Friends often tell me that they’ve long struggled to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with that of the new. For them, God always represented a harsh judge, someone who would hold your feet to the fire (literally) when you did something bad. Jesus, by contrast, was something of the “other parent.” When things went poorly, you could count on the embrace of Jesus’ loving arms. It was an image that was often reinforced by stale Sunday School pictures of Jesus, complete with soft feathered hair and always absent-mindedly petting a sheep.
In 2013, Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan captured a nation’s attention with a cover story for Newsweek Magazine. The cover read: “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.” Sullivan rightly sees Christianity in a state of crisis. His solution? To move away from “theological doctrines of immense complexity” to return to the “simple ethics of Jesus.” For Sullivan, what you think about isn’t nearly so important as how you live it out. On the surface, this is refreshingly commendable. But press deeper, and you begin to realize that when we recast Jesus as a social visionary, we bend his message into something that suits our own agenda—including an angry indictment against capitalism.
What is the common thread here? When we fail to comprehend Jesus’ message and purpose, we fall in love not with the real Jesus but our own portrait of him. For some it is the consoling figure holding a lamb. For others it’s the hipster Jesus who came to overthrow capitalism and corporate greed.
And, frankly, both visions of Jesus are much more socially acceptable than the image found in orthodox Christianity. Sin? Bloodshed? I don’t want a Jesus who offers mercy; I want affirmation. I don’t need forgiveness; I need empowerment. I don’t require transformation; I demand acceptance. But all of those things only betray a failure to understand our most basic problem: our problem is sin.
A number of years ago, a magazine asked readers to write in a response to the question: “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton famously responded with two words: “I am.” I am what’s wrong with the world. So while it’s comforting—or even fashionable—to blame capitalism, greed, religious abuse, racism, sexism, etc., we can’t escape the fact that sin is both systemic and individual. The darkness that enshrouds our culture dwells within my heart—or at least it would if not for the transformative power of the gospel.
So in Hebrews we continue looking at the life-giving doctrine of atonement—that means by which God eradicates sin and guilt through the blood of Jesus. It is Jesus that fulfills what all the former sacrifices could not:
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:15-22)
Do you understand what this is saying? Purity—of both heart, places of worship, everything—comes through Jesus. The author makes reference to the sprinkling that occurred through Moses at the inception of the covenant through Moses (that is, the arrival of the Law). But we may see this as fitting into the larger framework of the sacrificial system.
Do you recall our discussion on the Day of Atonement and the two goats? One was sacrificed; the other was driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing away the nation’s sins. On the cross, Jesus embodied both of these meanings—and we even attach specific words to these achievements.
- Propitiation: This word—meaning to “render favorable”—refers to the way that God deals with our actual sin. In this sense, we can say that propitiation also deals with our guilt—our negative feelings about our actions.
- Expiation: This word—meaning “to cleanse”—refers to the way God deals with the defiling effects of our sin. In this sense, we can say that expiation deals with our shame—our negative feelings about ourselves.
Are these complex doctrines? Sure. But do they have specific benefit? Absolutely. First, they help me deal with my own guilt and shame, and in that sense can be said to be psychologically beneficial. But they also help me see the love, justice, and mercy of God all at the same time, for which reason these doctrines can be said to be spiritually beneficial.
If you follow Jesus—or at least try to—there is an important lesson here. Too often we don’t come to Jesus because we feel we have to “clean ourselves up” first. Think about it: have you ever avoided entertaining guests because you felt your house was a mess? You didn’t want people to see the dishes in your sink, or the laundry piles in the hallway, or the crayon marks on the walls. So you avoid people. Well, we do the same with God. We want to make sure we deal with our own shame and guilt first, and then we can feel “spiritual” enough for God. But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, the old covenant reminds us that our attempts to fix externals only results in more bloodshed—and more mess. I don’t clean myself up to come to Jesus. I come to Jesus to get cleaned up. I don’t repent so I can come to Jesus. I come to Jesus to help me repent. When we get this backwards, we turn God into someone bent on rewards and punishment. When we understand the gospel properly, we see that these dry, complex doctrines only serve to maximize our joy.