelation of God which demonstrated God’s power and presence. It was not just getting too close or seeing too much of God’s glory that would kill one who drew too near. It was also the hearing of God’s Word. God manifested Himself through His Word, and the Israelites feared His Word—and rightly so according to God’s own words:
16 “This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’” 17 And the Lord said to me, “They have spoken well” (Deuteronomy. 18:16-17).
In the context of these two verses, God is warning His people about the danger of false prophets, and He is also promising the appearance of one who, like Moses, will reveal God’s word to men. This person is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. He is “the Word” (John 1:1-2), God’s full and final revelation to men to whom we should pay attention (Hebrews 1:1-3a; 2:1-4). When the three disciples Peter, James, and John, saw a demonstration of our Lord’s glory at the transfiguration, it was for a purpose, a purpose which God clearly indicated to them:
1 And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:1-5, emphasis mine).
The glory of God was revealed at Mount Sinai so that the Israelites would take God’s Word seriously. The glory of our Lord was revealed to Peter, James, and John, so that they would take Jesus’ words seriously. And so they did:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21).
When the Lord Jesus neared the time of His death, resurrection, and ascension, He began to speak more openly to His disciples about those things which were crucial to them in the days of His physical absence and invisibility. We see this especially in the Upper Room Discourse and high priestly prayer of our Lord in John 14-17. The Lord Jesus constantly speaks of His Word and His Holy Spirit. Through these, our Lord will abide in His saints. And his saints will abide in Him as they abide in His Word. God has revealed Himself in His inspired and infallible Word. Here is the basis for our faith. Here is the means by which men will be saved. Here is the means by which believers will grow. Here is the standard for our conduct and the light which will guide our path. Through His Word and through His Spirit, God is present and knowable in this world where men do not see Him.
It is God’s Word that prompts us to look not to the things which are seen, but to the things which are unseen (2 Corinthians 17-18). When we perform acts of service and worship, we are not to perform for men, to seek their approval or applause; we are rather to serve Him who is invisible:
2 “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 5 And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:2-6).
The invisible God, the God “who is in secret,” urges us to perform our acts of righteousness in a way consistent with His invisibility. We are not to seek a public platform from which to serve God; we are to go about our acts of worship and service as secretly as possible, knowing that the God who is “in secret” sees what we are doing and will reward us in His time.
Our spiritual warfare involves much more than that which is seen (Ephesians 6:10-12). Likewise, God’s provision for our protection is also unseen, unless our eyes are miraculously opened to behold the invisible:
8 Now the king of Aram was warring against Israel; and he counseled with his servants saying, “In such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9 And the man of God sent word to the king of Israel saying, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Arameans are coming down there.” 10 And the king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God had told him; thus he warned him, so that he guarded himself there, more than once or twice. 11 Now the heart of the king of Aram was enraged over this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you tell me which of us is for the king of Israel?” 12 And one of his servants said, “No, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” 13 So he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and take him.” And it was told him, saying, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14 And he sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city.
15 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18 And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Strike this people with blindness, I pray.” So He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. 19 Then Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, nor is this the city; follow me and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he brought them to Samaria.
20 And it came about when they had come into Samaria, that Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. 21 Then the king of Israel when he saw them, said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” 22 And he answered, “You shall not kill them. Would you kill those you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23 So he prepared a great feast for them; and when they had eaten and drunk he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the marauding bands of Arameans did not come again into the land of Israel (2 Kings 6:8-23).
Our worship must take note of those unseen angels who are present and watching and learning (1 Corinthians 11:10). Women are cautioned against placing too much emphasis on their outward appearance; rather, they are to give priority to their hidden inner being:
1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3 And let not your adornment be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4 but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands (1 Peter 3:1-5).
The unseen plays a most significant part in the life of the Christian, whose God is unseen by the human eye but seen with the eye of faith.
(5) The invisibility of God is made visible through His church and His saints.
How is God, who is invisible, manifested to those who do not believe? In Romans 1, Paul tells us that God is revealed through His creation:
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:20).
God is also made visible to men through the church, the body of Christ. What God began to do and to teach through His Son, He continues to do and to teach through His church (Acts 1:1ff.). The church is His body, and His means for working and bearing witness to men in this world:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
It is our calling and our privilege to manifest the excellencies of God to a lost and dying world.
(6) The invisibility of God is one of the insurmountable barriers which stands between the unbeliever and faith in God.
Many suppose that seeing is believing. They, like doubting Thomas, refuse to believe in what they cannot see (see John 20:25). The fact is that seeing is never sufficient basis for faith, for faith is rooted in a conviction concerning what is not seen (Hebrews 11:1-2). The Jews saw Jesus, who manifested God to men—God incarnate. The more signs they saw, the more they demanded (Matthew 12:38-45). Only when God opens the spiritual eyes of unbelievers will they be able to “see” Him who is unseen.
As I considered the subject of the invisibility of God and its implications for the lost, my mind turned to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3:
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. (John 3:1-15).
As a Jew, Nicodemus was a man whose life operated on the basis of what he saw. Judaism was obsessed with externals and rituals and visible acts of righteousness. They did not give due importance to matters of the heart, matters not seen (see Luke 16:15). On the basis of Jesus’ signs and wonders, Nicodemus had to admit that Jesus was in touch with God. But Jesus pressed this teacher of the Jews to go beyond the visible to the invisible. Salvation is not about what is seen but what is not seen. The conception of a child is not seen, but in time the results of that event are evident in the birth of the child. So it is with salvation. Salvation is not the result of man’s striving and effort, but the result of God’s invisible work (see John 1:12-13).
Salvation is the unseen work of the Holy Spirit, a work accomplished in the heart of man. If Nicodemus was ever to “see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; see also verse 5), God must accomplish the new birth in his heart, an event not visible to men and most certainly not the work of men.
Jesus likened this miraculous but unseen work of God to the effects of the wind. No one ever sees the wind, but neither does anyone question its existence. We know the wind is present because we can behold its effects. So it is with the Holy Spirit. We cannot see the Holy Spirit, but we can see the evidences of His work in the lives of men, men like Peter and Paul, and—if you are a born again child of God—you. This teacher of the Scriptures should have known from his study of the Scriptures that the outward works of men do not save them, but the inner renewal of the Holy Spirit, an unseen work, the effects of which will soon be evident.
We may be thinking this prominent teacher of Israel should have known better, but before we become too smug, let us consider the matter in light of our own thinking and practice. Are we guilty of implying (if not stating it) that people are saved by filling out a card, raising their hand, going to the front, or being baptized? Let us be very clear that the work of salvation is the invisible work of the invisible God, the effects of which are visible.
I often hear Christians talk as if their unbelieving friends and loved ones would believe if only God would reveal Himself to them in some spectacular way. This simply is not so. What more could the Lord Jesus have done to prove He was the Messiah, the Son of God? As Jesus said, only those whom the Father draws to Himself will believe. For those of us who have an undue confidence in our apologetical skills, our ability to convince men and women of the truth, I would remind you that it is the Word of God and it is the Spirit of God who convinces and converts men. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that if we but make the gospel clear or compelling enough men will believe. This ignores the doctrine of the depravity of men, the invisibility of God, and the inability of any to “see” God apart from divine enlightenment.
Speaking is our responsibility as Christians, and seeing is God’s work:
15 For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, 16 do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians. 1:15-23).
May God open our spiritual eyes to behold the wondrous things He has in store for us:
6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 9 but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him.” 10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-10).
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
15. The Forgiving God
One of the fascinating passages of Scripture in the New Testament is the description of our Lord’s post-resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. On that journey, our Lord taught these men what must have been the most exciting Bible study of all time. In the course of that journey, our Lord spoke these words to these two men:
25 And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).
A little later, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples:
44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:44-48).
How we would love to have been there when our Lord taught this lesson. At least we would like to have had this study recorded in the Scriptures.94 Even from the few words Luke has recorded, there are some important truths to be gained. First, we are told that Jesus’ suffering and glory are a subject repeatedly addressed in the Old Testament, which Peter indicates elsewhere (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Second, we learn that Jesus taught His disciples about His suffering and glory from the beginning of the Bible to the events of His death, burial, and resurrection. Third, notice that what Jesus taught the disciples is, in essence, the gospel. The basis for the “repentance for forgiveness of sins,” which was to be proclaimed (as the gospel) “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (verse 47) is the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
Our subject for this lesson is the forgiveness of God, or in terms of an attribute of God, “the forgiving God.” We shall seek to follow the pattern of our Lord when considering the forgiveness of God. We will first show that God is characterized by being a forgiving God. Then, beginning in the first Book of the Bible, we will show how God’s purpose of forgiving sins has been accomplished in Christ.
In this lesson, more Scripture is cited with less commentary and interpretation because the Bible is very clear on the subject of the forgiveness of sins (as it is on many other matters), and I want to allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves on our subject. I urge you to read the Scriptures carefully to glean the beautiful story of our forgiving God, who has accomplished the “forgiveness of sins,” by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Repeatedly in the Scriptures God is represented as the God who forgives sins.
5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. 6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:5-7).
17 “And they refused to listen, And did not remember Thy wondrous deeds which Thou hadst performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But Thou art a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness; And Thou didst not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17).
5 For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee (Psalm 86:5).
4 But there is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared (Psalm 130:4).
9 “To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:9).
Forgiveness of sins is so important because everyone is a sinner, and the consequences of sin are devastating:
15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17).
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
4 “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4b).
23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
12 Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—(Romans 5:12, parenthetical comment mine).
23 For the wages of sin is death, . . . Romans 6:23).
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.… 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14, 24)
12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).
From the first sin of mankind—the sin of Adam and Eve—it has become increasingly clear that only God can forgive sins. The words of the curse spoken by God in the Garden of Eden implied that He would remedy the problem of man’s sin through the offspring of Eve, who would defeat Satan:
15 And I will put enmity Between you [Satan] and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He [the woman’s seed, who will be the Messiah] shall bruise you on the head [a fatal wound], And you shall bruise him on the heel [a non-fatal wound]” (Genesis 3:15).
This is the first prophecy concerning man’s salvation by means of the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of Satan. It speaks of the coming Messiah, who will be of the woman’s seed (human), and who will defeat Satan while incurring injury to Himself.
God later clarified that the “seed” of the woman would be Abraham’s seed, and that through this “seed” all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Through Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (later named Israel), the nation Israel was formed. The Israelites went to Egypt during Joseph’s life and stayed on some 400 years, until God led the Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians and brought them into the promised land of Canaan. God made a covenant with the nation Israel, giving them the Law on Mount Sinai. During Moses’ absence, the Israelites committed a great sin against God, making a golden calf and worshipping it as their “god” (Exodus 32). Only after the intercession of Moses did God consent to continue to be in the midst of this people as they entered into the promised land. When Moses sought to know God more intimately by seeing His glory, God revealed this about Himself to Moses:
18 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” 19 And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:18-19).
6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Several important facts emerge from these verses. First, forgiveness is the outworking of God’s compassion and grace. The God who “forgives iniquity” (34:7) is the God who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (34:6). Forgiveness is a matter of divine grace. Second, because God’s forgiveness is a matter of grace, it is a gift of God’s sovereign grace. God bestows forgiveness on those whom He chooses to forgive. None are worthy of this grace, and thus no one has any claim on God’s grace as manifested in the forgiveness of sins. God said to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (33:19). God forgives those whom He chooses to forgive. Forgiveness is something which we, as guilty sinners, have no right to expect or demand.
Third, the grace of God in forgiving sinners in no way sets aside the justice of God which requires the punishment of guilty sinners.
7 Who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7, emphasis mine).
Some think they are being gracious when they overlook sin—when they simply refuse to deal with it. Many parents think they are gracious when they do not punish their children for disobedience. God’s grace does not set aside punishment for sins; it substituted the One who was punished for sin. Even at this very early point in the history of God’s dealings with His people, God makes it very clear that His grace does not mean He takes a soft view toward sin. God deals severely with sin. When He forgives men for sin, He still punishes that sin. The punishment for sin, as we shall see, is borne by the Lord Jesus Christ in the sinner’s place.
Finally, note that the forgiveness of sins in no way removes any obligation from the object of God’s grace to obey God. Based upon God’s self-revelation of His glory, and the declaration of His grace and compassion by which He forgives sin, Moses appeals to God for the Israelites :
9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 34:9).
Moses pleads for divine forgiveness for his people and receives the assurance that God will be present with His people as He leads them into the land of Canaan. But immediately we see that the outgrowth of forgiveness is an obligation to live in accordance with the covenant God has established with His people:
10 Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth, nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you. 11 Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day: behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. 12 Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God—15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they play the harlot with their gods, and sacrifice to their gods, and someone invite you to eat of his sacrifice; 16 and you take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods, and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods. 17 You shall make for yourself no molten gods” (Exodus 34:10-17, see also verses 18-26).
To be God’s people, and to have God dwell in your midst, requires a solution for sin. It also sets a standard of righteousness, which serves to define just what sin is. Thus, we find the declaration of the terms of the Mosaic covenant given immediately after Moses’ petition for grace and forgiveness for his people. They are the very commandments God sets down in Exodus 34:10-26, which are summed up in the ten commandments, and which the Israelites quickly begin to disregard and rebel against, as we shall soon see.
If sin cannot be overlooked but must be punished, how can this be accomplished? Under the Old Testament Law, men could offer sacrifices to God for their sins. In particular, the annual Day of Atonement was the occasion when the sins of the nation Israel were dealt with for the past year:
29 “And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord. 31 It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. 32 So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did (Leviticus 16:29-34).
The annual Day of Atonement did not really put away sin; it simply put off divine judgment. Were we to liken the sins of Israel to a financial debt, the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement did not pay off the principle; it only paid off the interest for the past year. Sin was not put away; it was put off for another year. Year after year, the debt increased. Someday, somehow, there must be payment for the sin. And so there would be.
The nation Israel very quickly began to sin against God by disobeying His covenant. Over and over again the Israelites sinned, and over and over God graciously put up with this willful and disobedient people (see Deuteronomy 1-3; Nehemiah 9:6-38; Psalm 78; Daniel 9:4-15). Finally, the first generation was forbidden to enter into the promised land. They died in the wilderness, and their sons and daughters were about to enter that land as the Book of Deuteronomy begins. The Mosaic Covenant is once again reiterated, the ten commandments being repeated in Deuteronomy 5. But there is no note of optimism here. The problem underlying Israel’s rebellion is the condition of the hearts of the Israelites:
29 ‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! (Deuteronomy 5:29).
4 “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4).
In Deuteronomy, it is clear that the Israelites will not keep God’s covenant with them and that the nation will experience the “cursings” spelled out in the book, especially in chapter 28. In spite of their disobedience, there is still hope for the nation because God is a forgiving God, and His forgiveness is not based upon man’s worth or merit. Consequently, Moses tells the people that after they have been driven out of the promised land and lived in captivity among the nations, God will fulfill His promises and bless this nation:
1 “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, 3 then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
God promises to bring about His promises to His people when they have repented and returned to Him. He goes on to indicate that the repentance of the Israelites is the result of His work in their hearts, giving them a new heart and soul, which seeks to please Him and which loves to keep His commandments:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will inflict all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today. 9 Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground, for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, just as He rejoiced over your fathers; 10 if you obey the Lord your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law, if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:6-10).
The words which follow these verses seem difficult to square with the Law and what it requires:
11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:1-14, emphasis mine).
How can Moses possibly say the Law is “not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach” (verse 11), especially when compared to the final words of Joshua written some time later:
14 “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
16 And the people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”
19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, lest you deny your God” (Joshua 24:14-27, emphasis mine).
It seems strange for Joshua to urge the Israelites to choose to serve the Lord and then, when they do, tell them that doing so is impossible. How strange to urge the Israelites to submit to the Mosaic Covenant and then tell them doing so is not possible. His words to the people of Israel make it sound as if choosing to follow God is suicide. How can we square the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 with the words of Joshua in Joshua 24:19-27?
We need look only a little further in the Book of Deuteronomy.95 We have already seen from Deuteronomy 5:29 and 29:4 that the problem is one of the heart. The Israelites need a heart inclined toward God, a heart that loves His commandments and delights to obey them. The Israelites need a heart to see beyond the commands to the principles which underlie them and to grasp what the Law is all about.96 In Deuteronomy 30, God looks to a distant time far down the corridor of history, a time when the nation has experienced the cursings of the Law, when they have been driven from the land and made captives in another distant land:
64 “Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. 65 And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. 66 So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:64-68).
It is a time when the people of Israel repent and return to the Lord their God (Deuteronomy 30:1-2). Israel’s repentance does not originate with this “stiffnecked and stubborn people” (compare Exodus 32:9). Rather, it is the result of God’s working in them, giving them a new heart and soul to seek and to serve Him:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
When we look carefully at the words of Deuteronomy 30:11, we should make a very crucial observation:
11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. 12 “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:1-14, emphasis mine).
The commandment is one commandment—not ten or more. This one commandment is being commanded, and this one commandment is not too difficult. What is this (one) command? It is, in effect, to “turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:10). If the Law were to be summed up in one commandment, what would it be? We know the answer from Scripture:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:34-38, emphasis mine).
The commandments of the Law are impossible for men to keep to avoid sin or to bring about the forgiveness of sins. This is what Joshua tells the Israelites whom he is leaving behind at his death. History has shown that God’s people cannot keep the Law. If they suppose their law-keeping will bring about God’s blessings and assure them of God’s forgiveness, they are wrong. Law-keeping only proves men to be guilty sinners, worthy of death:
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
The one commandment God has for men is that they love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Why is this commandment not difficult? It is not because men are capable of doing so on their own. It is because it is impossible, and thus God will accomplish this work Himself:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Paul emphasizes this in Romans 10:
4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. 6 But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), 7 or ‘Who will descend into the ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10 for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Romans 10:4-10).
The reason this commandment is easy is because God has accomplished forgiveness of sins for us; He is the One who enables men to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is easy because all we need is to believe in Him, by faith, and even that faith comes from God!
Because the forgiveness of sins was not something men could bring about, men of God looked forward to the time when God would accomplish this task, as we see in the Psalms:
1 A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Thine ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He will redeem Israel From all his iniquities (Psalm 130:1-8; see also Psalm 86).
In the Book of Deuteronomy, God foretold the consequences for turning from God and failing to keep covenant with Him. God foretold the defeat of the Israelites and that their enemies would drive them from their land and take them captive in a far away land (Deuteronomy 28:58-68). God then spoke of the future deliverance of the Israelites after He had given them a new heart (Deuteronomy 30:1-6). When the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, the prophets prayed and prophesied concerning the day when God would fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant. It soon became clear that this would not take place at the end of Judah’s 70 years of bondage in Babylon. It was revealed in prophecy:
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The forgiveness of sins was promised by God, not by means of the Mosaic Covenant, but by means of a “new covenant.” The exact nature of this “new covenant” was not yet disclosed, but more details would be disclosed through the prophet Daniel:
3 So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. 4 And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 5 we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, and rebelled, even turning aside from Thy commandments and ordinances (Daniel 9:3-5).
8 “Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee. 9 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:8-9).
15 “And now, O Lord our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked. 16 O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. 17 So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary. 18 O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name” (Daniel 9:15-19).
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” (Daniel 9:24-27).
Daniel confesses his sins, and the sins of his people, and asks God to forgive his people and bring them back into the promised land, to Israel and Jerusalem, based upon His covenant promises and upon the prophecy of Jeremiah (Daniel 9:1-2; Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). In response to Daniel’s prayer (9:3-19), the angel Gabriel appears after some delay (9:20-23) and explains how the promise is to be fulfilled (9:24-27). It was becoming more and more clear that some time was yet to pass before the forgiveness of sins was to be accomplished. Israel’s release from her Babylonian captivity and her return to the promised land was not synonymous with the fulfillment of God’s promise of Deuteronomy 30:6.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the former captives to Jerusalem and the promised land. Nehemiah 8 and 9 record the response of the Jews to the Law, and their acknowledgment of their sin and of God’s faithfulness. In spite of all this, the people of God took little time to return to their old ways, the ways of their fathers. The closing chapters of Nehemiah, and the writings of the later prophets, indicate that the work of God in creating a “new heart” in men has not yet been accomplished. The day of salvation is still future. The prophet Isaiah told of the coming of Messiah. It was He, in His sacrificial death, who would accomplish the forgiveness of sins:
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
The closing words of the Old Testament, recorded in Malachi 4, are words of warning concerning the wrath of God on sinners and words of hope, of renewed hearts.
At the very outset, it was clear that the Lord Jesus Christ came to fulfill God’s promise to forgive men’s sins and to create a new heart within. At the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, Zacharias, the father of John, said by the Holy Spirit:
76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to PREPARE His ways; 77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, 78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us” (Luke 1:76-78).
When John the Baptist commenced his public ministry, his message was simple:
3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. 5 ‘Every ravine shall be filled up, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough roads smooth; 6 And all flesh shall SEE THE SALVATION OF God’” (Luke 3:3-6).
When John the Baptist saw Jesus, who presented Himself as the promised Messiah, he said:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’” (John 1:29-30).
In saying this, John the Baptist was identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah prophesied in type by the passover lamb and numerous other aspects of the Mosaic Covenant (see Colossians 2:16-17), and especially as spoken of in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
When Jesus began His public ministry, it did not take long for Him to make it clear that His mission was to forgive sinners:
17 And it came about one day that He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing. 18 And behold, some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in, and to set him down in front of Him. 19 And not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, right in the center, in front of Jesus. 20 And seeing their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” 22 But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, and take up your stretcher and go home.” 25 And at once he rose up before them, and took up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. 26 And they were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen remarkable things today” (Luke 5:17-26).
29 And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29-32).
47 “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 And those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:47-49).
1 Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 2 And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 And He told them this parable, saying, 4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:1-7).
Our Lord’s actions and words in Luke 5:17-26 are truly remarkable. Jesus boggled the minds of those who understood the implications of what He was doing. If we have learned anything from the Old Testament, it is that God alone can forgive sins. God’s solution for sinners was the coming of Messiah, who would bear the sins of men. When Jesus was confronted with a paralytic, lowered through the roof, He did not deal with his physical malady first, but with his greater spiritual dilemma—his sins. When Jesus told this man that his sins were forgiven, Jesus claimed far more than people expected. A mere man might be able to cast out demons or to perform miracles of healing. But only God can forgive sins. When Jesus healed this man and forgave him of his sins, Jesus boldly proclaimed that He was Messiah, the One who had come to accomplish the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. It is He who can and will change the hearts of men to love God and men.
As the time came for our Lord to be crucified for our sins, He spoke these words to His disciples as He instituted the Lord’s Supper:
26 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28, emphasis mine).
The writer to the Hebrews shows how the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices. The Old Testament sacrifices put off God’s judgment of sin, the New Testament (new covenant) sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was the judgment of God on sin, thus accomplishing the eternal forgiveness of sins, for all who are in Christ by faith in His work at the cross of Calvary:
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, But A BODY Thou hast prepared for Me; 6 In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure. 7 “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In THE ROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) To do Thy will, O God.’ “ 8 After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Thy will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And upon their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin (Hebrews 10:1-18).
The forgiveness of sins has been accomplished, once and for all, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He was sinless, yet He bore our sins, so that we might be forgiven. God did not overlook our sins, but punished them in Christ. The good news of the gospel is that those who believe in Jesus Christ can have their sins forgiven:
45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45-48).
The apostles were to proclaim, both to Jews and to Gentiles, that God had provided forgiveness for sins through His Son, Jesus Christ. And this was the message they consistently preached:
31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).
38 “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38).
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7; see also Colossians 1:14).
The forgiveness of sins is not man’s work, but God’s. In Acts 5:31, Peter announced that God not only granted forgiveness of sins, but also repentance. Men are to repent, but it is God who brings men to repentance. Salvation is the work of God and not of men. Forgiveness of sins is entirely God’s work, and all we must do to receive it is to believe in Jesus Christ, to trust in His sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. Forgiveness of sins is impossible for men to accomplish, but God has accomplished the impossible through His Son, Jesus Christ. In order to receive this forgiveness, we need to confess our sins, to acknowledge our rebellion against God and the fact that we are deserving of His eternal wrath.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
We receive the forgiveness of our sins by faith (Luke 7:48-50), by believing in the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary as the full and final payment for our sins (Acts 10:43; Hebrews 9 & 10). We are to confess our sins (Psalm 32:5-6; 1 John 1:9) and to repent of them (Psalm 32:1-7; 51 (all); Jeremiah 36:3; Luke 3:3; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:32; 8:22). We then simply ask God to forgive us (Psalm 79:9), know that He is a forgiving God, who is ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5).
Salvation is about the forgiveness of our sins. How often the gospel is obscured on this very crucial point. “Sin and its consequences are such a negative, unpleasant, subject,” some seem to reason, “that I won’t dwell on them.” The word “saved” implies that those thus “saved” are in peril and are rescued from it. Unless men grasp the magnitude of their sin, and the even greater magnitude of its consequences, men will not sense the need for salvation. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to convict men of “sin, righteousness, and judgement” (John 16:8-11). If the Spirit is to convict of these things, then surely our gospel must speak of them.
What a disservice (I may be speaking far too kindly here—Paul would likely call it another gospel, heresy—see Galatians 1:6-10) we do to men in this therapeutic age when we speak of the great problems of life as sicknesses and phobias and addictions, rather than as damnable sins. How dare we speak in terms of long-term therapy (at a very high price), and not of instant forgiveness. How can we encourage people to “look within” for the power to escape sin, rather than to look to Christ.
The problem with men in this culture is not that they are too “sinful,” but that they are to “sick” or, worse yet, too self-righteous. There is a solution for sin. The cross of God is that solution. There is forgiveness for sins, a forgiveness which God has provided in Christ. You are never too sinful to be saved, you can only be too self-righteous. Have you confessed your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as God’s provision for your forgiveness? Will you? There is no more comforting truth in all the world than this: Christ Jesus came into the world to forgive sinners. As the hymn writer put it, “Tis music to the sinners ears, tis life and health and peace.”
David said it even better:
1 How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! (Psalm 32:1).
The Basis For God’s Forgiveness
(1) God’s sovereignty—freedom to choose (Exodus 33:19)
(2) God’s compassion and grace (Exodus 34:6-7); God is ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5; 130:4)
(3) God’s covenant (Exodus 32:13; Ezekiel 16:60-63)
(4) God’s faithfulness, as evident in history of Israel (Numbers 14:19)
(5) God’s reputation (Exodus 32:11-12), His name’s sake (Psalm 79:9; Daniel 9:19; 1 John 2:12)
(6) God’s promise to forgive (Deuteronomy 30; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 18:5-8)
(7) God’s provision for forgiveness in Jesus Christ
(8) Jesus is God (Mark 2:3-12) 
(9) Jesus shed His blood—He made atonement for our sins (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 2:13—in marginal note of Isaiah 22:14, “forgiven” is literally, “atoned for”)
(10) God’s gift in Christ is repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31)
(11) The gospel is the offer of forgiveness (Luke 24:47-48; Acts 2:38; 10:43)
Man’s Responsibility and Forgiveness
(1) Faith (Luke 7:48-50); Belief (Acts 10:43)
(2) Confess (Psalm 32:5-6; 1 John 1:9)
(3) Repent (Psalm 32:1-7; Jeremiah 36:3; Luke 3:3; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:32; 8:22)
(4) Ask (Psalm 79:9)
Those Whom God Will Not Forgive
(1) Those whose “repentance” is false—Exodus 10:16-17
(2) Those who sin willfully—Deuteronomy 29:17-21; Hebrews 10:26-31
(3) Those who reject God’s forgiveness and strive on their own—Joshua 24:19-20
(4) Those who persistently rebel against God, who refuse to believe in His Word, and who reject the inspired warnings God gives through His prophets—2 Kings 24:1-4
(5) Those who evidence that they have not experienced God’s forgiveness by their own lack of forgiveness—Matthew 6:12-15
(6) Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, who is God’s instrument for convicting men of sin and of saving them through faith in Christ—Matthew 12:22-37
(7) Those whose sins have been “retained” by the church, acting on God’s behalf (in effect, those who refuse to repent when confronted and rebuked for their sin)—John 20:22-23
94 In fact, it is recorded in Scripture, but it comes from the pens of the inspired authors of the New Testament. We find a great deal of our Lord’s material in Peter’s preaching in the Book of Acts and much further insight from the writings of men like Paul.
95 If we were to abandon our progressive study of the Scriptures, we could go straight to Romans 10, where Paul cites from Deuteronomy 30. But we shall look to Deuteronomy itself for the answer.
96 This is what the psalmist seeks, as evident in Psalm 119.
16. The Truth of God
Just before giving in to the pressure of the crowd and ordering the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, Pilate asked one of the most tragic questions of the Bible:
37 Pilate therefore said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” 38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him” (John 18:37-38).
Because Pilate’s question is a response to the words of our Lord, it is even more disturbing. When Pilate asked Jesus if He were a king, Jesus said He was. He could not answer otherwise because of His nature. Jesus was “the truth” (see John 14:6), and He could not answer Pilate’s question untruthfully. But Jesus went on to indicate that His claims, while true, would not be accepted by those who were not “of the truth.” Those who were “of the truth” would hear His voice and receive Him as their King.
Pilate’s response is distressing. He was serving as the judge who was to pass judgment on our Lord. Was Jesus a dangerous revolutionary who intended to overthrow Roman rule and establish His own kingdom? Judgment must be according to truth:
16 “‘These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates’” (Zechariah 8:16).
How sad to hear the judge himself disdain the truth. Worse yet, although he discerned Jesus’ innocence as the truth, he allowed the mob to crucify our Lord. His judgment was most surely not according to truth.
Pilate’s words show that he was not “of the truth.” Notice he does not ask, “What is the truth?” Asking this question would have indicated a desire to know the truth and to act accordingly. Instead, his question, “What is truth?” indicates his cynicism. Pilate seems to doubt that one can know the truth or even that truth exists. Truth for Pilate was whatever one wished to believe is true. Jesus believed He was a King; the scribes and Pharisees claimed He was a fraud and a traitor, a menace both to Judaism and to Rome. Pilate doubted that the truth could be known or that it really matters.
One wishes Pilate’s view of “truth” was only his own, or at least limited to the people of his day and culture. Sadly, we must acknowledge that it is also the viewpoint of our own age. Recently I have been reading on the subject of “truth,” and my findings are far from encouraging. David Wells has authored an excellent book, No Place For Truth subtitled, Whatever Happened To Evangelical Theology. Another excellent work is Michael Scott Horton’s Made In America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism,97 from which I have cited several distressing quotations. Horton reminds us that the secular world has come to trust more in science than in the Scriptures when discerning truth, but that science can never fulfill the task of answering the deepest questions for which men need to learn the truth:
Sir John Eccles, a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer in brain research, observes that science, in trying to answer questions beyond its competence, becomes reduced to superstition. ‘Science,’ he says, ‘cannot explain the existence of each of us as a unique self, nor can it answer such fundamental questions as: Who am I? Why am I here? How did I come to be at a certain place and time? What happens after death? These are all mysteries beyond science.’ With the Enlightenment, science displaced Christianity as the intellectual authority, but when science failed to provide ultimate answers itself, relativism replaced science.98
Relativism has now replaced the absolutism which was rooted in confidence concerning our ability to know the truth from the Scriptures. This relativism is especially evident in the realm of education:
‘The purpose of education’ nowadays, says Bloom, ‘is not to make scholars, but to provide them with a moral virtue: openness. There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of,’ according to Bloom: ‘almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.’ Students ‘have causes without content. Reason has been replaced by mindless commitment, consciousness-raising and trashy sentimentality.’ Can we not say the same of contemporary evangelical subculture?99
‘On the portal of the university,’ writes Bloom, ‘is written in many ways, and in many tongues, “There is no truth—at least here.’” In a culture of narcissism, ‘truth has given way to credibility, fact to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.’100
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. refers to current public education as ‘cafeteria-style education.’ There is no longer a generally accepted core of knowledge or belief. In skimming current catalogues for evangelical seminaries and colleges, one discovers a striking similarity to ‘cafeteria-style education.’ If evangelicals cannot come up with a common core of convictions, and defend them, how can we criticize the world for the same? Remember Marty’s remark about evangelicals who ‘pick and choose truths as if on a cafeteria line.’101
It is not surprising that the secular world has reached a point of despair in knowing the truth, or even whether there is such a thing as universal, unchanging truth. But Horton points out the tragic truth that even evangelicalism has succumbed to cultural pressures and now views truth in the same relativistic way as the secular world:
Francis A. Schaeffer noted, ‘T. H. Huxley spoke as a prophet . . . when he said there would come a day when faith would be separated from all fact, and faith would go on triumphant forever.’ After all, this is what Immanuel Kant proposed and Soren Kierkegaard acted out—the famous leap of faith. ‘This is where,’ Schaeffer cautioned, ‘not only the liberal theologians are, but also the evangelical, orthodox theologians who begin to tone down on the truth, the propositional truth of Scripture, which God has given us.’102
The majority of evangelical college and seminary students—more than half, according to James Davison Hunter—believe that ‘the Bible is the inspired Word of God, not mistaken in its teachings, but is not always to be taken literally in its statements concerning matters of science, historical reporting, etc.’ Furthermore, ‘One cannot speak of ultimate truth per se, only ultimate truth for each believer. In other words, most of the students at evangelical institutions have already accepted the relativism of their culture, and with that, the liberal and neo-orthodox concession that faith in Christ is a spiritual matter, not dependent on external, objective facts of history.103
The Reformation occurred because a few good men were firmly convicted that the Word of God is the truth, and that the views of individuals, of cultures, and even the church cannot and must not profess or practice any “truth” other than that which can be defended from the Scriptures. The weak-kneed, emasculated preaching so typical of our own time was also the norm in the days just before the Reformation. Horton’s paraphrasing of Luther and Calvin, and his reference to Calvin’s assessment of the preaching of his day, are amusing:
Martin Luther and John Calvin, paraphrased, put it in these words: ‘The Bible itself isn’t ambiguous about these subjects we’re addressing—the church is!’ Reluctant to be vulnerable to the dangerous teaching of Scripture, the church refused to take theological stands—until the Reformation left it with no option. In fact, on the eve of the Reformation, there were twelve theological schools of thought competing for control at the University of Paris. Calvin said, ‘Seldom did a minister mount the pulpit to teach.… Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month?’104
We need another Reformation. We need a renewed commitment to the truth as found in the Scriptures and as summarized in theological and doctrinal propositions. Truth finds its origin in God, its incarnation in Jesus Christ, and its present manifestation in the written Word of God, the Bible. Our lesson will consider the fact that truth comes only from God, because God is truth and the source of all truth.
I have always thought the fundamental issue underlying the fall of man in the Garden of Eden was authority. Authority does play a significant role in the fall, and both creation (1 Corinthians 11:7-10) and the fall (1 Timothy 2:9-15) do serve as the basis for God’s principles of authority in the New Testament. God’s “chain of command” was clearly reversed in the fall, for the creature (the serpent) led the woman, and the woman led the man. Nevertheless, I now see that the foundational issue in the fall of man in the Garden of Eden (for Eve at least)105 was the issue of truth. Who spoke the truth, God or Satan? Who was to be believed? Who was to be obeyed? The answers to these questions depend upon who was thought to be speaking the truth.
How incredible that Eve would believe a serpent and not God! In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the account of creation is given with the repeated expressions, “And God said, . . .” followed by, “and it was so” (or similar words):
9 Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so (Genesis 1:9).
Satan took the form of a serpent, a created being. He began by questioning God’s command regarding the eating of the fruit of the trees of the garden. He distorted the command, and in so doing implied that God was withholding much that was desirable. By inference, He raised a question concerning the goodness of God. “How could God be good and withhold so much that is good?” Finally, he virtually calls God a liar by assuring Eve, “You shall surely not die!” (Genesis 3:4). And so Eve must choose who to believe—who is telling the truth. Eve made the wrong choice. God is the source of truth; Satan is the source of lies and deception.
We find at the very beginning of the Bible a lesson to be learned. God is true, and He always speaks the truth. Satan is a liar, who can be relied upon to lie. Satan is the great deceiver, who from the Garden of Eden onward has been seeking to lead men and women astray, turning them away from the truth, and deceiving them into believing his lies.
In the Old Testament, God seldom spoke to men audibly and personally. When He did speak, time proved that His promises were true and reliable. Abraham and Sarah did have a child in their old age, just as God had said (Genesis 12:1-3; 13:16; 15:1-6; 17:1-8; 18:9-15; 21:1-5). Israel did spend 400 years in Egyptian bondage, just as God had indicated to Abram (Genesis 15:13-14; Exodus 12:40-41).
Shortly after their passing through the Red Sea, God gave the nation Israel the Law. This Law was revealed to men as God’s truth. Man’s response to this truth was a matter of life and death (see Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). When God revealed His glory to Moses, He proclaimed that He was the abundant source of truth:
6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6).
Thus, when the Law was given through Moses, it was given as truth from God, and this is the way godly Jews viewed it:
142 Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, And Thy law is truth. 151 Thou art near, O Lord, And all Thy commandments are truth. 160 The sum of Thy word is truth, And every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting (Psalm 119:142, 151,160).
13 “As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Thy truth” (Daniel 9:13).
God’s Law is His truth, revealed to His people. The prophets were sent from God, not just to give further revelation concerning future events, but to interpret the Law and to show men how the Law was to be applied. Satan, the great deceiver, also had his spokesmen, the false prophets, who sought to turn God’s people away from the truth by perverting God’s Word. Moses warned the Israelites about such false prophets. Indeed, he indicated that the response of the Israelites to false prophets was a test of their love for God:
1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
It was assumed that some false prophets would have the ability to perform false signs and wonders. One might conclude from this that the prophet must be a spokesman sent from God, but Moses indicates this is not necessarily so. Not only must a prophet be able to fulfill the things which he promises, his revelation must conform to the Law which God had already revealed. Prophets may indeed give new revelation, but it must always conform to the old, that which God had already revealed. In fact, the Law provides the broad outline for God’s program in history, and the later prophets simply filled in further details. If a prophet’s word contradicted the Law, he was a false prophet and must be put to death. No prophet who turns men from loving and serving God is a true prophet, and no true Israelite dare fail to see that a false prophet be put to death. Those who truly love God with all their heart and soul will hate falsehood, and all those who proclaim it in an effort to lead the people of God astray from Him. Love for God means a hatred of evil (see Romans 12:9).
A little later in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has more to say about prophets. God had revealed truth through Moses, the great prophet through whom the Law was given, but God was to reveal even greater things though the Messiah, a prophet like Moses, who was yet to come:
14 “For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so. 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. 16 This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well. 18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ 21 And you may say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ 22 When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:14-22).
Listen is a key word in this passage. The pagans listen to their false prophets, and they are led astray. The people of God are not to listen to false messengers. And how are God’s people to know the difference between the false and the true? In verses 21-22, Moses says the test of a prophet is whether his words come true. Those whose prophecies do not come true are false prophets. If a prophet’s words come true, this does not prove he is a true prophet, for his words must also prove consistent with the revelation of God’s truth in the Law (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
The central person of this passage is our Lord Jesus Christ. His coming is foretold by likening Him to Moses, His predecessor. Just as Moses was the one through whom God revealed His Law and through whom He established His (Mosaic) Covenant, God will speak through the Messiah, who will introduce and implement the New Covenant. He is the One who is even greater than Moses. When He appears, raised up by God, people are to listen to Him.
This Deuteronomy 18 passage is fascinating. Moses reminds the Israelites of what their father had requested at the base of Mount Sinai. They were not only afraid to see the glory of God (as manifested in the great fire, 18:16), they were even afraid to hear God, lest they die. God’s words were indeed powerful and awesome to this people! They requested that they not hear God speak and that Moses be their intercessor. Let Moses speak to God face to face and then tell them what he had heard. I am amazed that God commended the people for making this request (see 18:17) and then proceeds to tell of the coming of one like Moses, who will speak in His name and to whom men are to listen (Deuteronomy 18:15, 19).
The broader context of Deuteronomy helps explain the prophecy of verses 15-19. In Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Moses is referring back to the events described in Exodus 20:18-19, the things in Israel’s history of which Moses reminded the second generation of Israelites in Deuteronomy 5:23-27. But in both of these earlier texts, nothing is said of a “prophet like Moses,” whom God will raise up. And yet Moses indicates that God had spoken of Him at that time (Deuteronomy 18:16-19). Here is yet another example of progressive revelation, even within the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Moses’ words in chapter 18 shed much light on what we read in Deuteronomy 5:29, and later, in chapter 30, verses 1-6. It is the Lord Jesus Christ, the “prophet like Moses,” who will “circumcise the hearts” of God’s people, and who will give them a heart to fear Him and obey His commandments. This we shall now see fulfilled as we pass over the rest of the Old Testament and focus our attention on the coming of Jesus as the promised Messiah in the New Testament.
As we approach the formal presentation of the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, let us bear in mind several specifics concerning Messiah, which Moses and other Old Testament prophets indicated would describe the One whom God was to raise up as a “prophet like Moses.”
(1) He was to be a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15).
(2) He was to be a prophet like Moses (18:15)
(3) Raised up by God from among you (Deuteronomy 18:15).
(4) He would be a mediator between men and God, speaking to men of God of what he heard when in the presence of God (18:16-18).
(5) He would give the people of God a new heart, to love and obey God (Deuteronomy 5:29; 29:4; 30:1-6).
(6) He would not abolish the Law, but rather would write the Law on men’s hearts (5:29; 29:4; 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
(7) He would introduce and implement a covenant with God (Exodus 34:10ff.; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
(8) Men would recognize Him by the fact that what He said would come true—by signs and wonders accomplished by His hand (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
(9) He was One to whom men must listen (18:15, 19).
The Lord Jesus perfectly fulfilled all of these prophetic requirements. Consider some of the parallels which the New Testament draws between the Lord Jesus Christ and Moses:
(1) Moses was divinely delivered from death in his infancy, as was the Lord Jesus (Exodus 2:1-10; Matthew 2:1-15).
(2) Both were brought forth from Egypt (Exodus 12-14; Matthew 2:13-15).
(3) Moses also went up on a mountain and received the Law and then taught the people its meaning (Exodus 18:19-20); Jesus also went up on a mountain and taught the meaning of the Law (Matthew 5-7).
(4) Through Moses, God gave the Israelites bread to eat; Jesus spoke of both bread and water, which would give eternal life, and performed the sign of feeding the 5,000 (Exodus 15-17; John 4:1-14; 6:1-14).106 When Moses came down from the mountain, his face glowed with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29-35); when Jesus was on the mount of transfiguration, His entire body was glowing with the glory of God (Matthew 17:2). On the mount of transfiguration, who should appear there, with Jesus, but Moses and Elijah? (Matthew 17:3).
Consider in somewhat greater detail other ways in which the Lord Jesus clearly fulfilled the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18. Moses told the people that when the prophet like him appeared, He would be raised up by God. The accounts of the miraculous virgin birth of our Lord make it clear that Jesus was raised up by God. The apostle John wants us to know that Jesus is the truth, who was sent from God:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. 6 There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. 9 There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ “ 16 For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. 18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:1-18).
Jesus is the Word of God, the Word who existed with God from eternity past, and who then was sent to men by God. He is the Creator of all things. He is the source of life. He is the “light.” I take it that “light” is a symbol for truth. John the Baptist was not the “light,” but a witness to the fact that Jesus Christ was the “light” of the world. Men did not receive Jesus as the truth because His “light” (His truth) revealed their character. Sinners love the darkness (error, falsehood), because they suppose it conceals their sin. Though He made the world, the world does not recognize Him because men are evil and despise the light of the truth, which reveals our sin. It was the Lord Jesus, John testifies, who personified “grace and truth.” Though no man has seen God at any time, God appeared in human flesh, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is He who explains or reveals the Father to men.
When Jesus went out of His way to pass through Samaria (John 4:3-4), He met a Samaritan woman at the well where He stopped to rest and refresh Himself. He spoke to her about “living water,” but she really did not understand nor grasp who He was. And then Jesus spoke these words:
16 He said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” 19 The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (John 4:16-19).
What made this woman look differently at Jesus? Why did she now perceive that He was a prophet? It was because Jesus had told her something which He, as a stranger, could not possibly know. He knew the truth about her, the whole ugly, sordid truth. Prophets spoke the truth, and Jesus spoke the truth about her. Jesus, she rightly reasoned, was a prophet. And so He was, the Prophet.
A little later in His conversation with this “woman at the well” Jesus spoke about truth:
23 “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Jesus told this woman that God was seeking “true worshipers.” True worshipers must worship the Father “in spirit and in truth.” God is Spirit, and He is truth. God requires that men’s worship be compatible with His nature. Thus, men must worship God in the Holy Spirit and in accordance with truth. And since Jesus is the Son of God, since He is divine, He, as God, is also the truth:
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
No one can come to the Father—for salvation or for worship—except through Jesus Christ, who is the Truth of God Incarnate.
As Moses spoke to the Israelites, communicating to them what he had heard from God while in His presence, our Lord Jesus is the only One who has been with God, in His presence, and He speaks to men for God of what He has heard from the Father:
25 And so they were saying to Him, “Who are You?” Jesus said to them, “What have I been saying to you from the beginning? 26 I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world.” 27 They did not realize that He had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 Jesus therefore said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. 29 And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” 30 As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. 31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” 39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:25-47).
Central to the message of these verses is the concept of truth. Jesus is a child of His Father. He is, by nature, truth, and thus He speaks only truth. His opponents have the devil as their father. The devil is a liar, and no truth abides in him, so they are predisposed to lies and not the truth. They oppose Jesus because He speaks the truth, and they disdain the truth. Jesus’ works accredit His words, which are the words of His Father and words completely consistent with the Law. He did not come to set the Law aside or to annul the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
As Moses gave men commands from God, so the Lord Jesus gives commandments as well:
34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12; compare Matthew 28:20).
Jesus told His disciples that after He departed from them He would come to them through His Spirit, the Spirit whom He identified as the “Spirit of truth” (see John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). By means of His Word and His Spirit, men will be converted and brought to maturity in Christ.
The New Testament writers, without hesitation, declare Jesus to be the source of truth; thus the gospel is the truth, the truth to which men must listen or neglect, to their eternal peril:
25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth (Acts 26:25).
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:25).
7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (Romans 2:7-8).
11 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).
8 For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers (Romans 15:8).
10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be stopped in the regions of Achaia (2 Corinthians 11:10).
5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you (Galatians 2:5).
13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Ephesians 1:13).
21 If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus (Ephesians 4:21).
5 Because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth (Colossians 1:5-6).
12 In order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:12-13).
God is the source of all truth. His Son, Jesus Christ, Personified the truth. What does this have to do with us? Moses told us long ago:
15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. 16 This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well. 18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).
God did raise up a prophet, like Moses. This “prophet” is the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. The implications of this are clear and simple: we are to listen to him. And if we do not listen, we shall reap the consequences which God will require of us.
When the Lord Jesus was transfigured, God clearly stated to the three disciples who witnessed this event what it meant for them:
2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:1-5, emphasis mine).
When Jesus was preparing His disciples for His absence, He gave them a commandment concerning His Word:
31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31).
15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:21).
23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. (John 14:23).
10 “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love. (John 15:10).
The writer to the Hebrews stresses the importance of heeding the Word of God, along with Peter and John:
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. 3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4, emphasis mine).
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:16-19, emphasis mine).
6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:6).
We are to listen to God as He has spoken through His Son and continues to speak through His Word, the Bible. We are to listen because God has instructed us to listen. But we should also listen because we realize that God’s Word, His truth, is vitally important to every aspect of our daily Christian walk. Consider some of the ways the truth of God’s Word impacts our daily lives.
(1) The truth of God’s Word is the message which we must believe to be saved (See Psalm 31:5; 57:3; 61:7; 69:13; Proverbs 16:6;107 Colossians 1:5-6; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 10:26; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:22).
(2) The truth of God’s Word is the basis for our faith (see Romans 10:8; Hebrews 11).
(3) The truth of God’s Word (of the gospel) is the message we proclaim to lost sinners in order that they might be saved (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:5; Ephesians 1:13; 1 Peter 1:22-25).
(4) The truth of God’s Word is also the basis for the condemnation of those unbelievers who reject the truth of the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:12-13).
(5) The truth of God’s Word is essential to our sanctification (John 17:17; Ephesians 4:14-24; 2 Peter 1:4).
Abiding in God’s Word is essential to discipleship, and it results in knowing the truth, which sets us free. We must elaborate on this vitally important principle. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The truth will make us free; it tells us how we may be free from the power of sin and the penalty of death. But how do we “know the truth”? Allow me to point out a rather obvious but often neglected fact: John 8:32 begins with the word “and,” which indicates to us that John 8:32 is a continuation and conclusion to John 8:31. Let us look at these verses together:
31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).
How do we know the truth? By abiding in the Word of our Lord, by abiding in the words of Scripture. In so doing, we are truly His disciples, and we are free. Peter says virtually the same thing:
4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust (2 Peter 1:4).
And Paul says virtually the same thing:
17 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:17-24, emphasis mine).
(1) The truth of God’s Word describes life as it really is (see Proverbs 20:14).
(2) The truth of God’s Word is the content which edifies the saints (Zechariah 8:16; Ephesians 4:15, 24-25).
(3) The truth of God’s Word is the basis for worship and praise (John 4:23-24; 1 Corinthians 5:8).
(4) The truth of God’s Word is the source of wisdom (Psalm 119:98-100, 130).
(5) The truth of God’s Word is the primary means by which God guides us (Psalm 25:5, 10; 26:3; 43:3; 86:11; 119:105).
(6) The truth of God’s Word is a primary weapon in the spiritual warfare (Psalm 40:10-11; 2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 6:14).
(7) Truth is what God desires to find in us (Psalm 51:6).
(8) The Christian life is called “the way of truth” (2 Peter 2:2). We are to “walk in the truth” (2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:3-4).
(9) We are not to lie; we are to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:15).
(10) The Holy Spirit, who indwells us, is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), and lying or deceiving the saints is “lying to the Holy Spirit”—a most serious offense (Acts 5:1-11).
(11) Arrogance is called “lying against the truth”—it is not living according to reality (James 3:14).
(12) Godliness is closely associated with a knowledge of the truth (Titus 1:1-2).
(13) The truth is the one basis for the unity of all believers—”one faith” (Ephesians 4:5).
(14) Knowing the truth frees us from legalistic prohibitions and enables us to enjoy life more fully (1 Timothy 4:3).
(15) The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:5).
With this, we can see that the truth of God’s Word is our lifeline; it is vital to our salvation and to our daily walk. It is the bread of life to those who will eat of it.
Finally, let us consider several important characteristics of the truth and their implications for us.
Truth is Eternal
2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the Lord is everlasting. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117:2).
35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
Truth does not go out of fashion, it does not change with time. Dispensationalists in particular must be careful not to think of the Old Testament, including the Law, as something obsolete, no longer applicable. The New Testament writers make a great deal of use of the Old Testament, including the Law (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 9:8-11; 10:1-13; 14:34; Romans 15:4). It was Paul who told Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable . . .” (2 Timothy 3:16). God’s truth is never out of date. It is as applicable to us in the twentieth century as it was to men centuries ago.
Truth is Universal
17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17).
Some would have us think that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the role of women in the church, he was speaking only to those saints in that culture at that time and place. This is not what Paul indicates in chapter 4, verse 17. He tells the Corinthians his teaching conforms to his practice, and that this is consistent no matter where he goes.108
Having traveled a bit over the years with the opportunity to observe a few churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa, it was not at all surprising to see New Testament teaching, principles, and practices everywhere I visited. Truth is universal; it is applicable anywhere, at any time, and in any group of people. When I hear teaching or methods which work only in certain places and among certain people, I know I am not dealing with truth, but with a passing fad. A book which will not sell on the streets of India, but only in places like North Dallas, is a book which contains human ideas. The Bible works everywhere, any time, and among any people, because the Bible is truth. We spend too much time and money on books which do not deal enough in truth.109
Truth Comes From God
The only absolute truth comes from God and is conveyed through the Bible, the Word of God.
We are told, “All truth is God’s truth.” There is a sense in which this is true. There is no truth which is contrary to God or for which God is not the author. Having acknowledged this, the only truth I know for certain to be truth is the truth God has revealed in the Bible. All other “truths” are apparent truths, and I must conclude that because they are not found in the Bible, they are not essential to “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3; see also 2 Timothy 3:16-17). These truths are therefore secondary and subordinate to biblical truths. Why then do so many Christian leaders speak of “integrating certain secular theories with biblical revelation”? Especially popular is the concept of “integrating psychology and theology.” I will have no part of such talk. Who would dare to call psychological theories “truth”? And who would dare to speak of these theories as though they were on a par with Scripture? It is time to subordinate all non-biblical truth to God’s truth, the Word of God.
Truth Needs to be Integrated with Our Lives
The Bible calls upon us to integrate theology (God’s truth) and morality. There is a very close link between truth and morality. Immorality blinds us to the truth. Truth binds us to morality. Truth and righteousness are closely intertwined. Those truths which do not have practical, moral implications are somewhat suspect, for God did not reveal His truth to fill our notebooks, or even our minds, but to transform our lives (see Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:17-24).
The Truth is Infinite
10 For Thy lovingkindness is great to the heavens, And Thy truth to the clouds (Psalm 57:10).
4 For Thy lovingkindness is great above the heavens; And Thy truth reaches to the skies (Psalm 108:4).
This means the pursuit of truth is never ending. It means that we will never know all the truth in this life. We only scratch the surface of the vast ocean of truth, which is yet unknown and unrevealed. But let us know that the truths we need to know have been revealed, and beware of all else. These are the truths we should seek to learn and to implement.
29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).
We are to seek to learn that which God has clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly revealed in His Word, and not to become side-tracked by speculative and theoretical pursuits:
5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:5-7).
7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).
4 And will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:4).
14 Not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth (Titus 1:14).
The Truth is Centered in Christ
When we stray from Christ, we stray from the truth.
21 If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus (Ephesians 4:21).
1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf, and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with persuasive argument. 5 For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Colossians 2:1-8).
The Truth is Exclusive
Here is one significant difference between Christianity and polytheistic or pluralistic cultures. Other religious systems have no problem with incompatibility of truth. They will often embrace different “gods” and allow the individual to embrace whatever truth system he or she prefers. Biblical truth, God’s truth, is exclusive. It is incompatible with any alleged truth which contradicts Scripture. Christians may be labeled “intolerant” for such a conviction, but there is not more than one truth system.
The Truth is Doctrinal and Propositional
If God’s Word is truth, then truth can be put into words and should originate from the Word. We dare not learn our truth existentially, apart from the written Word of God. And we dare not disdain doctrine nor theology. Truth is a system; it is not just a compilation of random facts.
Consider this illustration from a contemporary event. Recently, the O.J. Simpson case has been aired daily. People really want to know the truth; they want to know what happened. The police have gathered a great quantity of evidence, some of which will be accepted by the judge and some of which will be rejected. But all of these pieces of evidence do not explain what happened to these two human beings. The prosecution will present its case, which they will represent as the “truth” to the jury. The defense will take the same evidence and give an entirely different explanation, an entirely different attempt to explain the truth of what happened. Ideally, one side or the other conveys the truth. Practically speaking, neither side will have the full truth. The task of the jury is to determine, as best they can, what the truth is.
The Bible is like this. It is not just a listing of facts about God and men. There are a number of propositional statements, but these must be harmonized, put together, so that we gain an overall sense of what the Bible teaches. The truth of Scripture therefore results in some kind of doctrine. There are different doctrinal positions (each of which likes to think it is the closest approximation of the truth), and we may differ with the conclusions of others. But you cannot think or speak of truth apart from doctrine.
We sometimes hear someone say, “We don’t worship doctrine, we worship Jesus.” Which Jesus do you worship? Remember, you must worship God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The discussion between Jesus and the woman at the well was over doctrinal differences, and Jesus made it clear that this woman’s doctrine (the Samaritan’s doctrine) was wrong. Paul says that one may come, preaching “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4). Doctrine describes and defines the “Jesus of the Bible” so that we may worship in Spirit and in truth. You cannot have truth apart from doctrine. To disdain doctrine is not only foolish, it is dangerous.
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:14).
6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following (1 Timothy 4:6).
1 Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against (1 Timothy 6:1).
3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness (1 Timothy 6:3).
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3).
9 Holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9).
1 But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
7 In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified (Titus 2:7).
10 Not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (Titus 2:10).
The truth of God, revealed in Christ and in the written Word of God, the Bible, should be a priority in our lives. Let us seek, by His grace, to be people of the Word, people who love truth and who search the Scriptures to find it. And let us be those who incarnate the truth, putting it into practice in our daily lives, to His glory.
97 Michael Scott Horton, Made In America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991).
98 Horton, pp. 143-144.
99 Horton, p. 145.
100 Horton, p. 148.
101 Horton, pp. 146-147.
102 Horton, pp. 141-142.
103 Horton, p. 151, citing James Davison Hunter, Evangelicals: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987), p. 25.
104 Horton, pp. 148-149.
105 It is necessary to make a distinction here between Adam and Eve. Eve was deceived, while Adam was not (1 Timothy 2:14). Eve was deceived into believing that Satan told the truth, rather than God. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived. His appears to be a more willful disobedience, in that he believed God but disobeyed anyway.
106 When the people witnessed the sign of Jesus feeding the 5,000, they understood it signified that Jesus was indeed “the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). Surely they are thinking of “the prophet” of Deuteronomy 18:15-18.
107 Is this text not speaking of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah who is to come, in whom lovingkindness and truth are joined? And thus it is in Him that our sins are atoned for.
108 Some quick-thinking person may turn to 1 Corinthians 9, verses 19-23. Let me remind you Paul is speaking there of his personal practice with respect to Christian liberties. But when it comes to apostolic teaching and conduct, Paul is consistent.
109 I do not wish to be understood as saying we should only read the Bible, although most of us could spend much more time doing so. I am saying the books we buy and read should deal with biblical terms, biblical truths, and even biblical texts. A book on Christian marriage with only two or three Bible references is hardly a book on Christian marriage. Where can we learn the truth about marriage if not from the Bible?
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)