ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
It had been a wonderful but exhausting day, as all big ceremonial occasions tend to be; Aaron, the elder brother of Moses by some three years (Exodus 7:7), had been ordained as priest (the details can be found in Leviticus 8) of the people of Israel. His four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar had also been ordained at the same time.
No doubt Aaron was very pleased that his sons were following in his footsteps and no doubt he was pleased to know that there were others to help him carry out the duties that had fallen to him.
But then it all went wrong! Nadab and Abihu decided to do things their own way and “they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to His command” (Leviticus 10:1). God’s reaction to this blatant act of defiance from those who should have known better was swift and severe, “So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
It may seem very harsh to us, especially when we do not really know exactly what the two men did but it highlights the problem that a Holy God and sinful human beings cannot live in close contact.
It is this contrast between the purity of God and the fallenness of human nature which requires us to think about atonement – probably not an everyday word for most people. However, suppose I have badly offended someone, then, if I want to repair the relationship I might well proffer a gift, say a box of chocolates, which, if accepted, would restore friendship between us. So, in a very simple way, I have made atonement for the offence I had caused and the two of us are “at one” again.
- Relationship with God
So what about the times when we fail to live up to God’s standard and therefore become alienated from Him? That situation could never be put right with a box of chocolates! In fact there is absolutely nothing that we can do that will “put things right,” the initiative has to come from God’s side and it is one of the marvels of the universe that God, the Creator and Sustainer of it all, actually wants to restore fellowship with puny human beings who have turned against Him. The question we must ask is “How is this atonement, this reconciliation, of an Almighty God and rebellious human beings, inhabitants of a tiny planet orbiting an insignificant star in one of many galaxies, to be brought about?” To begin to answer this question we must turn again to the time of Moses and Aaron, (around 1500/1400 BC). It should not surprise us that we have to do this because the words atone/atonement are relatively frequent in the early books of the Bible but uncommon elsewhere – for example, they occur only five times in the whole New Testament even though the idea is widespread.
What we find in these early books is an emphasis on the idea and practice of sacrifice. When someone realised that they had done wrong in the eyes of God, that is, they had sinned, they brought a lamb or other approved animal and it was sacrificed to God. They knew that the punishment decreed by God on sinners was death (Genesis 2:17; 3:3, Deuteronomy 30:17-19). However God graciously accepted the death of the animal in place of the death of the sinner who was pronounced forgiven. Atonement had been made and fellowship was restored
- Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is one of the great festivals of Judaism and is still celebrated in September/October each year. It looks back to the events chronicled in Leviticus 16. After the Sanctuary, “The Most Holy Place,” right at the centre of the worship area had been cleansed by blood (Aaron was only allowed to enter this Holy of Holies and make the cleansing on this one day each year) another ritual took place in view of the people. Two goats had been selected and one had already been sacrificed, but the other was not killed. Aaron laid his hands on the goat’s head and confessed “over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head” (Leviticus 16:21). Then the goat was driven away into the desert, symbolising that the sins of the people had been sent away. It is from this event that we get the term “scapegoat” – one who suffers some penalty, often on behalf of a group, when he/she does not deserve all the blame.
So in the festival of Yom Kippur we see the pervasiveness of sin, reaching into what should have been the holiest area, the need for sacrifice and the concept of substitution – the scapegoat representing and suffering for the whole nation.
- Why are these Old Testament tales important to us?
One may well be tempted to ask why things like the death of Nadab and Abihu, the practice of animal sacrifice and the events of the Day of Atonement, all of which took place several thousand years ago, are important to us today.
The answer was given by a wise teacher, maybe King Solomon himself, when he announced “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The background has changed totally from a “backward” rural economy to a modern, technological, urban one but the same sort of things go on, because the hearts of human beings have not changed. People still maltreat one another in basically the same ways, they kill and abuse, they rob and cheat. In other words sin is sadly alive and kicking in the twenty-first century A.D. just as it always has been. Nuclear weapons may have replaced swords but it is still men and women who use them.
So if sin is still around, and it certainly is, then God’s verdict on sin stands, and the human race is under sentence of death unless atonement can be made.
But, despite all other human advances in knowledge, in medicine, in science etc., men and women still cannot find any different answer to the question, “How can a Holy God and sinful human beings be reconciled?” The answer, as it always has, must come from God.
- God’s Answer
Or, I suppose, God’s answer part II, part I, the preliminary, being animal sacrifice (which anyway was only a foretaste of part II – see Hebrews 10:4).
The answer, as decreed in the counsels of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was that God the Son should enter the world as a man, live and then die a terrible death, to be, in fact, a new, once-for-all scapegoat carrying the sins, not just of the Israelites but of all the world out, as it were, into the desert where they will trouble humans no more. For that a goat will not do, it may have done to illustrate the idea, but it had to be an infinitely greater scapegoat, the one and only Son of God, who took on Himself all the sins of humankind and carried them away.
- Why did God allow all this to happen?
So if God wanted to create beings that could really love Him, He had to allow them to choose whether to do so or not. Thus it was the ability to choose which, because the wrong choice was made – as symbolised by Eve picking that apple – which has got the world into such a mess (Romans 8:22). So it needs to be restored, to be at one again with Almighty God.
- So what did Jesus actually have to do?
In the Gospels we see Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God and confronting those who had the wrong ideas (Matthew 23:15). We see Him healing the sick, even to the point of raising the dead (John 11:43,44). We see Him triumphing over the powers of nature (Luke 8:24,25). However, important though these activities are, they are eclipsed by what happened in the last few days of Jesus’ life – a week to which each of the Gospels devotes a large amount of space. In this period the crowd changed from welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with cries of “Hosanna” (an exclamation of praise – Matthew 21:9), to calling for His execution (Matthew 27:22). In this period Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples (Mark 14:43,44) and deserted by the rest (Mark 14:50). In this period Jesus was put on trial in front of both the Jewish (John 18:19) and Roman authorities (John 18:28,29). In this period Jesus was crucified (John 19:16,23), died (Mark 15:44,45) and was buried (John 19:42). Yet at the end of all that the most vital event occurred, Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to many folk (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Death had not won, Jesus had triumphed.
Amid all the tumultuous happenings of the last week of Jesus’ life let us focus on just two things that He said. First, in the garden of Gethsemane, a little while before He was arrested, He prayed to His Father, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for You. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will but what You will” (Mark 14:36). Jesus could see the horror that was coming as He had to drink the cup of the wrath of God Almighty, but He deliberately chose to continue on the path agreed in the counsels of God.
Then, on the next day, as He hung on the cross, He uttered the most terrible of cries, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Mark 15:34). Now that might not sound that terrible, but we have to remember that Jesus and His Father were One. from all eternity past, everything that had happened had been done in union between Father and Son (and Holy Spirit). Now, for the first time, there seemed to be a division between them. Jesus, the scapegoat, had been driven into the desert. Because He was carrying the sins of the world on His back, He felt the sum of the agony that should have come upon each and every member of the human race.
Yet, thankfully, it did not end there. In a later cry from the cross, Jesus knew He had been successful, the task He had been set, the task he had willingly undertaken had been carried out to the full. He could exclaim, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and so die in peace. However it did not even end there. On the third day He rose again and gradually His followers realised that He was back with them and gradually they realised who He really was, as the disciple Thomas put it, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
- So what do we have to do?
In one sense absolutely nothing because it has all been done for us.
Yet to go back to the picture I used towards the end of the first section, if I take a box of chocolates to someone whom I have offended and seek reconciliation, I run the risk that they will throw the chocolates in my face and slam the door on my efforts. Now, sadly, that is what so many members of the human race do to God. In picture terms God stands at the door (Revelation 3:20) and offers atonement, and folk will either not open the door or do so suspiciously and then slam it again.
The one thing we have to do, therefore, is to accept what God has done for us. We have to believe that God’s version of events is true and even for this God helps us to have the faith in Him which is the necessary human reaction.. Thomas gained that faith when he saw the risen Jesus, Paul gained that faith as Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:3-6). We may not have an encounter with a visible Christ but He comes to each one of us through His Holy Spirit, asking simply that the gift He brings, of life rather than death, be accepted. When it is, atonement is completed and we are indeed “at one” with God Almighty.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.