Friday, September 25, 2009

Atonement, Forgiveness and Rest

The book of Leviticus is one that most people avoid reading. It's seen as either boring, confusing, or way too gory -- all those sacrifices and the details of incense and which day of what month meant something.

But chapter 16 is interesting. The priest is told to go through an elaborate cleansing and sacrificial ritual before he can enter the holy place. A bull is slaughtered, and then a goat. Another goat is held while the sins of all the people are 'confessed' over it, then it is sent far away into the wilderness, never to return to the camp. At the end of the chapter, we're told that this is to make atonement (the Hebrew refers to 'covering') for the sins of all the people, once a year.

Lots of very cool parallels to our Savior, and to our salvation here. The high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins, so he would be seen as sinless before he could offer a sacrifice for the people. That's a picture, in advance, of Jesus being a sinless 'high priest' for us (see Hebrews 9 and Hebrews 10 for a detailed interpretation). Then the 'azazel' goat -- the 'goat of removal' is a good way of translating it -- carries the sins of the people away. In two different ways, sins are wiped out forever; once by blood sacrifice, again by removing them from the area. Those things are gone, forever, with no chance of return (see Psa. 103:12, "as far as the east is from the west"). Both operations are done by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

One more point is interesting: the people are told to fast from food and water for that day, and commanded not to work. And this one isn't a 'pilgrimage festival' -- the nation stayed at home for the day, not assembling at the central worship place.

What were the meanings of these things? Fasting is a symbol of repentance, which is turning to God and accepting his forgiveness through Jesus. What about not working, and not traveling? Simple: Jesus has done the work. We can add nothing to Jesus' work for our salvation, any more than the people could add to the work of the high priest in Israel.

In fact, we can do nothing to create, earn or qualify for our salvation. That has been a fact since the foundation of the world. Accepting salvation from God by faith isn't a work either; it's faith alone (Eph. 2:8). Salvation is from Jesus, not from our work, our rituals, our energy and enthusiasm, or our obedience. Jesus plus anything is the wrong formula for salvation. "Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone" was the cry of the Reformers 500 years ago. They were right -- and Leviticus 16 shows it.

Your sins are gone, never to return. You don't have to carry that guilt around any longer. Great news, isn't it?

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I just pulled a few weeds from the cracks in the driveway. That reminded me of the sins -- ideas, habits and reactions -- that creep into our lives when we're not looking.

Yes, our sins are forgiven by Jesus' sacrifice, and we are brought into the loving communion of the Trinity through his work (not ours!). But that's never an excuse to allow sin to come back into our lives and injure us -- and others. It's important for us to keep our eyes open to those things that threaten our relationship with God and with each other.

Hebrews 12:1 says (right after the list of the people of faith in chapter 11) "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us." The Greek adjective translated 'trips us up' means anything that would slow us down and take our energy. The metaphor here for Christian life is an endurance race, not a sprint; so it's important not to let sin creep in and take away even a little energy, as that will have serious consequences over 'the long run.'

Later on in Hebrews 12, verse 15 says "Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many." Now, that's interesting: the writer tells us two things -- to not let bitterness come in and poison the relationships between us; also the command to "look after each other." I think one of the most serious 'weeds' that gets into our lives is offense and unforgiveness -- bitterness -- between us.

If we're considering where to find sin our lives -- and we should -- then looking carefully for conflict, or the leftovers of conflict like resentment against someone else, is vital. Too often (really, once is too often) Christians simply withdraw from each other, cutting off contact and communication, rather than working things out. That weed always grows, never dying by itself, and it spreads seeds that also grow, "corrupting many." We have to go after that sin and pull it out by the roots before it affects our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Like weeds, sin is serious stuff. We need to surrender it to God and ask him for the help we need to get rid of it. How about searching your life this week for those 'weeds' that hurt you and those close to you? And how about forgiving -- really, deeply letting go -- of someone else's sin against you?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Trust Jesus

Trust is a big deal for people. Marriage, for instance, is based on trust, not just on love. Or, for another example, would you give your wallet and keys to the next person you meet on the street? Why not? Probably because you don't trust they would take proper care of them.

Why should you trust God? What does he have for you? Well, he sent his Son to tell us about himself (John 14:9), to provide the only way to God (John 14:6) and to bring us life. John wrote at the end of his gospel, in 20:31, "But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name."

Belief is important in John's gospel; John uses the word over 75 times. That's nearly 4 times per chapter. Believing in Jesus means trusting him -- relying on him for what we can't do for ourselves. Including, first of all, saving ourselves from destruction as a result of our sins.

Do you trust him? That's the question. Do you trust that he really has died for you? Do you trust that he has given you life with him, a life without end? Do you trust that it is a gift from him to you? Or do you think it's something you can earn, if you're a good enough person? John records Jesus saying this, in 3:18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." See, we can believe that Jesus existed, but what's really important is believing what he said, and trusting that he meant it.

Trusting Jesus means you've already entered into the life he has for humanity: a life of knowing, being in relationship and living in the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A life that will, after your physical existence is over, lead you into the presence of God forever. Not trusting Jesus, on the other hand, is a much harder road. Refusing to trust Jesus means choosing to miss out on everything he has for you. Not much of a choice. But then, God still leaves the choice up to you.

Which one do you choose?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More than These

Jesus said some tough things -- things we don't always like to remember, or teach. Like when he said we have to hate our relatives if we want to be his disciples: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26, NIV) And being his disciple is what he has called all of us to do; so we should take his words seriously.

Hate, meaning really despise and be angry with? No, what Jesus said, in the lingo of the day, was that, in order to be his disciples, we have to love him so much that everything else fades into the background and doesn't mean anything to us, compared to him. The Message version reads this as "let go of" his family. So if you aren't willing to let go of even what is closest to you, you aren't really a disciple, because you're not paying enough attention to the Master.

Dallas Willard, in his classic book The Divine Conspiracy, explains this idea. He uses the analogy of a math teacher to his student: unless you learn addition and subtraction, fractions and decimals, no way are you going to learn algebra or trigonometry. If you don't have even the basics, how will you learn the real stuff?

Unless we are so focused on the Master that he is, without question, the most important issue in our lives, we won't really be discipled -- taught, instructed, led -- by him. Multi-tasking just isn't gonna make it with him. Being less than devoted won't work with Jesus. Focusing on temporary-life matters so much that eternal-life matters don't get much attention, means that Jesus doesn't matter as much as he should.

Okay, we still have to eat, and pay our taxes, and all that stuff. Living in a monastery isn't necessary for spiritual maturity. But here's a measure of focus: what's on your mind most often? For example, which thoughts are most frequent: ideas of self-protection and getting ahead, or hearing the Holy Spirit tell you how to love someone? Anger at someone who has offended you, or forgiveness and seeking God's wisdom in responding? Convinced of your own rightness, or seriously asking the Lord for correction?

Do you love Jesus more than these other people/things? I know I need to clean out some of the mental and emotional clutter, and focus on him, because I want to go deeper with the Master. Wanna go along?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


"In God we trust" has been a motto of the United States, by law, since 1956, and has been printed on all coins and currency since 1955. (Isn't it ironic that this motto appears on our money?)

Trust is "a reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc. of a person or thing" according to the dictionary. I think that if we really did trust in God, we'd rely less on the money.

Adam and Eve had a problem with trust. They didn't fully believe that God had given them everything they needed, or they wouldn't have believed the Serpent's argument that God was holding out on them. Their lack of trust was the root of their sin. Humanity ever since has lacked that same trust. Even though we seem hard-wired to want to believe in something greater than ourselves, when it comes to daily life we try to work things out by ourselves instead. Another way of saying that is that we don't really trust God to come through for us. And just about every sin you can name traces its way back to not trusting God to provide what's best for us.

I know some people who claim to trust God, but they seem to spend their time trying to manipulate him -- reciting verses from the Bible, claiming various promises, and figuring that their works somehow obligate God to come through with the new car or the job or whatever. As though God were a slot machine or a vending machine -- put enough coins in and something is bound to come out. But God is much wiser than we are, and he will give us what we really need, not what we think is best for us.

Isaiah 28:16 says this: "Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken." That foundation stone is Christ himself -- for salvation, and for the faith to live every day (Gal. 2:20). God tells us to trust him, to build our lives on Jesus (see Matthew 7:24-27) and not on our own efforts.

It's easy to say you trust God. But your daily schedule and your bank book show what you really trust. Looking at mine, I know that I sure need to trust him more. I pray you're learning to rely totally on God, for everything.