Walking With a Holy God

Entering the Most Holy PlaceNow that we have looked at the context of Leviticus 16 we are finally ready to delve into the passage itself. (I suggest reading it before reading the rest of this post.) There’s a lesson right off the bat in Leviticus 16:1-3. Moses starts by referring to the deaths of Aaron’s sons and then quotes God’s instructions for how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. In other words, Moses reminds Aaron of how NOT to enter God’s presence before telling him HOW to enter God’s presence. Thus the lesson for him – and for us! – is that we can only enter God’s presence on His terms, not ours.

The other sacrifices in Leviticus are made by individual worshipers on their own behalf. The person placed his hands on the head of the animal, confessed his sin over it, and then slaughtered it himself. What a graphic representation of the sobering truth that sin brings death! At the same time, what a picture of God’s incredible grace as the death of an innocent substitute brings life!

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was the one who makes the sacrifices on behalf of himself and his family (Lev.16:6,11) and also the whole nation (Lev. 16:15,21-22; both are mentioned in Lev. 16:17, 24). Even more interesting is that Leviticus 16:16-18 says that atonement was made for the inner room (here called the holy place), the outer room (“tent of meeting”) and the altar where the sacrifices were burned, located in the courtyard. Somehow, the sins of the nation defiled God’s holy dwelling place, and periodically it needed to be cleansed.

Remember that the New Testament calls the church and individual Christians temples, or dwelling places of God. It’s relatively easy for me as an individualistic American to see how my sin defiles me, but harder to see how my sin affects my church family. Honestly, I prefer to believe that I’m the only one affected by my sin – and I think Satan is thrilled when I do! But I’ve come to the conclusion that even when my sins seem “private” they hurt my walk with God, and anything that hurts my walk with God hinders Him from using me in others’ lives. In light of that, the greatest ministry I can have to others is to quickly deal with sin and keep walking with God!

Which brings us back to atonement, the method God gives us to deal with our sin. But what exactly does atonement do? With any ancient language there are differences of opinion about some words, and there at least three opinions about the ancient Hebrew word “kipper,” which we translate as “atonement”:

  1. It comes from a root word meaning “to cover” so it covers our sins from God’s sight.
  2. It comes from a root word meaning “to wipe off” so it wipes away or removes our sin (the theological term is “expiation”).
  3. When Jewish scholars translated their scriptures from Hebrew into Greek before Christ, they used a word meaning “to appease or turn away God’s wrath” (the theological term is “propitiation”).

Words change their meaning over time, so the key to understanding them is the context in which they are used. Leviticus 16 repeatedly speaks of cleansing, and when we clean something (like our hands), we wash off the dirt. Then there’s the object lesson of the scapegoat (literally “goat of removal”): the sins of the nation are symbolically laid on the head of the goat, which is then sent away from the tabernacle and away from the camp out into the wilderness. Both images point to the meaning of wiping away sin. But the chapter also starts with a reference to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, which seems to be an obvious demonstration of God’s wrath. Taken together I believe the context shows that atonement includes both removing sin (“expiation”) and turning away God’s wrath (“propitiation”). 1

In light of all of this, read 1 John 1:5-2:2.

This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (NASB)

Do you see the key words that John is using to remind his readers of the sacrificial system in Leviticus? Sin, confession, cleansing by blood, propitiation. Jesus is our atoning sacrifice who removes the sins not of just one nation, but of anyone in the entire world who comes to Him in faith. And any child of God who sins can restore fellowship with Him by openly confessing sin instead of hiding it (walking in light instead of darkness).

Here’s an exercise to make this come alive: write your sins on a piece of paper; when you’re done, write the words of 1 John 1:9 on top of what you have written and put it through a shredder to demonstrate that your sins are removed by Jesus. 

(This post is part of a series. See Entering the Most Holy Place: a Study on the Day of Atonement for an introduction and list of posts.)

Notes:

  1. For a more in-depth discussion on on this, read the section on propitiation vs. expiation in R. W. Yarbrough, “Atonement,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001).

A Prayer For Cleansing

This prayer by English reformer Thomas Cranmer is one I memorized growing up from hearing it repeated so often in the liturgy of my church. The words often come back to mind when I feel the need for God to cleanse my heart.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Book of Common Prayer

I’m amazed at the amount of solid biblical theology that’s packed into these few phrases. First comes the acknowledgement that God is not only all-powerful but all-seeing. I may be able to hide my real desires from other people and even from myself, but my heart is an open book to God. That thought used to scare me, but now it feels incredibly safe to know that He knows me better than I know myself, and still loves me.

Next comes the request. I cannot purify my own thoughts and desires, no matter how hard I try – and believe me, I’ve tried! Only God the Holy Spirit can make me clean as He supernaturally applies the work of Christ to my heart. That’s the “through Christ our Lord” part, which I used to think was just the proper way to end a prayer, like saying “please” and “thank you” and “may I” instead of “can I”. But it’s really a crucial part of the prayer itself, because Christ is the means through which the prayer is answered. His sinless life and atoning death make my forgiveness and possible:

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB)

What’s more, Christ’s resurrection and ascension opened the way for the Holy Spirit to come and take up residence in my life. Jesus said:

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” – John 16:7 (NASB)

Cranmer’s prayer also includes the purpose for cleansing. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that many times – maybe even most times – the reason I confess sin is so I won’t feel guilty anymore. But to God, confession is all about restoring my love relationship with Him, which will transform my life into one that brings honor and glory to Him.

The House Of My Soul Is Narrow

O Lord,
The house of my soul is narrow;
enlarge it that you may enter in.
It is ruinous, O repair it!
It displeases Your sight.
I confess it, I know.
But who shall cleanse it,
to whom shall I cry but to you?
Cleanse me from my secret faults, O Lord,
and spare Your servant from strange sins.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

The word picture Augustine uses to describe the state of his soul brings to mind a musty old basement so filled with cobwebs and dirt and old boxes and various other pieces of junk that you can hardly find a place to walk. As soon as you open the door and look inside, you know that it will take hours upon hours of hard work to make it usable. Perhaps Augustine chose that word picture because he knew that spiritual growth is a long-term process that will not be completed until we see the Lord face to face.

But praise God that He is able to cleanse and repair our souls! This “extreme home makeover” is no problem for Him! He will even get rid of the junk we can’t see! The last two lines of the prayer are a quote from Psalm 19:

Who can discern his errors?
  Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
  may they not rule over me.
  Then will I be blameless,
  innocent of great transgression.

- Psalm 19:12-13 (NIV)

This passage reminds me of 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

– 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

Obviously, I’m only able to confess the sins I see. But God promises here to purify me from ALL unrighteousness in my life, not just the unrighteousness I see. If I come to Him in repentance whenever I’m aware of sin in my life, He will be faithful to get rid of the dirt I can’t see. Even if it takes the long-term process of spiritual growth, I can have complete confidence that He will make me clean and usable for His glory.

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

First my apologies for some technical difficulties: last week, the service that sends out my posts had some sort of “hiccup” and sent an old post from October! Then this morning my blog decided to post an unfinished entry that’s not supposed to go up until next week (February 14). So here’s the “real” item for today!

Liturgical churches celebrate today as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is a season of self-examination, repentance and even fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. The following prayer was written by English reformer Thomas Cranmer to be used in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Thomas Cranmer, 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I see several biblical truths in this prayer, including echoes of both 1 John 1:9 and Psalm 51. My sin is a genuine offense against God, and I must truly repent if I want to experience the forgiveness Christ purchased for me. Look how repentance is described: being penitent, having a contrite heart, lamenting my sin, acknowledging my wretchedness. How often I substitute self-hatred for this kind of healthy mourning for my sin! But if God doesn’t hate me when I sin, what right do I have to hate myself? Especially when He is the God of all mercy who graciously gives me a new heart, complete with all the repentance I need to enjoy His forgiveness!

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
    according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me...

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me...

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart,
    O God, you will not despise.

- Psalm 51:1-3, 9-10, 17 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
– 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

Come As You Are

Do not keep back from Christ under the idea that you must come to Him in a disinterested frame, and from an unselfish motive. If you were right in this thing, who could be saved? You are to come as you are; with all your bad motives, whatever these may be. Take all your bad motives, add them to the number of your sins, and bring them all to the altar where the great sacrifice is lying. Go to the mercy seat. Tell the High Priest there, not what you desire to be, nor what you ought to be, but what you are…He wants you to come to Him exactly as you are, and not to cherish the vain thought that, by a little waiting, or working, or praying, you can make yourself fit, or persuade Him to make you fit.
– Horatious Bonar (1808-1889), God’s Way of Peace

Scottish pastor Horatius Bonar wrote this to people who were holding back from becoming Christians because they thought they had wrong motives for doing so. But I also see how this applies to people who are already Christians. How many times have I avoided meeting with the Lord in prayer or Bible study because I think I have to clean up my act first? I know that when I came to Christ for salvation, I came “as is,” knowing that I could not cleanse myself of the spiritual filth in my life; in fact, that’s why I came to Him, so He could cleanse me, because only He could. So why do I think it’s any different when I come to him now? As Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia,

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1-3, NIV)

Whether I’m coming to Christ for the first time or the thousandth time, I must come as I am to the cross, trusting in His sacrifice alone to cleanse me from my sin. He doesn’t expect me to clean up my own act, because I am incapable of doing so, just as incapable as I was when I first received Christ as my savior over 35 years ago. And He is still able and eager to do it for me when I come in faith to Him.

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