Human sacrifice

Moses warned the people of Israel against idolatry before they entered the Promised Land. Moses said, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). “The religion of the Canaanites was extremely corrupt. It was characterized by the practices of human sacrifice, ritual prostitution and homosexuality, and self-mutilation. These religions taught that these practices were prevalent among their gods, so it is not surprising that the people became equally debased” (note on Judges 2:13). Israel’s disobedience and unfaithfulness to God began around the time of Joshua’s death. It says in Judges 2:7-13:

And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.

Israel’s abandonment of God meant that they were making sacrifices to other gods. The Hebrew word that is translated abandoned in Judges 2:13, ʿazab (aw-zabˊ) “carries a technical sense of ‘completely and permanently abandoned’ or ‘divorced’” (H5800). It says in Judges 8:33, “As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god.”

Israel’s further disobedience and oppression led to an acknowledgment of their sin (Judges 10:10) and a temporary reprieve from the misery of their circumstances. It says in Judges 10:15-16, “And the people of Israel said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” In the King James Version of the Bible, the phrase his soul was grieved is used instead of the words became impatient. The Hebrew words nephesh (nehˊ-fesh) qatsar (kaw-tsarˊ) have to do with the condition of one’s soul and suggest that God’s vitality was diminished because of the trouble his people were getting into. God was becoming impatient in the sense that he wanted to change the Israelites’ situation because of the effect it was having on him. It was literally breaking his heart (H5315/H7114).

God’s decision to use Jephthah to deliver the people of Israel from the Ammonites may have been a result of his lack of better choices. It says in Judges 11:1, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” One thing that is clear about Jephthah’s character is that he wanted to be admired by others. Judges 11:1-11 states:

Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him. After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.” But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.

The terms of Jephthah and the Gileadites agreement were spoken before the LORD at Mizpah. Mizpah is the location where Jacob and his uncle Laban made a covenant with each other and said that God would be a witness between them when they were out of each other’s sight (Genesis 31:49). The Hebrew word from which Mizpah originated, tsaphah (tsaw-fawˊ) “occurs for the first time in the Old Testament in the so-called Mizpah Benediction: ‘The Lord watch between me and thee…’ (Genesis 31:49). The meaning in this context is ’to watch’ with a purpose, that of seeing that the covenant between Laban and Jacob was kept. Thus, the statement by Laban is more of a threat than a benediction. Similarly, when God’s ‘eyes behold the nations’ (Psalm 66:7), it is much more than a casual look. Perhaps in most uses, the connotation of ‘to spy’ would be the most accurate” (H6822). The lack of trust between Jephthah and the elders of Gilead was probably rooted in the harsh treatment that Jephthah received from his brothers (Judges 11:2) and the fact that he had been living in Tob with what is described as “worthless fellows” (Judges 11:3), for likely many years.

We know that Jephthah was a man of faith because he is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-34, which states, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” It says that Jephthah was made strong out of weakness and became mighty in war. The Greek words that are translated were made strong and became mighty indicate that Jephthah was transformed from a weak and ineffective leader to a strong and mighty warrior. Jephthah initially sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites trying to avoid a war, but the king of the Ammonites didn’t listen to Jephthah (Judges 11:28) and it says in Judges 11:29, “then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah.” The Spirit of the LORD made it possible for Jephthah to do what he needed to. The Greek word that is translated were made strong in Hebrews 11:34, endunamoō (en-doo-nam-oˊ-o) means “to empower” (G1743) and is derived from the words en (en) “denoting (fixed) position (in place, time, or state)” (G1722) and dunamoo (doo-nam-oˊ-o) which means “to enable” (G1412). Dunamoo is derived from the word dunamis (dooˊ-nam-is) which means “force (literal or figurative); specifically miraculous power (usually by implication a miracle itself)…Dunamis almost always points to new and higher forces that have entered and are working in this lower world of ours” (G1411).

Jephthah may or may not have been aware that the Spirit of the LORD had come upon him. As Jephthah crossed over into the territory of the Ammonites, it says in Judges 11:30-31, “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” After Jephthah subdued the Ammonites, Judges 11:34-40 tells us:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

“Jephthah’s vow has caused much concern for Bible scholars. He may have understood the possibility of human sacrifice when he originally made the vow and may have performed such an act. A vow was not to be broken (Judges 11:35, cf. Numbers 30:2), and Jephthah kept his (Judges 11:39). The precise nature of the vow, however is debated. Jephthah certainly must have been familiar with God’s prohibitions regarding human sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10), and it seems inconceivable that one who was empowered by the Spirit of the Lord in a unique way (Judges 11:29) would make such a diabolical vow that directly contradicted God’s explicit command, especially in the context of seeking God’s help (Judges 11:30). It was customary for women to greet returning warriors (Exodus 15:20; 1 Samuel 18:6), and therefore it is suggested that if Jephthah had originally intended a human sacrifice, he would not have been surprised and distraught when his only child (Judges 11:34) came out to meet him and became the object of his vow (Judges 11:35). Jephthah may have intended something other than a literal burnt sacrifice, or his apprehension concerning the battle with the Ammonites may have caused him to word his vow hastily. Even if the vow had included the possibility of human sacrifice, Jephthah may have dedicated his daughter to the service of the Lord instead, equating that with fulfilling his vow. Literal burnt offerings symbolized complete dedication to the Lord in that the sacrifice was entirely consumed (Leviticus 1:9, 13; 6:22, 23). It seems unlikely that Jephthah would have been commended for his faith (see Hebrews 11:32) if he had taken his daughter’s life and broken God’s law in such a serious matter. The statement that ‘she had never known a man’ follows Jephthah’s fulfilling the vow (Judges 11:39) and would be meaningless if he had taken her life. It may refer instead to the fact that, as one who was wholly given to the service of the Lord, she would have to continue in her virginity. That would explain why she spent two months bemoaning her virginity (Judges 11:37) rather than her abruptly shortened life” (note on Judges 11:29-40).

Jephthah tore his clothes, a sign of mourning, and told his daughter, “You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me” (Judges 11:35) when she came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. The Hebrew word that is translated trouble, akar (aw-karˊ) means figuratively “to disturb or afflict” (H5916). Jacob used the word akar after his two sons killed all the males in the city of Shechem because of the rape of their sister Dinah. Genesis 34:30 states, “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” Like Jacob, Jephthah blamed his daughter for the outcome of his mistake. Jephthah didn’t seem to regret that he had promised God that he would offer up for a burnt offering “whatever comes out from the doors of my house” (Judges 11:31), but rather that his daughter happened to be the one that came through the doors to greet him and to celebrate his victory.

The commendable thing to note about Jephthah’s agonizing situation was that he kept his vow (Judges 11:39). It says in Numbers 30:1-2, “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath, to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” A vow was “an oral, voluntary promise to give or do something as an expression of consecration or devotion to the service of God” (H5087). According to the Mosaic Law, once a man’s vow was made, it could not be revoked under any circumstances. When Abraham’s faith was tested, God told him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). Genesis 22:9-10 tells us, “When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.” Abraham intended to go through with sacrificing his son. “But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me’” (Genesis 22:11-12). God spared Isaac’s life because Abraham demonstrated his willingness to do whatever God told him to. The common theme between Abraham and Jephthah’s situations was obedience to the word of God.

After the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, Genesis 22:13-14 tells us, “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The LORD will provide’; and it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it will be provided.’” The intended substitutionary nature of sacrifices was made evident in the Mosaic Law through the Day of Atonement. A bull for a sin offering, a ram for a burnt offering, and two make goats were required to make atonement for the priest and the people of Israel. Leviticus 16:6-10 states:

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.”

The name Azazel means “the scapegoat” (H5799). After the sin offerings had been made, Aaron was instructed to lay both of his hands on the head of the scapegoat, “and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself in a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

The Day of Atonement was the only time the priest could enter the Holy Place and come before the mercy seat where God would appear to him (Leviticus 16:2). The book of Hebrews explains that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter could have been avoided if he had understood what Abraham did, that Jesus would established a better covenant through his substitutionary death on the cross that would be able to “purify the conscience from dead works” (Hebrews 9:14). One of the flaws of the Mosaic Law was that it offered the people of Israel a temporary solution to the problem of sin. It says in Hebrews 9:9-10 that “according to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” Reformation is a reference to the dispensation of Christianity. The Greek word diorthosis (dee-orˊ-tho-sis) means “to straighten thoroughly, rectification” (G1357). The correction that Jesus made was to eliminate the need for perpetual sacrifices. Hebrews 10:10-14 tells us that we have been sanctified, made holy, “through the offering of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he had perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”

Responsibility for the sins of others

After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, spiritual death occurred immediately and their need for salvation became evident. Genesis 3:22 states, “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in guilt because they were conscious of their wrongdoing. The Hebrew word ʾasham (aw-shamˊ) means “to be guilty; by implication to be punished or perish. This word is most often used to describe the product of sin – that is guilt before God” (H816). The Hebrew word ʾashem (aw-shameˊ) describes one who is in a guilty state (H818) and ʾasham (aw-shawmˊ) “the offering which is presented to the Lord in order to absolve the person guilty of an offence against God or man” (H817). One of the four main words indicating sin in the Old Testament is avown (aw-voneˊ) which means “perversity.” This noun carries along with it the idea of guilt from conscious wrongdoing and the punishment that goes with this deliberate act as a consequence (H5771). When Cain killed his brother Abel, God told him, “’And now you are cursed from the ground which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood and from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear’” (Genesis 3:11-13).

The Hebrew word that is translated bear in Genesis 3:13, naçah (naw-sawˊ) means “to lift” (H5375) and suggests that there is a weight associated with the guilt of sin. “Nacah is used of the undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others by substitution or representation (Exodus 28:12; Leviticus 16:22; Isaiah 53:12; cf. 1 Peter 2:24).” Bearing the responsibilities for the sins of others was portrayed on the Day of Atonement through the release of a scapegoat into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:20-22 states:

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”

Isaiah 53:4-12 depicts Jesus’ suffering on the cross as he accomplished the task of dying for the sin of the world. It states:

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall seeand be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The Hebrew word naçah appears at the beginning and end of this passage of scripture in the phrases “he has borne our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4) and “he bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12), suggesting that the burden of sin has something to do with the anxiety that we feel because of the punishment that we expect to receive from God. One of the ways that we know our sins have been forgiven is that the anxiousness that we once felt about them is gone.

The Israelites’ rebellion against God in the wilderness resulted in a plague that could have wiped out the entire population. The LORD told Moses, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” (Numbers 16:45). Moses and Aaron interceded for the people and stopped the plague (Numbers 16:48) and order was restored to their camp (Numbers 17:10-11), but a lingering feeling of guilt kept the people from being able to live peacefully with God in their midst. Numbers 17:12 states:

And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?”

The Hebrew word that is translated undone in Numbers 17:12, ʾabad (aw-badˊ) means “to wander away, i.e. lose oneself” or “to be lost” (H6). The Israelites’ spiritual condition had deteriorated to the point that they realized there was no hope for them to recover. There was no way for them to regain God’s favor.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to minister to the people, he instructed them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus referred to the Jews as lost sheep in order to illustrate their hopeless situation and indicated that his primary objective was to tell them that the kingdom of heaven was being made available to them (Matthew 10:7). Jesus later emphasized that he had come specifically “to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11, KJV). The Greek word sozo (sodeˊ-zo) is used “specifically of salvation from eternal death, sin, and the punishment and misery consequent to sin” (G4982). When Jesus said that he had come to save that which was lost, he was saying that he could reverse the effects of sin in a person’s life. The Greek word apollumi (ap-olˊ-loo-mee), which is translated lost in Matthew 18:11, means “to perish. The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (G622).

It says in Isaiah 53:6 that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explained that God set a plan of redemption in motion before the foundation of the world in order to counteract the effects of sin in the human race. Paul said:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

God’s plan of redemption started with the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Afterward, the Mosaic Law was enacted and a system of sacrifice was put in place. Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve as priests and made atonement for the people once a year (Leviticus 16). The LORD told Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood” (Numbers 18:1). The Hebrew word that is translated bear in this verse is naçah (naw-sawˊ) indicating that the priesthood was designated for the undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others (H5375) and that Aaron and his sons were representatives of Christ, the one who would in the fullness of time complete the process of atonement through his death on the cross.

The Hebrew word that is translated priesthood in Numbers 18:1, kᵉhunnah (keh-hoon-nawˊ) is derived from the word kahan (haw-hanˊ) which means “to mediate in religious services” (H3547). In order to perform the duties of their office, priests had to keep themselves from becoming unclean. The LORD said, “They shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, which they contribute to the LORD, and so cause them to bear iniquity and guilt, by eating their holy things: for I am the LORD who sanctifies them” (Leviticus 22:15-16). This almost impossible task might be what was considered to be the burden of bearing the responsibilities for the sins of others. Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Paul’s statement that there is “one mediator between God and man” made it clear that Aaron and his sons weren’t qualified to act as mediators between God and man because they were by nature sinners like everyone else. The Greek word that is translated mediator in 1 Timothy 2:5, mesites (mes-eeˊ-tace) means a go-between. “The salvation of men necessitated that the Mediator should Himself possess the nature and attributes of Him towards whom He acts, and should likewise participate in the nature of those for whom He acts (sin apart); only by being possessed both of deity and humanity could He comprehend the claims of the one and the needs of the other; further, the claims and the needs could be met only by One who, Himself being proved sinless, would offer Himself an expiatory sacrifice on behalf of men; ‘one who acts as a guarantee’ so as to secure something which otherwise would not be obtained” (G3316).

John’s gospel was written with the specific intent of proving that Jesus is the Son of God (Introduction to the gospel according to John) and began with the establishment of Jesus’ existence before the world was created (John 1:1-3). John said:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)

John pointed out that Jesus’ own people, the Jews did not receive him. What John meant by that was that the Jews collectively, as a nation did not receive the free gift of salvation that was offered to them through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. John indicated that on an individual basis, all who did receive Jesus, “who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12).

Jesus described the process of salvation in a conversation he had with a man named Nicodemas. Jesus said, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) and went on to say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17). Jesus explained to Nicodemus that being born again involved a spiritual birth that was “not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), through his Holy Spirit (John 3:6) and that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The Greek word that Jesus used that is translated lifted up, hupsoo (hoop-soˊ-o) is a derivative of the word huper (hoop-erˊ) “meaning for, in behalf of, for the sake of, in the sense of protection, care, favor, benefit” (G5228). Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross was a sacrificial act that was motivated by God’s love for the world (John 3:16).

When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him for the first time, he declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God” because it was determined before the start of his ministry that Jesus would be delivered over to death as a sacrifice (G286). The point that may have startled everyone was that Jesus was going to take away the sin of the world. In other words, Jesus’ sacrificial death applied to everyone, not just the Jews. John indicated that Jesus would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Greek word hamartia (ham-ar-teeˊ-ah) is “from the Hebrew, the imputation or consequences of sin, the guilt and punishment of sin as in the phrase ‘to take away [or bear] sin,’ i.e. the imputation of it” (G266). In that sense, Jesus bore the responsibility for the sins of all others when he died on the cross.

Paul explained in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus’ death cancelled the record of our moral debt that stood against us with its legal demands. Paul told the Colossians:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Paul indicated that Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is applied to our spiritual account when we identify ourselves with his death and resurrection through baptism.

The visual image that Paul created of God nailing the record of our debt to Jesus’ cross was meant to emphasize the fact that his ability to pardon our sin was dependent on a sacrifice being made and the sole responsibility for that sacrifice belonged to Jesus. Paul said of Jesus, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The Greek word that is translated fullness, pleroma (playˊ-ro-mah) speaks generally “of grace and God’s provision (John 1:16; Romans 11:12; 15:29; Ephesians 3:19); of divine perfections (Colossians 2:9). It was Jesus’ divine perfection that enabled him to do what no one else could, to take upon himself the guilt associated with the sin of the world. John’s record of Jesus’ crucifixion included his final words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The it that Jesus was referring to was the debt of sin and his declaration that it was finished meant that the debt against every sinner was discharged at that moment because Jesus paid the penalty of sin in full. If you think of grace as a currency with a value attached to it, then God’s grace is sufficient to cover the entire human races’ debt of sin. John said of Christ, “For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

Heavenly things

The Bible introduces us to the concept of heaven, but there isn’t much information or details about what it’s like or what we will be doing when we get there. The purpose of the sanctuary that the Israelites constructed in the Sinai desert was to give them a physical representation of heaven, something that would help them to connect with God in a more personal and intimate way. The Bible tells us that the immaterial part of heaven which is invisible to the naked eye is where God lives, but we are told in Luke’s gospel that when Jesus departed from his disciples, he was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:51). At that point, Jesus was in a material body and could be seen with human eyes. The book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, a medical doctor with a scientific view of the world, gives further detail about what happened when Jesus ascended from the earth. Luke said, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Jesus didn’t just disappear or keep going up into the sky until he couldn’t be seen anymore. The disciples view of him was blocked by a cloud. After that no one ever saw him again. Some of the meanings of the Greek word that is translated lifted up suggest that Jesus was taken to heaven in a vessel of some sort (G142) which was also visible to his disciples. A similar scene is recorded in the book of 2 Kings depicting the prophet Elijah’s departure from earth. 2 Kings 2:9-12 states:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

Elijah’s statement makes it clear that his departure from the earth might or might not be visible to his companion Elisha. There appears to be some overlap between the physical and spiritual realms. What we can see with our physical eyesight may not necessarily be all there is to the material world. Jesus told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3). The words that Jesus used that are translated “rooms” and “a place” seem to refer to physical structures, and yet, the Greek word meno (men’-o) which means “to stay” signifying a permanent dwelling place or home can also refer to a state or condition (G3306).

One of the things that we know for sure about the tabernacle that the Israelites constructed in the Sinai Desert was that it corresponded to something that exists in the spiritual realm. God told Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). The Hebrew word that is translated pattern, tabniyth (tab-neeth’) means “structure (by implication) a model, resemblance” (H8403). It says in Exodus 26:30 that God told Moses, “Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.” The fact that Moses was shown the plan for the tabernacle while he was on top of Mount Sinai seems to suggest that he saw it with his eyes and that it was therefore a physical structure in heaven. Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18) without any food or water. The Israelites assumed that Moses was dead when he didn’t come back down from the mountain within a reasonable period of time (Exodus 32:1). All of the circumstances surrounding the revealing of the pattern to Moses seem to point to a supernatural experience in which Moses may have been given the ability to see eternal and/or future events that were occurring in heaven and to record them in such a way that the building Moses viewed could be replicated on earth.

Psalm 96 depicts a future worship scene that will take place when Christ begins his reign on earth. The psalm opens with a call to worship the Lord because his work of salvation had been accomplished. It states:

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

    sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

    tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

    his marvelous works among all the peoples!

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

    he is to be feared above all gods.

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,

    but the Lord made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before him;

    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

The English words splendor and majesty are usually reserved for royalty or some kind of auspicious occasion that is associated with extravagant cost. We don’t think of these words as describing common experiences and might have a hard time imagining what these kinds of things might look like. The biblical view of splendor is connected with strength and power (H1936). Majesty has to do with the impressive character of God (H1926) and how he will be treated with respect when he returns to the world to rule and reign over it (H1921). Psalm 96 eludes to the fact that the tabernacle of God will be present during the millennial reign of Christ. People will be expected to bring offerings to Jesus (Psalm 96:8) and worship him by falling prostrate to the ground (Psalm 96:9). There is no tabernacle of the Lord on the earth right now, but it can be assumed that the kinds of worship services that are depicted in Psalm 96 are currently going on because Jesus’ kingdom is eternal and the spirits of Christians are already with him in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8).

An important role that was identified with Jesus was the High Priest. The Apostle Paul stated in his letter to the Hebrews, “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4;14-16). Paul’s exhortation to draw near to the throne of grace implies that believers currently have access to God’s throne room in heaven. Paul explained in his first letter to Timothy that Jesus acts as a mediator between God and man. He said, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). The roles of high priest and mediator were necessary for mankind to be reconnected to God because of our collective sin against him. Paul taught that sin separates us from God and because we need a way to make things right with him, Jesus, the Son of God, had to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins in order to reconcile us to God the Father. Paul said:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

One of the ways that we know God hears our prayers is that he answers them. If it were not for Jesus’ death on the cross, our prayers would be falling on deaf ears. The Israelites were able to communicate with God because of their special relationship with him. The key to that relationship was the Day of Atonement, the day once a year when the High Priest went into the Holy Place inside the veil of the tabernacle and approached the mercy seat of God (Leviticus 16) which was symbolic of entering God’s throne room. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews indicated that Jesus entered into God’s throne room in heaven once and for all to make atonement for sin. He said:

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:23-28).

Exodus chapter twenty eight describes in detail the garments that the High Priest was expected to wear when he entered into God’s presence. It can only be assumed that Jesus was wearing similar garments when he entered into God’s presence. God told Moses, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen” (Exodus 28:1-5).

God indicated that the garments worn by the High Priest were to be “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). The Hebrew word that is translated glory, kabowd (kaw-bode’) means “weight; but only figurative in a good sense, splendor or copiousness” (H3519). One of the ways to understand what is meant by the word kabowd or glory is to think of it as a measurement of wealth. There used to be a saying, he is worth his weight in gold. From that standpoint weight is a measurement of how much value someone brings to an organization. Jesus’ glory is immeasurable, but the idea was that the garments that the priest wore would reflect the high value of the sacrificial system that was put in place to make atonement for the sins of mankind. The Hebrew word that is translated beauty, tiph’arah (tif-aw-raw’) means ornament (H8597). It is derived from the word pa’ar (paw-ar’) which means “to gleam, (causitive) embellish; (figurative) to boast; also to explain (i.e. make clear) oneself” (H6286). Isaiah’s prophecy about Jesus first coming to the earth stated, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form of majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). It is therefore likely that the High Priest’s garments reflect the glory and beauty of Jesus’ second coming. Psalm 96 concludes with these words:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11-13)

Psalm 96 associates Jesus’ glory and beauty with his judgment of the earth. All the heavens and the earth will rejoice when Jesus returns because he will finally put an end to sin in the world.

The six garments that made up the High Priest’s royal apparel: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash (Exodus 28:4) likely all had a special significance with regard to Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross, but the ones that were very clearly associated with his atonement for sin were the breastpiece and the ephod. The ephod was described first, probably indicating that it was the most important item in the High Priest’s garments. Exodus 28:6-14 provide the details of the ephod’s construction:

“And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance. You shall make settings of gold filigree, and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.”

The stones of remembrance were reminders of the process God used to build Jacob’s family. The fact that the names of the sons of Israel were engraved on the stones in birth order suggests that the stones of remembrance were intended to serve as a reminder of the designated order or ranking of their importance in the physical realm. We know their rank was altered in the spiritual realm because Reuben’s position as Jacob’s first born son was usurped by Joseph, the first born son of Jacob’s second wife Rachel. Judah, who was the fourth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife, inherited God’s eternal kingdom by becoming the father of Israel’s Messiah.

The correlation between the ephod and the breastpiece seems to be centered around the completeness that was established by Israel having twelve tribes. Somewhat like the twelve birth stones we use today to signify which month a person is born in, there were twelve stones inlaid in the breastpiece, one for each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Exodus 28:15-21 contains the details of their placement:

“You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.”

In this particular passage, the breastpiece is referred to as the “breastpiece of judgment” (Exodus 28:15). The Hebrew word that is translated judgement, mishpat (mish-pawt’) is properly translated as “a verdict” (H4941) implying that the crime and the penalty have already been established. This most likely has to do with the Ten Commandments which had already been communicated by God directly to the Israelites (Exodus 20:1-17). Jesus told his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount that he would fulfill the requirements of the Ten Commandments. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).