Synopsis. Sacrificial thinking was (and still is) a primitive way of relating to the world around us, including the Divine. This mode gives us a sense of control over our world, and our gods. Jesus’ Way, however, challenged sacrificial thinking at every turn, shifting away from religiosity to relationship. The earliest followers saw Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent resurrection as the deathblow to sacrificial religiosity, which is why they talked about it so much. They focused their lives and faith on living Jesus’ Way of relationship to the Divine at all times. We need to follow suit, sacrificing sacrificial thinking and embracing Jesus’ Way of relationship with God, others, and our world. This, by the way, changes everything: how we view ourselves, others, our world, our politics – everything.
How do you show love to babies? Do you send them flowers? Maybe a Hallmark card? Chocolates? No. You hold them, snuggle with them, feed them, change them, talk to them, read to them, sing to them, rock them… Why do you do these things? Because this is the language they can understand. If we want to communicate to babies, we choose to do so in their language, not ours.
Many cultures around the world practiced animal, and even human sacrifice to maintain or win the favor of the gods. This was the language of the people trying to communicate to the divine. Sacrificing gave humanity a sense of control in an otherwise out-of-control-feeling world. In the biblical narrative, we see the same phenomenon right at the beginning. Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) offer sacrifices to God. The story doesn’t indicate that the sacrifice was required, yet God, in the story, accepted one and not the other (the heart behind the sacrifice matters). Noah offered an unwarranted sacrifice, too. Why? Because this was the language of faith for them (and still is today in some cultures). Eventually, sacrifices became a regular part of the Jewish cultic life, but the sensed required number of sacrificed animals from God was greatly reduced for Jews compared to other religions. Interestingly, Jewish prophets eventually sensed God speaking against sacrifices as a means to stay in good standing with God:
How can I stand up before God
and show proper respect to the high God?
Should I bring an armload of offerings
topped off with yearling calves?
Would God be impressed with thousands of rams,
with buckets and barrels of olive oil?
Would he be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child,
my precious baby, to cancel my sin?
But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don't take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously. - Micah 6:7-8 (The Message)
Jesus, Outlier. While Jesus apparently honored certain aspects of Jewish religious life, he also challenged it continually (as well as Roman political and theological thinking). He was famous for flipping currency exchange tables where the Temple was making a killing on sacrificial animal sales. More significantly, however, his healing and forgiving was happening in strange place, well outside the Temple (where it was supposed to happen), and without sacrifices (which was the symbol and means of forgiveness). The overwhelming majority of Jesus’ ministry and teaching happened apart from the Jewish cult – all a statement that God had moved outside the Temple long before the High Priest realized it. Following the sentiment of earlier prophets, Jesus issued a scripture-referenced rebuke of some religious leaders who criticized him for mingling with the “wrong” people: “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mt. 9:13 NLT). In this rebuke, he was quoting the prophet Hosea (6:6) who echoed Micah’s position, calling for a changed, loving heart over sacrifices. Jesus’ death itself followed the same pattern, where his final pronouncement of asking God to forgive was while he was dying on the cross, and at his death, the curtain that served to separate God from the people was torn in two. What had already been happening in so many ways – God moving in and through many people – was symbolically and dramatically accentuated at his death
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers worked hard to understand how everything fit together. Each Gospel writer slowed their retelling of Jesus’ life to a relative snail’s pace so that their listeners would catch the irony of Jesus’ death at the hands of leaders of their two biggest political and theological voices: Roman Empire and Judaism. Recognizing that sacrifice had become completely obsolete since God was clearly working outside the system, they began speaking of Jesus’ death as a final sacrifice with two ends in mind. First, they viewed him as representative of the blemish-free lamb of God whose death would reconcile all sin for all people for all time. Because other religious cults also utilized sacrifice as a means to win grace from the gods, this resonated with Gentiles and Jews alike.
Second, however, was the idea that the final sacrifice signaled the end of thinking about God and ourselves through a sacrificial lens. Sacrificing for atonement was over. The implications of this are immeasurable. Paul, who was the most formally educated of Jesus’ adherents, would have logically been the longest hold out in favor of keeping the Jewish cultic practices. In fact, in many ways he was, as his story lives infamously on as one who sought to kill Christians before he “saw the light” and became one of Christianity’s greatest proponents. He had to take time to work out the implications of what “final sacrifice” meant. This was more than an historical footnote marking the last sacrifice (metaphorically, at least, since sacrifices continued right up to the destruction of the Temple). The sacrificial system itself was just leveled. With it, the way we think about God also got radically shifted. Naturally, the way we think about ourselves got shifted as well.
The New Testament writers speak a lot about the cross, largely to an audience who needed to connect the dots about what it meant as a sign of God’s unwarranted grace for all people. Extremely important and very powerful. But like the prophets and Jesus, there was also a shift called for in regards to what it might look like to live in a post-sacrificial reality. Like today, folks could pretty readily embrace the final sacrifice as symbol of God’s grace – their sin was canceled (awesome) – but they struggled (as we do) to move to the deeper implications. They were satisfied with just focusing on their forgiveness. This became a sticking point in the early church, as evidenced in the incredible letter to the Hebrews (5:12 NLT):
“You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food.”
Long before Hebrews was written, Paul shared the same frustration with the Jesus followers in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1-3 NLT):
“Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world?”
The writers’ frustration is that the Jesus followers were stuck on level one of the cross: we’re forgiven, but had not yet moved deeper into its broader implications. What was the proof Paul leveled against the Corinthians? Their lives had not yet changed. They were still acting as they did before, only they had a new mode of embracing forgiveness (the cross of Jesus).
For Jesus followers, the final sacrifice means we need to sacrifice our idea of God as one who wants sacrifices. Sacrifices are over – that implies that God does not want them. I contend that God has never wanted them… If this is the true nature of God, then not only is our view of God shifted, but our view of ourselves as well. What does it mean for us to no longer wallow about with a view of ourselves as constantly stuck in sin at our core – despised by God and disgusting in God’s sight? What does it mean that we are forevermore reconciled to God? No longer looked upon with eyes of condemnation and demands placed upon us by our religious traditions, but free to live knowing God is no longer hidden behind the veil as is actually with us and for us and empowering us toward being fully and truly alive as we were meant to live?
It’s time to sacrifice sacrifice. While we need to celebrate with humility what Jesus’ death and resurrection symbolized, we also are called to move to the solid food of living in the new reality of grace. You are not a loser. You are inherently good. You do not need to keep looking over your shoulder – the only thing there is a cross and an empty tomb shouting that you’re okay. This is not a denial of our human struggle, by the way – it is an act of embracing our actual, rock-solid foundation that has been there from the beginning. You were born human yet in the image of God. How are you living into that image which has been there all along? How are you rooted in life that is eternal, and eternally good? What are you dreaming about that is aligned with the character and nature of God? Hint: God is marked most by love – when our dreams are marked and motivated and moved by love, we’ve found out center.
The writer of Hebrews argued it like this (10:10, 14, 18 NLT):
“For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time… For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy… And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.”
Paul challenges us forward (Romans 7:6; 8:3-4; 15-17, 38-39 NLT):
“But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit… God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit… So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory… And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you have ears to hear? You are forgiven – embrace it. You are free – live like it. You have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7). Lost the idea that you are a loser. Embrace the idea that God loves you and build your life on the foundation that God is for you and with you.
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