This is not a late, nor early devotion to the American tradition of Thanksgiving, rather something I was inspired to write while I was listening/reading the Bible on the way to work yesterday morning. Sometimes I don’t have the time to sit and read my Bible, so I have my Bible app audibly read it to me while I do my morning commute. This morning, something struck me as I was in Psalm 50 and 51 that I wanted to take time this morning to unpack and deliver in an article that I hope and pray is helpful to you, whether you are already a believer in Christ, or are struggling with understanding the core Christian faith, or something of both.
The question I want to ask to set this up is, what is it that God wants from us? What was the purpose of God setting up the entire Old Testament sacrificial and ceremonial system? These are questions any seasoned Christian ought to know the answer to, but ask yourself, how do you know the answer? Can you show me in Scripture that these were types and shadows of what God was going to do in Christ? I don’t think many Christians can, and because of that, I think that is why so many of us struggle between grace and law.
Lots of commentaries out there give some good explanations for the tough passages that seem to be God telling us to abide in law to remain in His grace, but often times it’s with Christianese, which doesn’t really explain anything. It doesn’t solve my struggle with why on the one hand I am saved by grace alone and on the other hand, why God demands a sacrifice from me. I will use one commentary from the ESV Study Bible to demonstrate this here, as well as one other from another place.
The Dilemma of Sacrifices
In Psalm 50, the Lord is rebuking Israel for its unfaithfulness to Him (Psalm 50:7). Once again, see the dilemma here. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be seeing God as being gracious to us in spite of our failings, and yet are we not seeing here God turning away from people because of their failings? To solve this, you must read on to verse 8-13. Here God tells Israel that there is nothing they can offer God that would aid Him in anything, since everything is already His. The sacrifices offered to God are therefore worthless.
But this then presents us with another dilemma: Why, then God, do you give us the ordinances of the sacrifices if they are ultimately fruitless? Why have us give you something you don’t really need? The answer to this question requires us to once again, read further into verse 14-15. The sacrifices are to be offered as thanksgiving, not as something that actually propitiates God’s wrath against sin.
This is a truth that is sprinkled all over the Old Testament, hidden in plain sight, often right in the midst of a passage on the importance of sacrifices to God (such as right here). For example, we go on right into the next Psalm, Psalm 51:16 where David, confessing his sin with Bathsheba, picks up on the exact same theme. Psalm 40:6 also mentions this; in Micah 6:6-8, once more, we have a reference to this. In 1 Samuel 15:22, the prophet Samuel rebukes Saul for his abuse of the sacrificial system. Notice what Saul is doing, he is treating the sacrificial system as some kind of bribery of God, as if the sacrifices fuel God’s engine for His power with Israel, like steam to a steam engine and so on.
This is utterly pagan to its core; it is pagan idolatry that demands human beings offer sacrifices to provoke the gods to act on their behalf. Pagans in ancient Israel times, as well as pagans to this very day still do these kinds of things (in our modern context, in less bloody manner). Even in subset of Christianity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the LDS Church, or any legalistic church, what do they all have in common? To provoke God to move, you must first do these things; you must first set yourself right with God. This is the paganism that Saul fell for, and that frankly anyone who thinks like this has fallen for.
Christianese That Complicates the Matter
There are many places in the Old Testament where this is expressed, but I hope that the few that we have provided suffices to demonstrate that there is a paradox of some kind here. On the one hand, God ordains and commands the sacrifices. On the other hand, He seems to despise them. How then do we understand what is happening here? If we are thinking Christians, we are going to be honest and see that we have a dilemma. Let me quote some commentaries from my study material that helps expose some of the “Christianese” that we are susceptible to:
The Psalmist does not specify what God delights in, but OT passages demonstrate God does not appreciate sacrifices made as outward expressions of religion (e.g., 1 Sam 15:22). The prophets proclaim that God prefers justice and mercy over sacrifice and other outward expressions of religion (Isa 1:11-17; Mic 6:6-8). Wisdom literature likewise emphasizes the importance of righteousness, justice, and obedience over sacrifice (Prov 15:8; 21:3; Eccl 5:1).Logos, Faithlife Study Bible; Commentary on Psalm 40:6
I’ve underlined some of the parts I want to emphasize I think express a kind of Christianese (unintentionally, I do not disparage the writers of this, I enjoy these commentaries very much!). God does not appreciate sacrifices made as outward expressions of religion, correct–but how do we know we’re not doing that in a New Testament church context? How do I know I’m not given over to empty religion to satisfy a vengeful God?
The prophets proclaim that God prefers justice and mercy over sacrifice, but doesn’t that mean any pagan who is an idolater can still do justice and perform mercy and therefore legalistically work his way into heaven?
Righteousness, justice and obedience are greater than sacrifice as Samuel said, but once again, can not pagans perform righteous and just acts? And isn’t obedience to God’s command performing sacrifices? How then can God demand obedience, ergo do the sacrifices, and then on the other side of His mouth say sacrifices are not necessary?
Now again, I am not asking questions to criticize Revelation, God forbid! What I am trying to expose here is what I think is often glossing over what Scripture is actually telling us. And let me please emphasize that I am not saying the people who put these commentaries together did a disservice to God, I am certainly not. But I know I struggled with these for quite some time, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Let me give one more example below from the ESV Study Bible on this subject:
The oracle then turns to the right use of sacrifices (cf. note on 40:6-8), focusing on the sacrifice of thanksgiving and vows (50:14). These were both kinds of peace offerings (Lev. 7:11-12, 16), which was the only kind of sacrifice in which the worshiper ate some of the sacrificial animal; its primary function was to eat a meal, in company with the sacrificer’s family and the needy, with God as the host. (1 Corinthians 10:16-18 shows that this is the basic meaning of the Christian Lord’s Supper.) Membership in God’s people is about being welcome in his presence (Ps. 50:14), depending on him (v. 15), and dealing justly with others (vv.19-20, 23); thus it engages the heart.ESV Study Bible, Commentary on Psalm 50:7-15.
Now again, let me emphasize that I think this is extraordinarily helpful to anyone using this, most notably myself. I love my ESV Study Bible. But, did this really hit at the dilemma we have set forth? Most assuredly, it stresses that the Christian faith must be more than outward religion, it must deal with the heart. But again, if we are serious Christians, do we not ask: how do I know that my heart is in this? How do I know that I am not deceiving myself in religion to satisfy God’s wrath against me, rather than Christ’s offering for me?
The Covenants of God as Clues
With that set forth, I want to offer what I think is the solution, and to do this, we must go all the way back to the Fall itself. What does God do when Adam and Eve fall? Firstly, let’s discuss what happens when they disobey. Plainly stated, their grace with God is broken, severed and killed. Doesn’t this mean disobedience means death? Doesn’t this imply that we must do things to remain in God’s blessings? That may have been so before the Fall, but we are in post-Fall now. Look what God says in Genesis 3:14-15, before He turns to Adam and Eve. The Lord Himself is going to destroy what the Serpent did. He didn’t tell Adam nor Eve they had to do this.
Now follow the great covenants God made with Israel and see what the common theme with all of them is. Look at the covenant God makes with Abram in Genesis 15. Who is the one doing the actions necessary to uphold the covenant? Who is making the grand promises? God is. He is the one who is Abram’s shield, He is the one who is going to give Abram the offspring by which the covenant lives. Abram is a recipient of it. This does not mean Abram is not required to commit to rituals on his part, but we will get to that at the right time.
Furthermore, in Genesis 15:12-21, after Abraham had done what the Lord commanded, which was to setup a pagan-like covenant ritual for Abraham’s benefit; using Abraham’s own cultural familiarities to show Abraham what God was doing, who passes through the pieces to enact the covenant? God does through the “smoking fire pot” (the theophany of fire). So who is holding who accountable to this covenant God was making with Abraham? God was. God held Himself to fulfill the covenant, not Abraham. And when you read onward, God is the one who is going to do everything needed to keep the covenant. Obviously thousands of years later, with the advent of Christ, Paul reveals to us the fullest fulfillment of that covenant God made with Abraham, which was redemption and restoration to the promise land through Christ (Romans 4, Galatians 3:14, 3:29).
When Abraham is going to offer Isaac to the altar, as we all believe, he uttered divine-originated prophecy in Genesis 22:8 when he said that God Himself was going to provide the lamb. See how God is the one doing these things? And who ultimately fulfills this? Christ does of course. Christ was the true sacrifice, the Lamb of God (John 1:29, Revelation 5:6, Hebrews 10:12).
What about the Mosaic Covenant we ask? There seems to be a clear-cut example of God doing the opposite of what He did with Abraham and what we will soon see is David. The Mosaic Covenant is somewhat different, yet still related to our subject. How so? It’s important to recognize that the Mosaic Covenant takes place within a preexisting covenantal context, the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (in each case, you see the same theme that God was going to fulfill the covenant).
Sinai exists in light of that, having fulfilled that. So what we see, therefore, is God calling Israel to do because of what? Because of what God has already done. In fact, when you see Moses give the Ten Commandments, what does God preface them with? Declaring to Israel what God has done. Furthermore, when God is giving the ordinances of the covenant, He continually reminds Israel who is giving it, “I am the Lord” (the Tetragrammaton for YHVH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), meaning, because of who He is and what He has done, therefore this. This will be important to remember later on, but ultimately, let’s not forget what we read all of this in light of, the sprinkled passages that we discussed before about how God ultimately does not want Israel to view the sacrifices as if they actually propitiate His wrath against sin. There is another reason for why Israel is to be doing this.
Lastly, in the Davidic Covenant, when God establishes David’s throne forever, once more, who was the one who was going to accomplish this? God was. David was a recipient.
What God Promised He Would Do
With this brief overview of the covenants God made throughout the Old Testament, we have the context to go into the New Testament and see how all of this fits. Let us first, once more, ask the questions in the opening of the article (as we have raced across so many texts of Scripture to scramble our brains somewhat, and lose sight of the purpose of the article) to remind us of our dilemma so as to solve it: What is it that God wants from us? Why the sacrifices if God condemns us for doing them? How do we do them in a right manner?
As we have seen, notice how in each of the great covenants God made with His elect, while He ordains particular practices for His people to perform in light of them, He never told any of them (nor us by extension) that they were to fulfill the covenant ultimately. Never did God say to anyone that it was upon their shoulders to return to the Promise Land. The opposite is stated; God is the one who is going to do it, He is the one who will bring Israel back to the Promised Land, out of the land of death, through shadow and despair.
For the sake of time and brevity I cannot dive into this extensively, but what I hope I have done at least is help setup for us the way to go into the New Testament and see how God has kept each of these promises in Christ. We see how Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant in Romans 4, when Paul brings up how Abraham was justified before God. It was not by what Abraham did, but by what he believed God was going to do (and then you see that Abraham circumcises himself as a sign of that covenant, not in fulfillment of it). The implication here is that God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 and in 22 extended far beyond what Abraham had imagined, yet nevertheless, it was Abraham’s looking forward to that promise that gave him the strength to push on.
Hopefully by now you are anticipating where I am going with all of this, the passage I like to call The Grand Hall of Faith, where we see the history of the great men of faith in Scripture, Hebrews 11. After the author of the Hebrews gives his great and remarkable argument of how Christ fulfills all things, all the types and shadows, how he embodies God’s actions to fulfill every covenant, himself being God (Hebrews 1:8-12), the author now exhorts his audience to grab hold of that one man, Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises through the ages, and in that press forward to the kingdom of God.
You see then, with Hebrews as our lens to understand what motivated the great men of God in the Old Testament, they were not moved by a need to keep their end of the bargain. Abraham was not moved by the requirements to maintain God’s grace; Paul rebukes that in Romans 4 and in Galatians 3. It was because Abraham looked forward to what God was going to do (Hebrews 11:8-10) that he circumcised himself, that he offered sacrifices to God and so forth. This is the faith that carried them all, and that is the kind of mindset by which God commanded His people of the Old Testament to perform the sacrifices. It was not to actually satisfy God’s wrath, it was to give thanks and glory, looking forward to when God Himself was going to end this.
And now, as the church, we do not look ahead to the promise as God gave to the Israelites of old, we look back to what God has done for us in Christ, and in doing so, we push forward, struggling with our sin, conquering it with Christ as our Light, as the author of Hebrews says in chapter 12 (which of course follows 11), after he had proclaimed the entire patriarchy had been moved by faith in God, not work towards God, he tells us to now, having these promises, put off all sin that inhibits our ability to grab hold of the promise.
This is exactly the same kind of thing we see God telling Israel at Sinai. Because God has brought them out of slavery, now do this, do this in thanks to God. Now we of course know today that that was not the end; the ultimate fulfillment is Christ. What God is really saying then in the Mosaic Covenant, and indeed through Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:15) was that God was going to guide Israel through all of this. What He asks of Israel is to obey in a spirit of thanksgiving for what God was going to do, not in a spirit of needing to keep God’s favor.
For what are we really saying when we believe our works keep God’s favor towards us? We are proclaiming we do not believe God when He says that He Himself is going to redeem us, and that lack of faith is damnable to the soul, for it is not faith in God that drives the individual, but faith in their own ability to act in God’s place in the covenant.
A Sacrifice Then of Thanksgiving
This is the thanksgiving we have being discussed in Psalm 50, this is what the psalmist means by sacrifices of thanksgiving. What is the mindset that we are to have in our offerings to God? It is not the mindset that we are the ones to uphold the covenant with God, it is the mindset rather of thanksgiving to God that He will do it, He is our shield, our Protector, our Shepherd, our King who will not let us be lost. So when we have well-minded Christians say what we have expressed is that God desires us to be just and merciful, we say amen, but what is simply stated is that God wants us to see the sacrificial system of the Old Testament as a shadow of what God was going to do, and just like Abraham, eagerly await when He is going to do it.
This is why Jesus says in John 6:29 that the work of God for us is to believe in him whom God has sent, Christ Jesus, and furthermore, in verse 40 that “all who look on the Son and believe in him shall have eternal life”. This, the apostle in Hebrews 11 says is what all the men of old were doing, from Abraham to the Apostles themselves, and this is how we can know we have eternal life. Why do you do what you do? Are you doing it to keep God’s wrath at bay just a little longer and longer and longer? Or are you doing it, knowing you have boldly approached the throne of grace with Christ as your advocate–not propitiating your sins with your own works, but by looking to him and trusting he has done it all, and thereby not being a just and merciful person to prove to God that you are a good person, but knowing that it is God who works such tenderness in you by His Spirit in you? By this we know that we are His.
This is why as Christians we proclaim the gospel, the wonderful good news to the world around us, to tell them to give up the pagan practices of trying to return to the Promised Land lost on their own strength, and instead, realize that God has done it for you, you need only to see the Christ in whom He has done it! And when you grab hold of that, it is there, and only there, that your life changes, not from the outside in, but from the inside out, to the praise and honor of His glorious grace, and His steadfast faith to do all that He said He was going to do.