This is Part 8 of the guest blog series by Dr. Ronn Johnson. The archive of previous installments is located here.
I ended my last post by painting myself into a theological corner. In wondering what to do with the brick which says Jesus’ priestly work (atonement, sacrifice, etc.) plays a role in our salvation I realized that I needed to first play out the subject of ritual cleansing a bit more. Here is why. If I keep this brick, I am attributing salvific value to priestly activity—something that should worry me based on the limited role that a priest had in the OT. We recall that priests did not (indeed, could not) do anything to cause a person to become righteous in Israel’s religion. Their role was confined to ritual only. On the other hand, if I toss this brick, I am saying that Jesus’ sacrifice/atonement did not play a role in my salvation—and those are fighting words by almost any standard. Central to our evangelical faith is the idea that Jesus died to obtain/secure/provide (choose your favorite word) our salvation. So now you can see why we need to talk about this. It feels like neither option will work.
Recall the word picture of using Jesus’ cross to span the chasm between two cliffs. This illustration has certainly been useful, but it does not depict how the OT Israelite would have interpreted his situation. He worked with a different picture, something he physically experienced as a kind of living illustration: the tabernacle/temple. This is what I meant earlier in saying that the OT worshipper thought about getting in as opposed to getting across.
So let’s develop this OT picture. Draw a person standing in front of a temple. Directly above this, up in the heavens, draw God (however that works for you!). Now connect these three pictures with three lines to form a triangle. Let’s give a title to each of these lines before taking time with the picture as a whole:
Line #1 (between the person and God): This line is meant to convey something very simple and certainly very important. Title it simply as A man’s relationship to God. I will use it to describe the real (as opposed to a cultural or imagined) way in which a person was to relate to Yahweh, the deity of Israel.
Line #2 (between God and the temple): Once we introduce the concept of a temple into the biblical story, things get interesting. We sense contradictory messages. On one hand, Yahweh is said to reside inside one of his temple rooms (e.g., “You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth,” Ps 80:1). This is consistent with how other nations thought of their gods living in the holy rooms of their respective temples, usually indicated by the placement of an idol. On the other hand, biblical writers also describe Yahweh as being too “big” for a temple (e.g., “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple which I have built?” 1 Kings 8:27). So this line (which we can title God’s relationship to physical space) appreciates two apparently incongruous ideas which seem to have been believed at the same time: God was somehow present in a physical location while he was not able to be confined to any one physical location.
Line #3 (between the person and the temple): This line actually extends from the person to the farthest room inside the temple, the holiest place where the deity was thought to dwell (the ends of lines #2 and #3 should touch here). Only special people could go into this room, of course, such as Israel’s high priest, and even then once per year. For everyone else, the idea of officially approaching one’s god was a matter of wishful imagination (“Blessed is the man whom you choose, and cause to approach you, that he may dwell in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, of your holy temple,” Psalm 65:4). As you can imagine, this line plays a significant role in the biblical story while also being difficult to explain to a modern audience. Let’s title it A righteous person’s official approach to God in worship / supplication / service.
With these lines in place, let’s think our way around the picture. I believe this will be the best way to determine how to handle our brick and even how to eventually understand the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death. I will number my points just for my own organization.
1) Regarding line #1, the Bible teaches that God desires personal faith/loyalty (Heb., aman; Gk., pistis) from every human, and that in response to this faith God declares the person as righteous (Heb., tsaddiq; Gk., dikios), or proper. The fact that we can honor Yahweh in such a personal way is remarkable and speaks to the greatness of his character. No other god has ever treated his human followers in this way. This simple loyalty-brings-righteousness pattern spans both testaments, starting with the life of Abraham (“Abraham aman-ed the LORD, and the LORD accounted it to him for tsedaqah,” Gen 15:6), continuing through the Psalms (“Oh love Yahweh, all you his saints! For Yahweh preserves the aman, while fully repaying the proud,” Ps 31:23), and the prophets (“Your aman is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew that goes away; but I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” Hos 6:4, 6), and the gospels (“He who pisteo’s Him will not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:15) and Paul’s letters (“Salvation for everyone who pisteo’s, for the Jew first and also for the Greek,” Rom 1:16), and ending with John’s vision in Revelation (“…those who come with [Jesus] are called, chosen, and pistos,” Rev 17:14). So I believe it is important to keep this line unencumbered from heavy theological ideas, such as the mechanics of inherited sin/guilt or substitutionary payment/righteousness. Those discussions may have their time and place, but not on this line. The Bible teaches that it is inherently simple to get along well with God.
2) Lines #2 and #3 intersect at the most sacred item in Israel’s religion, the ark of the covenant. This box is one example of “sacred space” in the biblical story—where heaven and earth met, as some would say. (The official definition of sacred space varies with religious traditions, so I am not really concerned with defining the phrase carefully at this point. In moving forward, let’s describe sacred space as where God’s presence was presumed to dwell, just as our picture shows.) We recall that the ark could not be touched with human hands (Exod 25:12-15; Num 7:9; Deut 10:8), apparently upon the pain of death (e.g., 2 Sam 6:6-7). I have always been fascinated by this idea, as most people are. Why would a box be so dangerous? What would be God’s point in making it dangerous? What if I almost touched it? Did all sacred space operate this way? And how does sacred space even work? How can two very different (even competing) modes of existence be merged together? These are interesting questions, and I sense the answers are above our human pay grade. So let’s move on to think of line #3 by itself.
3) Line #3 represents a man’s official approach toward sacred space. This is different from line #1, where the question had to do with being right with God. To help us understand the difference between these lines, and to appreciate the dread associated with line #3 in the ancient world, think of the story of Esther and the concern she had of appearing before her husband-king uninvited: “All the king’s servants and the people know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live” (Esther 4:11). I remember hearing this story in Sunday School and wanting to say “Esther, you have nothing to worry about—he just chose you in a beauty pageant!” From every indication the king was still infatuated with Esther (cp. 2:17) and yet her fear was real, even justified. Approaching a human king meant laying one’s life on the line. Now multiply that fear several times over and we begin to understand the kind of terror that accompanied an approach before one’s god.
4) And how dangerous was sacred space? Of course we would say very dangerous, but it has sometimes been assumed that humans could not enter that place where God’s presence was assumed to dwell. For what it’s worth, I would like to challenge that assumption. Recall that the king in Esther’s story was more important than the space he inhabited, meaning that he carried the right to determine what would happen to the queen when she stood before him. This story seems to align with how God handled his sacred space as well, at least in the stories left to us. Though standing on “holy ground,” Moses and Joshua were told to only take off their sandals (Exod 3:5; Josh 5:15). While appearing before Yahweh’s throne (in a vision, admittedly) Isaiah was allowed to remain after he was ritually cleansed by a seraph (Isa 6:6-7). In these three cases it could be argued that an otherwise normal human survived his sacred space ordeal just fine provided he perform some act of reverence prescribed by God. This sounds much like Esther touching Ahasuerus’ scepter (5:2). Most importantly—and this informs our understanding of the relationship between lines #1 and #3—each man was already presumed to be righteous, or right with God, before his sacred space experience began.
5) So let’s think through why and how a person might cross into sacred space. The story of David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12) seems to help us here. Though David’s sins deserved death (cp. Exod 21:12; Lev 20:10), Nathan announced that God had “passed over” or forgiven (avar, cp. Mic 7:18) them and that he would not die (12:13-14). Yet David had not offered a sacrifice, nor was he intending to (cp. Ps 51:16). “The sacrifices of God,” he recognized, “are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17). David understood that sacrifices were not about payment for sin, and that they could not replace a simple and humble request for God’s forgiveness based on his mercy alone (cp. Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7.) Bringing our picture into this story, David’s concern was on line #1. He knew that the only possible response to his sin was to plead to God for pity (Ps 103:13), and that God would respond by restoring the broken relationship (Ps 103:17-18). But the story continues. After asking God to spare the life of his child who would eventually die (12:16-18), David “arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes, and went into the house of the LORD and worshipped” (12:20). For some reason David felt compelled to travel along line #3. Maybe David’s restored relationship with God led to a desire to approach God in an official capacity. He knew this would require ritual cleansing, which he did, and the story closes with David bowing before God in worship. Achieving line #1 prompted, in this instance, the story of line #3. David may even have considered line #3 to be a necessary and proper ending to his Bathsheba incident.
6) It is common to hear a person say at this point “But Mosaic law repeatedly linked the priests and sacrifices associated with line #3 to the forgiveness of sins (e.g., “if he has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him,” Lev 4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18), which ends up sounding a lot like line #1. In other words, weren’t sacrifices necessary for having a right relationship to God?” In my hearing this has been a very honest question, arising naturally from the evangelical’s Big Story of the Bible. In this understanding, what I have called a “sin management” model, the problem of sin is elevated to line #1 and is met by the solution of forgiveness made available on line #3. Evangelicals then connect Jesus’ death to this story, going so far as to argue that God’s ultimate ability to forgive sin required the crucifixion. So this question clearly carries considerable theological weight, even approaching the issue of God’s character. Let’s see if our picture can speak to this question.
7) Grab an eraser and change the scene to 586 B.C. when the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were taken into exile. Jeremiah told his friends to build homes and plant gardens in Babylon since they would not be returning to Israel for seventy years (Jer 25:11; 29:5). This means that everything on line #3 is now gone, even the line itself, for over a generation. We can erase line #2 as well. All that is left is line #1. What was a godly person to do about sacrifice and, potentially, about forgiveness of his sins in this situation? Certainly this period was not an incidental hiccup in the theology of Judaism. From all indications, this was a time designed by God to teach his people what it meant to relate to him without a “temple kit.” We are thankful that there is still more story to tell.
8) The prophet Daniel is one of these final stories in the OT. He was taken to Babylon as a teenager (Dan 1:1-6) and lived out the remainder of his life on foreign soil. Imagine how violently and how quickly his understanding of God and sacred space needed to change. But he was up to it. Undoing almost 1000 years of tradition, he operated confidently outside the context of priests, sacrifices, and temple, openly asking God for forgiveness and blessing in the process (“O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act!” 9:19). Daniel got in trouble for his prayer life, we recall. Let’s imagine how the conversation might have gone on his way down to the lion’s den with one of the Babylonian guards (6:16):
“So, Daniel, what were you doing that got you into jail in the first place?”
“I was praying to Yahweh, the god of my people, as was my custom.”
“I heard that you prayed out an open window, apparently toward Judea [6:10]. Why?”
“We Jews have long been in the habit of praying in the direction of our temple [cp. 2 Chron 6:34]. But I’ll admit it’s more tradition than anything else.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, a couple of things. First, we’re like you in treating our temple as our god’s throne room. But second, we believe that our god alone is responsible for creating everything that is, including your god, and, as such, he does not limit himself to one place.”
“That’s quite an assertion, but I’ll go with it for now. So how do you approach your god, now that your temple is gone?”
“Even while our temple was standing, it was understood that our god could hear us wherever we were [cp. Ps 139:7-8]. Plus, much of our early family history had no experience with a temple [Genesis 12-Exodus 40]. So as I see it the whole idea of a temple was temporary. I think it was an accommodation of our god to how humans imagine the process of worship. It’s what we knew in Egypt before becoming a nation, and it continues here in Babylon as well.”
“So in praying toward your former temple you were just accommodating a tradition of an idea which itself was an accommodation?”
“That’s well-said. The beauty of it is that I’m totally fine sitting in a dungeon because my god thinks I’m totally find sitting in a dungeon. All he needs is my personal loyalty, and I can do that anywhere. I could even do it in a lion’s den.”
“That kind of god is different from any god I’ve ever heard of before. Are you saying that priests and sacrifices aren’t necessary in your worship?”
“No, they are not. If they are available, we certainly use them. If they’re not available, like here in Babylon, we just live by loyalty.”
“So what about sin offerings? How does your religion operate without them?”
“Like other religions, we used to offer sacrifices ‘for our sins,’ or for those common things that hindered our official approach to Yahweh’s throne room [e.g., mold or uncleanness, Lev 12:7; 14:18-20; 15:15, 30; unsolved murder, Num 6:11; Deut 21:8; inadvertent sin, Num 15:25]. But, again, we have a god who longs for personal loyalty above those kinds of rituals. So now that we don’t have a temple we simply don’t worry about doing sin offerings anymore.”
“You’re treating your relationship to your god almost like a personal friendship.”
“Right. And, as my friend, he doesn’t think about me just in terms of my behavior, or my actions. It’s much deeper than that.”
“Back to those sacrifices. When you sacrificed an animal, were you considering the animal as your ‘replacement’ on the altar?”
“Of course not. No one who was sacrificing was deserving of death. In fact, just the opposite—they were deserving of mercy.”
“Whoa. How can you speak of deserving mercy from your god?”
“The best thing about our covenant with Yahweh was that he promised that he would treat his loyalists kindly [cp. Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9]. So we Jews like to mix God’s love and justice together in our prayers and songs [“He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the mercy of the LORD,” Ps 33:5; “He who follows righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness and honor,” Proverbs 21:21], celebrating that in treating us justly, or righteously, God will be treating us mercifully.”
“Amazing. But I have this weird feeling, kind of like a prediction, that someday someone will say that one of the main lessons of your religion was that there has always been a strong tension between Yahweh’s love and justice.”
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It is basically the opposite of what Yahweh is like. In fact, that sounds like the gods of Canaan. They loved to play justice off of mercy, threatening their worshippers for all sorts of simple disobedience issues—like even mispronouncing their name.”
“Well, here we are at the lions’ den. Again, for the record, I’ve never heard of a god like yours before. If you guys ever go back to Judea, do you foresee building a temple again?”
“Certainly. Yahweh deserves a beautiful home. Until then, I’m not much concerned about it. I’m more concerned about the lions actually.”
“Something tells me you’ll be just fine. See you tomorrow.”
So what should we do with our brick? Let’s return to our original question: Did Jesus’ priestly work (atonement, sacrifice, etc.) play a role in my salvation? I hope that our picture has visualized how the direct answer to this question must be no. We are pronounced righteous, and are thus considered “saved,” because of our faith/loyalty (line #1), and, as a separate discussion, those people who approached God’s sacred space needed ritual cleansing (line #3). A person who enjoyed a good relationship to God on line #1 may or may not have experienced line #3, depending on his time and place and opportunity. This is not to say that line #3 is unimportant or simply incidental to the Bible’s story line. Quite to the contrary, in fact. The Bible was written by people and to people who believed that sacred space demanded their respect. Remember Peter’s refusal to even meet with Cornelius. This was not because Cornelius was ungodly, but because he was ceremonially unclean ( “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation,” Acts 10:28). Peter did not yet realize that Jesus’ death meant that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, could now travel down line #3 (cp. Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45; Heb 2:17; 4:16; 6:19; 9:3, 25, 28; 1 Pet 2:23-24; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:2-4; 4:10)—provided, of course, they had taken care of line #1. This “new covenant,” or new arrangement for approaching Yahweh (cp. Heb 10:16-19), will be the major story line of the New Testament. We will get there in due time. For now, set this brick aside.
If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will certainly reply.