Once, when I was a small boy, we moved and my parents sent me to a new school. I found a friend I thought I would get along with, and soon we were sitting together on a bench eating lunch.
Then a large group of boys ran around the corner towards us. They picked my friend off the bench and beat him up, for having red hair. He was different to them. Then they went away satisfied. The “guilty” had been punished. They had restored “righteousness” to the community.
So I am eating on my own, and then suddenly, the same large group of boys came running around the corner, this time with the red hair boy at the front of the pack. He had worked out that to be in the pack was the safest place to be! Something had united them; a common enemy!
I looked around and only I was sitting there, so realized I was the next victim; because I was different. I was new. So I got up and fled with my lunch. Thank God I was faster than the whole pack and was able to eat my lunch somewhere else when I escaped.
This process of “restoring righteousness” to our community is in all of our hearts and in all of our cultures. We are usually unaware that we are doing this. It has been with mankind since the fall.
We assume that sacrifice began with God. We assume that it was initially God’s idea. There is no culture on earth that isn’t a sacrifice centred culture. Sacrifice permeates all our religions and much of our thinking. But if it began with God, let’s just think about what this might mean. It would mean that God was the first to kill. If God sacrificed animals in the Garden of Eden to cloth Adam and Eve, this means that God introduced killing into the world, or at least into the biblical narrative. It would also mean that God introduced the idea of killing the innocent to justify the guilty. This is what we call scapegoating. If God introduced sacrifice, it means that God introduced into our world the concept of scapegoating.
Scapegoating riddles our social makeup, even in modern times. There is a common practice in our communities of blaming the innocent, or weaker, parties for the ills of society. In fact, social fabric is built on this very practice. When societies disunite and start to break apart, they, sometimes lead by politicians, sometimes just behaving automatically, pick out an individual or group of people and lay blame on them. This practice galvanises, unifies and strengthens society, against a common enemy, and this renewed unity reinvigorates social progress. In elections today, it’s called, “Making our nation great again.” This happens in all modern democracies. In the UK, its Europe and immigrants. In Australia, its boat people and Muslims. In America, its Mexico, Muslims and the Chinese. Christians are called to serve these people, not punish them in God’s name.
Without us even being aware, scapegoating is an age old practice that builds empire by killing the innocent for the empire’s sins. It’s the sins of the empire that cause empire to breakup, and it’s the scapegoating of the innocent that causes empire to re-unify. It’s a practice that works, whether on the school playground, or in the nations of the world.
There are long discussions about this in the Gospel of John. Satan is the author of killing. He was a murderer from the beginning. Jesus taught that scapegoating was not from God, but was demonic. This discussion arose because of the scapegoating religion of the Pharisees. They wanted to kill Jesus, though they were not really aware of what they were doing. They turned their murderous action upon the woman caught in adultery. This would assuage their guilt and strengthen their body politic. Then they turned their scapegoating to the man who was born blind. The disciples once asked whether another man was born blind because of his sins, or the sins of his parents. This highlights the scapegoating attitudes that permeated their faith and culture. And it always focused on the weak and unfortunate in the society. Finally, they turned their scapegoating murderous attention to Jesus. “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Satan called for scapegoating, he is the author of it, not God.
Here is scapegoating at its heart: “It may not be just, but we do it to save the nation, to unify our ‘playground friends.’ It is politically expedient.” Its satan’s way of nation building, which is why all our nations are under his power, because we all follow this principle.
So think about this in the light of Jesus. Centre all our understanding about God around what Jesus showed us in his own life and teachings. Jesus perfectly revealed the Father. What Jesus said about scapegoating and the religion of his time shows who God is. Scapegoating, the killing of the innocent to save the guilty, which is the very cohesive agent of all human societies, though we are blind to it, cannot be authored by God. Its father is the devil. God does not kill.
The gospel is about two distinct kingdoms. One scapegoats the weak, the foreigner and the one different to us, just as the school playground does. The other kingdom serves the weak, the foreigner and the stranger, just as Isaiah envisioned.
Let’s think about this again. Does God require blood? We picture God as either someone angry, who requires that blood must be shed to appease his wrath, or as someone who is a legalist, demanding that the letter of his law be satisfied by punishment. This just doesn’t look like the God that Jesus represented when he came. Is God the god that says, “I demand to be appeased by blood. If not your blood, then the blood of an innocent victim will satisfy my demand.” Did Jesus in any way portray a god like this? Or, does God care about the law in some legalistic sense, rather than about people? The Pharisees showed God cared about the law. Jesus showed he cared about people. The god the Pharisees served sounds a lot more like satan than like God.
The concept of appeasement introduces into our faith something very foreign to God’s inner nature, as revealed by the gospel. It introduces the idea that God wants payment. It means that we must give God something, for his sake. This is one of the most corrupting influences to permeate religions. It means that if I give God something then he is happy. It means that I can go on sinning, or at least living in un-transformed ways, dominated by our former cultural logic, so long as I am covered by sacrifice.
This saturates our religions today. The main focus of faith is seen as something to cover our sin, rather than something that heals our relationship with neighbours and with our world. We don’t change much. It produces a form of eye service in our faith. So long as I show I am appeasing someone, my private life doesn’t really matter so much. This was the religion of the Pharisees, which they built on sacrifice.
Appeasement breeds corruption. It means that the gods can be bought. There is probably no single more damaging concept in human history than this. It breeds “big-man-ship.” The guy at the top must be bought, he must be specially honoured, he must be served. This infiltrates leadership culture throughout our nations. Again, there is little, if anything, in our world more damaging than “big-man-ship.” There is probably nothing that the gospel and life of Jesus was more opposed to.
The gospel shows a God who humbles himself, who condescends, who comes down, who serves the least. This is totally opposed to the idea of sacrifice. Jesus threw out upward-sacrifice and said our hearts and lives are to be totally remodelled, and our leadership structures are to be radically changed. Our attention, Jesus said, is to be downward, like God’s attention, to healing the beggar, Lazarus.
The idea that God has blood lust pervades our reading of the whole Old Testament. It isn’t what the Old Testament truly presents about God, but it is our reading of it, because that is how our cultures see God. We see blood lust in the Old Testament, because that is what our cultures were about. A correct reading of the Old Testament shows a God who is moving us, from what dominated our cultures, to a true picture of himself in Jesus. Our cultures made it so hard for us to see God. That’s why he had to come in Christ. But even then, we argue with Christ. We still go back to building a religion on other things in the Bible, and interpreting them outside of what Christ showed us.
So who demands blood? Satan does. He stands over the law and demands retribution. He fills our hearts with vengeance and violence towards those who have broken the law. He fills our cultures and nations with this destruction. And it is we who demand blood lust. It is our conscience that invents sacrifice as a way of “appeasing an angry god.”
Jesus came to get this out of our hearts, so that we stop looking at the world in this violent way. Violence began in the Garden of Eden when guilt entered our hearts and this guilt has ever since been manipulated and controlled by satan, and the rest is terrible history. So when God comes in Christ, we don’t recognize him. Sacrifice is from a god who demands and who is focused on himself. God is a God who doesn’t demand, but who gives to others, and who calls us to follow him.
Here is a standard translation of Jeremiah 7:22, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Commentators have struggled with this verse in different ways. Plainly put, Jeremiah said that God did not command Israel to offer sacrifices. This looks confusing and I guess it is supposed to, to make us think. At first sight, the law looks full of commands by God concerning how Israel is to offer sacrifices. Yet Jeremiah is not the only prophet to claim that God does not want sacrifice:
“Sacrifice and meal offerings you have not desired… Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Psalm 40:6) “I shall take no young bull out of your house, nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine. The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you. For the world is mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Highest; Call upon me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honour me.” (Psalm 50:9-15)
This says it plainly. God doesn’t need us to care for him; he cares for us. God said the same to David when David wanted to build God a temple. The Lord said, “I don’t need a house from you, but I will build a house for you.” This house in our family in Christ.
On and on the Prophets reveal God’s will about sacrifice. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins? No, O people, the Lord has told you 15 what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)
Why then did Jeremiah say that God did not command Israel concerning sacrifices when he called them out of Egypt? When we look at the Exodus, the law was not God’s initial desire, though he knew the law would follow. He wanted a people of faith and love, just like he wanted in his first creation of Adam and Eve.
But satan entered their hearts, the same way he entered Adam and Eve’s hearts. He told them that God didn’t have their best interest at heart, that God would forsake them in the wilderness and they should not trust him. They believed and obeyed satan and this made satan their lord, meaning he had right of prosecution over Israel. So God gave them the law, partly to reveal his good intentions through Jubilee, and partly to regulate satan’s claims in their consciences through sacrifice. This is what Israel chose, not God.
What I mean by this is that the cross of Christ takes away the retribution that we require by the law. And it works like this: if someone has wronged me, my response, my satanically motivated response, is to demand retribution, which is what I call “justice”, from my fallen perspective. Now, if God came in Christ and suffered injustice at the hands of man, far worse injustice than I suffered, and he forgave those who did it to him, then can’t God say to me, “Forgive, as I have forgiven?” So the cross takes away legal retribution from our hearts.
The problem with sin is not that God can’t forgive it, but that we can’t. We struggle to forgive ourselves and others. This is what God warned us of in the Garden. Sin produces hurt, anger, all sorts of negative, alienating syndromes, ultimately violence and destruction (which we call justice) on a wide scale. It’s not that God is harsh about our sin, but he knows how harsh we are about it. We think retributive justice; Jesus gives restorative justice.
This is why it is said of Jesus, “The Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.” He bore the sin that was committed against him, carried it away and absorbed it, forgiving it, taking it out of the cycle of hurt and violence, taking away the enmity, the retribution, producing reconciliation in its place: reconciliation in our own conscience towards God, and reconciliation of people towards each other. And he calls us, as his people, to do the same with the sin of world. Follow him. This is Christianity.
When societies choose to live by the law, instead of accepting God’s grace, then by the law they demand retribution to settle disputes, to purge wrong. If this isn’t appeased, then vengeance and destruction on a large scale will take place. This is justice, as fallen men see it.
The relationship between satan working in human hearts, and God acting to save his creation, is throughout the scriptures. The names for satan, meaning accuser and destroyer, reveal what is going on in the background to this salvation history. Scenes like satan accusing God for blessing Job, and satan then gaining access to destroy Job’s life, show what was going on in the background of Israel’s destruction in the Wilderness.
This is why Paul identifies satan as the destroyer, or taker of life in the Wilderness. (1 Cor 10:10) Many more texts in the scripture identify satan as the destroyer, who is contained by sacrifice (compare 1 Chron 21 with 2 Sam 24, and see Zechariah 3). Satan is counsel for the prosecution, or the devil’s advocate, whom God eventually keeps at bay, legally and justly satisfies, by the offering of his own life in Christ. God doesn’t demand sacrifice, just as the Prophets say; he rather gives it for us.
The same is shown to us through the life of Moses. In Exodus 4:24, “The Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.” The Septuagint translates this “the messenger of the Lord.” This may not be an exact word for word translation, but he Septuagint often wasn’t. It provides the translation from the sense of it in the Hebrew mind. A “messenger from the Lord,” means one approved by God in the legal sense. We see this often in the Old Testament. It is satan, or one of his messengers, having God’s just approval due to human sin. See also 1 Kings 22:22.
In the Passover in Egypt, God is not the destroying angel; satan is. God does not demand blood; satan does. God gives himself in death to fulfil the law, that he might legally redeem us from satan. This meaning of the Passover is shown in Isaiah 31. Here, God says he will Passover Jerusalem, like a hen passes over its chicks, to shield them from the destroyer; the Assyrian army. It is a messianic prophecy that depicts the cross. On the cross, God passed over us, meaning he stepped in between us and the satan to shield us from his rage and destruction.
This is what Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery. He stepped between the woman and the legal demands of the Pharisees against her. They were the satan. When Jesus passed-over the woman, the Pharisees turned their hatred to him instead. This always happens when we seek to protect a scapegoat from aggressors. If you stand for those whom society or the religion is against, the society will reject you, because it doesn’t want that light about themselves to shine.
This shows exactly what Jesus did for us all on the cross. He passed-over us. He took the rage of the Pharisees, the accusers of the law, against us all. This accusation of satan operates in our society, in our relationships, and in our our own hearts. Jesus took this accusation into himself, and then nailed it to the cross, by forgiving it all. He left it on the cross. He rose without carrying a single grudge of the law. This is what Passover means; to pass between the ransomed and the destroyer. This is what Jesus did on the cross.
This is what God wants us to do for each other, even for those who hate us. He wants us to stand between the weak and their accusers, rather than to become their accusers, even if it hurts us, and even if they don’t deserve it.
When God suffered in Christ, at the accuser’s hands, through us, God freely forgave us. This also calls each one of us to forgive the demands we hold against ourselves and against each other. If God can forgive, so can we. If God forgave us, then we are called to forgive. God forgave us freely, without payment to himself, and he asks us to do the same for others. This has defeated the satan, the accuser, which ruled our hearts and our retributive responses in society.
The cross answers satan’s legal hold on our souls. In his sufferings, God became a victim of our sin against others, against the innocent and against our scapegoats. If God can forgive the sin we committed against him, then he can also forgive the same sins we have committed against each other. Forgiving us for our sins against God, and for our sins against our neighbours, is forgiving us for the whole law. These two commandments are the whole law. To God, the law isn’t about the technical issues of ritualism, but about the suffering we cause to others. Forgiveness of our sin against the law becomes God’s right through the incarnation. He can forgive, because he has human scares.
God had to suffer to be in a just position to forgive. This is the atonement. And it doesn’t come by God punishing an innocent victim; that is the view of man and that is human religion at its core. Rather, the atonement comes by God freely taking that punishment from a violent humanity upon himself, and then freely forgiving it. Now the atonement makes sense against Jesus’ teachings. “It has been said ‘eye for eye’, but I say to you, if someone smites you on one cheek, offer to him the 17 other.” He debunked legal repayment. He eradicated eye for eye. He said God doesn’t think that way. To God, sin isn’t paid for, it is forgiven freely. This is what Jesus taught and this is what he said we should follow.
What else did Jeremiah mean by saying that God didn’t command Israel concerning sacrifices when they came out of Egypt? I believe that what he meant, was that sacrifice wasn’t God’s idea. He didn’t invent it. It originated with human culture, because of the human consciousness of the need for retribution. God “went with the flow,” so to speak. He used what he found in human culture and worked that towards his salvation plan. In other words, God entered into our cultural practices and transformed them, eventually bringing us out of them and into his view. That is, God eventually eradicated sacrifice through Christ. He completely transformed the meaning of sacrifice, taking it away from blood, and into an entirely new godly perspective.
The crucial point to make here is that all these kinds of practices we see in the Old Testament, the ones that God gets bad press about, aren’t actually from God. They didn’t start with him. I mean the accusations about God requiring blood, requiring the death of innocents, and having a fixation about legal repayment. God’s way, in scripture, has been to meet us where we are, with our fallen ideas and practices, and then move us to where he is.
We see glimpses of this movement towards God’s true nature in the Old Testament, but it isn’t until we see Jesus in the Gospels, that the light shines more brightly on God’s full character. We will speak about this more in the next chapter, but the point is that God is acting missiologically in the Old Testament. This means, he enters into our culture as he finds it, and uses the culture as a vehicle to reveal who he is and then transforms that culture into his kingdom ideas.
So let’s see how God does this with sacrifice. Firstly, we have read so much back into the Genesis text. It doesn’t say that God killed animals to cloth Adam and Eve. It doesn’t say that Abel killed a lamb. It says he gave a “present offering,” the choicest part of his flock. There is no mention here of death. The words “burnt offering” are not used until Noah, when God allowed mankind to eat meat. When Noah offered a burnt offering, it says, “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground (destroy the world) on account of man…” (Gen 8:21)
This looks strange at first sight. Noah offers God a sacrifice of burnt animal flesh and the smell is soothing to God. Does God delight in the death of the animal? Does he like the smell of cooked meat? Or does the smell of sacrifice sooth his anger? Does he require gifts of sacrifice from men? We may say that this points to the sacrifice of Christ. But even then, the same questions remain. Does seeing the death of Christ soothe God? If there is anything about the death of Christ that soothes God, it is a man overcoming sin, by not repaying evil for evil. It isn’t the anger of God that is soothed by his death.
Noah was carrying out a cultural practice of giving something to God as an act of worship. And God accepted it. He accepted it because it was a token of Noah’s faith. All of us have practices that aren’t from God, but we do them because we believe they are honouring to God, and God accepts them because he accepts us. He accepts our heart; he sees our faith. But that doesn’t mean he prescribed these practices. He just looks past our ignorance on so many counts. In this case, God accepted Noah’s act because he accepted Noah and was in relationship with him. This doesn’t make God a God of bloodlust. It shows God loving and condescending, like we see him on the cross.
How do we know this was God’s attitude towards the sacrifice? We know this because of what God did with sacrifice in Christ and in the New Covenant. We know this because of the way God transformed this old practice and did away with it, at his first opportunity, in the gospel.
Throughout the Old Testament, God met people where they were, especially with the sacrifice rituals, and he used the practices and filled them with new meaning, which no one understood until Christ came. He used these practices, because this is the way people understood God, and God had to communicate with them on their own level. It’s a slow process of communication and of God’s self-revelation, but the only one that can work, on a voluntary basis of love, where humans are hard in understanding.
An example of God communicating with us on our human level, is seen with Abraham. Abraham asked God how he would know that God would keep his promise concerning giving him a son. God told him to prepare sacrifices, cut them down the middle and lay them out on the ground. This was the usual practice in those days for making a covenant, the strongest possible pledge. Today we use lawyers and contracts for the same thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ eradicated all off this, saying our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is enough. Here, Abraham was questioning God’s integrity and God wasn’t angry about that. Instead, God spoke with Abraham in a way that he would understand, in his given culture, to give Abraham strong assurance. God’s word wasn’t enough for Abraham, so God condescended and added an oath. Here is real condescension. This is the point. The Old Testament is filled with God condescending to man, to lead us to Christ.
Another example, is the elaborate ritual of the Day of Atonement. God completely transformed the meaning of sacrifice through this ritual. The way the High Priest was instructed to carry out the sacrifice, shows us that the animal he was killing was actually, in type, God himself. In this ritual of atonement, God wasn’t demanding, or even receiving, anything from man. The animal belonged to God and was given to man. God was the sacrifice, giving himself for man.
This was a radical transformation in human sacrificial ideas. People weren’t giving anything to placate an angry God, but God was giving himself to rescue us from satan, sin, the law and death. No other cultural ritual had done this. Man had never seen God in his true light, or seen God’s true view of sacrifice before. Never had a culture put the deity on the self-giving end of sacrifice, rather than on the receiving end. The atonement wasn’t something given to an angry God. It was a loving God on a rescue mission. This transforms our whole view of the cross.
This relates to the temple concept, which we will look at later. David thought he was building a temple for God. All the cultures did this. They all gave things to god, to honour him and make him happy. David brought this into Israel’s worship, and it expressly did not please God, although he allowed it, or accommodated it. God didn’t ask man to build a temple for him, but God was coming to build a new home for man. Christ would show us what honoured and pleased God: our love for neighbour.
When we see Christ, what is the soothing aroma that pleases God? Is it violence, death and blood? No. This is the soothing aroma to satan, and to angry, violent, humanity, but never to God. “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.” (Eph 5:2) Texts like this have been so badly misread, again because we use our own cultural perspective. The soothing aroma to God is love. This has transformed our whole view of sacrifice. Man took Christ and killed him. Christ’s offering to God was his nonretaliatory love, this demonstration of the nature of God’s love before the whole world. This love 19 was the pleasing aroma, which we are to follow, not by giving God anything, only our love for each other.
This is how God has taken the concept of sacrifice, utterly transformed it, and filled it with new meaning. It isn’t killing, but giving life to those in need. It isn’t anger, but love. On the cross Christ put an end to human systems of sacrifice and gave us love in their place. Christ did what the Prophets foretold about sacrifice.
When beaten, he didn’t beat again. When reviled, he didn’t revile in return. He endured temptation and overcame darkness. He passed through all the anger of man and in return he loved and forgave. This was pleasing to God; that Christ lived as man was intended to live, when darkness threw all it had at him. Sacrifice, as a payment to God, or as an act of worship, was never God’s intention.
God entered into our human systems of sacrifice, when the Pharisees and Sadducees offered Christ as a scapegoat to save Jerusalem, and this is where he totally defeated sacrifice in our minds and hearts. He became the Trojan Horse. When we killed him, as our sacrifice, as our scapegoat, in our religious anger, he put an end to the whole satanic system of death and brought eternal life out of it instead.
Our only sacrifice is love: “No greater love has any man than this, that he lay down his life his friend.” This isn’t speaking about going to war. Jesus didn’t kill anyone in war to save us. It is speaking about putting our self in the way of danger, to save a life. This is what God did for us, to set us free from satan. This is what we do for one another today, as we serve even our enemies.
This is sacrifice: “I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:12…9-21)
The burning coals is love, poured onto the consciences of others.
This is the pleasing aroma to God. Man invented sacrifice and God ended it. It started with Cain killing Abel, and then Cain’s death being revenged seven-fold. So killing and then more killing in righteous retribution began. God took scapegoating and sacrifice and bottled it. First, he took human sacrifice out of it, including child sacrifice. Then he reduced it to just one eye for an eye, not indiscriminate revenge. Then he allowed animal or financial payment in lieu of the death penalty. All of this was to placate man’s hard heart. Then he took away the scapegoat altogether and put himself in its place. Instead of receiving the scapegoat, as in all religion, he gave himself as the scapegoat, to settle all our accusations about 20 ourselves and about others. Finally, in Christ he defeated sacrifice altogether, by transferring the principle into service and love, which is what Christ did for us and what he taught us to do for others.