close

Gospel

ApologeticsBibleGospelJesusReligionTheology

the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 1 of 4)

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112

PART 1: Mercy, Not Sacrifice (An Introduction)

Prolegomena: Before we dive into our main topic, here are two caveats…

  1. This new miniseries of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.
  2. Some people use the word “religion” in a positive sense, the way Jesus uses the word “faith”. If you struggle with the pejorative use of the word “religion”, please see this post here.

Now let’s dive in!


When religious leaders asked why Jesus was befriending sinners and religious outsiders, Jesus responded:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
~ Jesus (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus came, not for those who think they’ve got it all together, but for the rest of us who know we don’t. Wow, that’s good news. And if we really want to understand how that gets worked out in the real world, Jesus tells us where to look. To the religious leaders who repeatedly misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied their own Scriptures, Jesus said: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Jesus gives them, and us, some clear marching orders if we want to understand him and his good news better. Go back into the Bible, says Jesus, and focus your attention on figuring out the meaning of this one verse: Hosea 6:6. That’s what Jesus is quoting here. The full version reads:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
~ The Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6)

Religious sacrifice – that is, offering vegetation, animals, and even humans to God or the gods in order to get their attention, procure their blessing, and/or remove their wrath – was ubiquitous in ancient religions. It amounted to a kind of religious magic, where practitioners arrange the right elements (often blood) in the right ways (shed on a sacred altar and/or applied to sacred objects) to manipulate cosmic powers for their benefit.

This is one of many ways the God of the Bible stands out. He says: I don’t need or even want you to sacrifice stuff to me. I simply want your heart, your love, your partnership.

The word for “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is the Hebrew word hesed, which means loyal love, faithful friendship, caring kindness. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional love. God wants a real, intimate, ongoing relationship with us more than the petitioning and pleading rituals of religion. In fact, where there is already love and trust, ritual sacrifice merely gets in the way. Sacrifice suggests that God is far away and assumes he is either mad and must be appeased or fickle and must be persuaded to bless us. That’s not a step towards but a step away from the intimacy God desires with us.

Notice God doesn’t say, “I desire mercy along with sacrifice, an acknowledgement of God along with burnt offerings.” He wants one and not the other, relationship rather than religion.

But if this is all true, then why in the Bible does God command so many sacrifices? I mean, have you read the book of Leviticus? The answer to this question lies in what scholars call “THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCOMMODATION” and in the history of sacrifice in the Bible, which we’ll get to in future posts in this series.

For now, we can at least lay down this firm foundation: ritualistic religion, including the sad practice of animal sacrifice, was never part of God’s ideal for the human-divine relationship.

King David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). David had a particularly intimate relationship with God, one that pointed forward to Jesus who was called “the son of David” (Matthew 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42; etc.).  And when praying to God, David says:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened—
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
~ King David (Psalm 40:6)

God did not require, nor even desire, the religious ritual of animal sacrifice. The idea and impulse for the system of sacrifice came from somewhere else.

The author of the book of Hebrews paraphrases Psalm 40:6 and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 
(Hebrews 10:8)

Just to make sure we’re getting the point, the author of Hebrews reminds us that God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding. Let that sink in.

Again, David says in a recorded prayer:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
~ King David (Psalm 51:16-17)

The real “sacrifice” that God desires is our hearts, not the blood of bulls and goats. (Along these same lines, also see Isaiah 1:1-20; 43:25; Jeremiah 7; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-25.)

David knew this truth down to his bones. He had committed the sins of adultery and, indirectly, murder. And catch this: there is no sacrifice for these sins in the Torah. The Law of Moses prescribed sacrifices primarily for unintentional sins (see Leviticus 4-5) and some lesser intentional sins (Leviticus 6). But for the most serious sins like murder and adultery, the prescribed response was not sacrifice but the death penalty. If there was any hope for David to receive God’s forgiveness, religious sacrifice was not the way. For someone who committed the most serious of sins, their only hope was to cast themselves directly upon God’s mercy and to invite his forgiveness, apart from the religious system.

All of this raises loads of questions. Doesn’t God need blood in order to forgive sins? If not, why did God directly command blood sacrifice in the Old Testament? And what is the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?

My hope in this post has been to simply set the table for this series. We’ve begun to “go and learn” as Jesus instructed.  In future posts, we’ll look at the principle of accommodation, the nature of the human religious impulse, the origin of sacrifice, and the way God enters and ends the entire system through Jesus.

I’m looking forward to your feedback, questions, and comments!

Peace,

read more
Gospel

gospel refresh (part 2): your turn

Gospel Blog Part 2

WARNING! INTERACTIVE BLOG POST AHEAD!

In my last post I talked about how taking time to intentionally refresh my soul with the gospel was used by God to save my faith. The words of Jesus are “full of the Spirit and life“(John 6:63). When I let the core message of Jesus sink into my soul, I find my faith increased to the point of no return – I simply can’t believe that anything else is more true than the gospel. So in this post I’m inviting you to join me in this process as a kind of spiritual practice for our mutual edification (which is just a fancy word for building each other up and helping each other grow).

To help ourselves experience this kind of “gospel refresh” I think three elements are important:

  1. Learning and loving the words of Jesus themselves (acknowledging that we don’t have the actual words of Jesus in Hebrew/Aramaic since the gospels were written in Greek and now translated into our language). It is important to get the gospel inside us as it is articulated in Scripture. Our gospel cheat sheet can help you with this.
  2. Hearing and cherishing the various ways other believers have articulated the gospel in their own words, with fresh terminology and analogies. This second stage is only valuable if we are committed to the first. But once we know and are committed to returning to the gospel in the words of Scripture, hearing other voices rephrase the same truth in different ways helps us get it into our bones. In fact, even when we find ourselves disagreeing with how other Christians paraphrase the gospel (which I often experience, including an example I’ve listed below), even that mental interaction, theological objection, and cognitive reframing is helping us deepen and develop our understanding of the gospel.
  3. Articulating the gospel in your own words, speaking it back to yourself as well as to others. This is something the early church did regularly: they reminded each other of the basics of the gospel over and over (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:1; 2 Peter 1:12-15), and they preached this good news to others (e.g., Acts 17:22-31), while using fresh language and imagery to communicate the same timeless truth.

I was listening to New Testament scholar Craig Evans recently talk about Matthew 13:52 where, after teaching in parables, Jesus goes on to say:

“Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Jesus)

Evans sees this as Jesus encouraging his disciples to learn how to articulate the gospel both in familiar ways from Scripture and also in fresh expressions of the same message, through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that his disciples didn’t really know his teaching if they could merely repeat his teaching. A trained parrot can do that. To really get to know a message, we need to do more than memorize it; we need to do the work of developing our own expression of it. When we expand and contract a teaching, rearrange the presentation, and find new words and images – this process helps us better understand and communicate the same message. (This, by the way, explains why the apostle Paul and other New Testament leaders tend not to quote Jesus as often as they rephrases, expand, and apply the teaching of Jesus in their context. That’s what true disciples are supposed to do!)

I’m convinced that learning to express the words of Jesus in our own words is a key element for our gospel refresh and our continued discipleship. Wanna try?

For step 1, as I’ve already mentioned, I recommend our gospel cheat sheet for an overview of gospel scripture passages to review.

For step 2, below are a couple of my own paraphrases of the gospel plus one I’ve heard used by another Christian church from a different tradition.

For step 3, I’m going to invite you to craft your own paraphrase and, if you’re willing, share it with the rest of us as a comment on this blog post.

But first, here are some examples to help you with step 2…

EXAMPLE 1: The Gospel in Thirty Words

Jesus is God with us, come to
SHOW US God’s love,
SAVE US from sin,
SET UP God’s kingdom, and
SHUT DOWN religion, so we can
SHARE IN God’s life.

EXAMPLE #2: The Gospel of Love (from the last post)

  1. The creative Force that is the Source and Sustainer of all things is pure Love. We were made by love, and we are kept alive by love. It’s always relating, always engaging – it is the pure spiritual light of Love. This is what we call God, our Source and our Sustainer. That’s the universe we live in.
  2. That Love made us in his own image and likeness, to reflect and magnify this love to each other and to all creation. All people, Christian or not, are made in the image of God and have the potential, if we live in tune with our Source and Sustainer, to amplify that love around the planet. He wants to work in partnership with us because that’s what love does.
  3. We have distorted our own calling and have wandered off the path of our purpose. We have turned love into a selfish thing rather than other-centered service. We have used creation and we have used other people to serve our own agendas. We’ve reversed the polarity on love, increasing our separation rather than unity.
  4. Jesus is The-God-Who-Is-Love come to us in our own form to lead us home.  Jesus is the place where God and humanity experience (re)union, and he embodies for us the way of love, peace, simplicity, and grace. Grace, that great irreligious concept of God coming to us and gifting us with everything that religion tries, but fails, to accomplish.
  5. Right now, we can trust this good news of Jesus and receive his life and love as a gift. We can begin to live loved, because we are. And we can pour out divine love to others and to all creation, because God himself is empowering us through the Holy Spirit to be fully ourselves, the image bearers of pure love.

EXAMPLE #3: The Gospel of salvation from sin and wrath

God is a righteous, just, and holy God. We are his creation and are responsible to him. There is coming a day when everyone will be judged in righteousness. All of us will be guilty on that day of judgement because all of us have broken God’s law. We have lied, stolen, lusted, used God’s name in vain, etc. He knows every sin we have committed in word, thought, and deed. God is good and just and therefore must punish our sin. The penalty for sin is eternity in hell.  No amount of good works, apologies, or confessions can erase our sin. But God, in his mercy, has provided a way for his justice to be satisfied and our sin to be forgiven. In love Jesus Christ came, fully God and fully man, and lived a perfect sinless life. He was murdered on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. Christ, though innocent, bore our sins on that cross, satisfying God’s wrath against our sin. God commands you to repent, to turn from your sin and turn to Christ in faith, trusting that Christ died in your place. If you will do this, the Bible says that Christ will bear your sin and give you his righteousness. You’ll be made new and you will have peace with God and have eternal life. When you face God it will not be in judgement but with joy. Repent and trust in Christ today, and you will be forgiven of your sin, reconciled to your Creator, and will enjoy him forever in heaven.

Three very different summaries, eh? So now it’s your turn! Here’s what I’m asking: please take some time with this as a spiritual discipline. Refresh your thinking with Scripture. Meditate on the examples above, interact with them, disagree with them, think through them. Then, write your own, and, if you would be so kind, please post it in the comments! Then check back later and see what other gospel summaries have been posted as well. We can help one another interact with and deepen our understanding of the gospel by sharing our own formations of this message, the good news of Jesus, for seekers, saints, and sinners.

Let the gospel refresh begin!

Peace,

 

 

read more
GeneralGospelTeaching Series

gospel refresh (part 1): how the gospel saved my faith

Gospel Refresh

In my early twenties I was ready to give up on Jesus. Not because of intellectual objections or disagreements with his right to be the Lord of my life. Rather, it was purely emotional—immature, childish, pouty emotion. Something terrible had happened in my life and I wanted to blame God, maybe even find a way to get back at God, to make him sorry for how badly he hurt me. I told you it was immature. To make matters more complex, I hid my emotional pain behind pseudo-intellectual criticisms, and one day I unloaded it all on my friend Tim.

Tim was an older mentor in the faith. I told him that he had one chance, one final conversation to talk me out of walking away from Jesus, otherwise I was ditching discipleship to Christ. (Such a drama queen!) Tim listened patiently to my objections and accusations about faith in Jesus, and then he offered me his wise response: he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Huh. I hear you. But what else are you going to believe?”

That was it? That was it! That was all he had to say? Yup—and it was perfect. That was just what my stubborn, skeptical, questioning mind needed to hear. I then went through a season of life trying other belief systems on for size. And nothing came close to the beauty and power and relevance of Jesus.

When many disciples walked away from Jesus in John 6, Jesus asks the twelve disciples if they want to leave too. Peter responds:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Peter, John 6:68-69)

To whom shall we go? What else are we going to believe? What better option can be found out there in the world of ideas? Peter didn’t claim to understand everything Jesus taught, or even to agree at first pass (remember when Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that Jesus had come to die?), but he did believe that Jesus’ teaching was our source of life. As Jesus himself had said earlier in that chapter:

“The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (Jesus, John 6:63)

Sometimes I like to express the gospel, the good news of Jesus, the core message of his ministry, back to myself in fresh words to help me appreciate it all over again. And then I ask myself, “Is there anything better than this that I could believe?” The answer is always “not even close.” I did this again last week and now I’d like to share my fresh version with you and ask you the question, “Is there anything else you could believe?”

This is not meant to be my best articulation of the gospel (for a more robust walkthrough of the Gospel from Scripture, see our Gospel Cheat Sheet), but it’s how I reflected on it this week. Here you go:

  1. The creative Force that is the Source and Sustainer of all things is pure Love. We were made by love, and we are kept alive by love. It’s always relating, always engaging – it is the pure spiritual light of Love. This is what we call God, our Source and our Sustainer. That’s the universe we live in.
  2. That Love made us in his own image and likeness, to reflect and magnify this love to each other and to all creation. All people, Christian or not, are made in the image of God and have the potential, if we live in tune with our Source and Sustainer, to amplify that love around the planet. He wants to work in partnership with us because that’s what love does.
  3. We have distorted our own calling and have wandered off the path of our purpose. We have turned love into a selfish thing rather than other-centered service. We have used creation and we have used other people to serve our own agendas. We’ve reversed the polarity on love, increasing our separation rather than unity.
  4. Jesus is The-God-Who-Is-Love come to us in our own form to lead us home.  Jesus is the place where God and humanity experience (re)union, and he embodies for us the way of love, peace, simplicity, and grace. Grace, that great irreligious concept of God coming to us and gifting us with everything that religion tries, but fails, to accomplish.
  5. Right now, we can trust this good news of Jesus and receive his life and love as a gift. We can begin to live loved, because we are. And we can pour out divine love to others and to all creation, because God himself is empowering us through the Holy Spirit to be fully ourselves, the image bearers of pure love.

This past week I’ve been sitting with this truth, letting it really sink in. And I have reaffirmed to myself that I am far beyond the ability to believe in anything else. The beautiful good news of Jesus has, once again, won my heart.

How about you? My guess is, if you think you could believe something else, you probably should. Otherwise, don’t hold back reaffirming your commitment to Jesus as the one who holds the words of Spirit and life, and let that reignite your desire to share that good news with others.

 

 

 

 

 

This blog is an excerpt from Jesus by John: The Bread & the Blood, Part 1 – The Scandal.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE FULL MESSAGE

read more
X