Sunday, January 15, 2017

The veil: The torn flesh

He stood there a moment, before the veil, to admire it.

He knew all the facts, the facts that every priest was taught. It was a curtain of blue, purple, and scarlet thread. It was almost a hand-breath thick. It was made in the wilderness at the command of God. It separated the Holy from the Most Holy Place. But it was one thing to know about the veil or have seen it and another to have to lift it and pass behind it.

His father had warned him that it would be even heavier than he was expecting. That was something only his father, of all men living, would have known and experienced. Now he would know it too. "May the weight remind you of the solemnity of your task." He lowered his head, pushed back against these memories, and the focused again on the veil.

As his eyes traced it from top to bottom, he noticed the glimpse of silver. These were the bases that held the four gold posts from which the veil was hung. Except for the five bronze bases on the posts holding the entrance curtain, everything else in the Holy Place shone with gold in the light of the lamp.

Of course, the unavoidable feature of the veil was the cherubim that were embroider onto it. A warning. He tried not to dwell on them now because they reminded him of the cherubim that God had charged to keep Adam and Eve from returning to Eden. They reminded him of flaming swords.

He ran a last inventory. Censer? Check. Coals from the altar? Incense? Blood from the bull sacrifice? Check. Check. Check.

It was time. He placed two handfuls of incense on the burning coals of the censer. As the fragrant cloud grew and enclosed him, he lifted the veil and carefully stepped into the presence of God.

Matthew tells us that, at the moment Jesus gave up his Spirit, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. This would have been a terrifying event for any priest standing in the temple at that moment. They would have turned at the sound of ripping fabric to find themselves looking, for the very first time, into the Most Holy Place. This would have been unprecedented. Only the High Priest could enter behind the veil and then only once a year and then only under very a prescribed protocol. Only, only, only.

The tearing of the veil indicates that the status quo has changed. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote that every believer, as a priest, can now come into the presence of God with boldness. The reason for this access is that Christ has created a new and living way: by the blood and through the veil. The Greek word translated "new" in Hebrews 10:20 carried with it the idea of something that is recent, but also of something recently slaughtered. That verse also makes it clear that the veil is a picture of Christ's flesh. Our new access is granted by the sacrifice of Christ, through His shed blood and His pierced flesh. It is on the basis of the sacrifice of our High Priest that we can have approach God. Even better, the way is living. It is powerful, perpetual, efficacious. A way has been opened that will never again be closed.

(Levitcus 16; Matthew 27:50-52; Hebrews 10:19-26)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Aaron: The plague barrier

Moses looked at him in panic and yelled: "Aaron! Put fire and incense in your censor! Run! Make atonement for the people! The plague has started! Hurry!" He turned and sprinted toward the altar. It had been a very difficult few days.

Just two days ago, Korah the Levite and some others had risen up in rebellion. They had gathered about 250 community leaders to confront Moses and him, accusing them of taking too much power. "The whole nation is holy, are we not?", the rebels had asked. "Who has put you above everyone else?" Moses assured them that God would make clear who He had chosen. He gave them instructions to appear before the Lord the next day, with censers and incense, at the entrance of the Tabernacle.

Yesterday, when everyone had gathered, the glory of the Lord appeared to the entire assembly. The Lord told Moses to have the people move away from the tents of the rebels. Then Moses had cried out: "This is how you know that the Lord has sent me, and that I do not claim this role on my own: if the Lord opens up the earth and swallows them and everything that belongs to them." Suddenly, there was a deep rumbling. A small crack appeared and travelled and spread along the surface of ground. The shaking continued; the opening grew wider and deeper. Things began to fall into the gaping hole: first tents, and then animals and people. Screams rose above the noise of the rumbling until the crack closed abruptly with a decisive snap! It was silent for a moment, but then the screaming began again as fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering incense at the door of the tabernacle. The remaining people had panicked and fled!

Almost the whole nation had gathered this morning near the Tabernacle. They stood and accused Moses of killing the Lord's people. The crowd might have killed them right there, but the cloud had covered the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord had appeared again. The Lord spoke to Moses and him, warning them "Get away from this assembly!" And now here he was running through camp, hoping to stop a plague.

He could see the people dying, like a dark wave rolling toward him across the camp. He ran, the censer swaying, incense billowing out around him. He wove his way around the tents to position himself in front of the center of the leading edge. He stopped, spread his arms out wide, closed his eyes, and planted his feet as if to steel himself for the wave that would crash over him. And then...

Nothing.

He opened his right eye a crack. He stood straighter and lowered his arms. Now he opened both eyes and looked around. The plague had reached him and stopped. He stood at the high water mark, at the line separating the living from the dead.

It is a divine truth: Sin must be punished. So it is not a surprise that the rebellion of Korah ended in death for the perpetrators. Nor is it surprising that the people, rising against Moses in the aftermath of Korah's judgement, faced a similar fate. It is not surprising that they were deserving of death. What is surprising is that any were spared.

The means by which they were spared was not anything they did to defend themselves, but rather what someone did on their behalf. The Lord had told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the assembly He intended to punish. Yet Moses instructs Aaron to act on the people's behalf, to make atonement for them. He did so by taking fire from the altar and a censer full of incense. Then he ran into danger to stand among the people. We read that Aaron "stood between the living and the dead" and that, when it reached him, the plague stopped. His sacrifice protected the people.

Like Aaron, Christ was not deserving of punishment. He could have stood apart. Instead, He came and stood among the people, bearing the wrath and judgement that they deserved. Those who place themselves under his protection need not fear God's judgement for He has taken that punishment on our behalf. He is the dividing line between the living and the dead.

(Numbers 16:46-50)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Solomon: The son of peace and love

Nathan smiled as he was escorted into the throne room. Not all his audiences with the king had been happy ones, but today's events were cause for celebration.

His smile broadened as he took in the scene. King David was on his throne, glorious in his robes, the crown on his head, the sceptre in his hand. To his right was a second throne, upon which sat Bathsheba. She too was arrayed in royal finery for today's event. His eyes scanned the room and noted all those in attendance: the officials and dignitaries, the musicians, the servants, the ladies-in-waiting. He could sense the joyous anticipation in the room.

Nathan stopped and bowed low before the King.

"Behold, my son Solomon." At this word from David, the nurse standing beside Bathsheba came forward. She held a small bundle of richly coloured blankets in which was swaddled the young prince.

Nathan stepped forward to meet her. He pushed back the edges of the blanket from around the infants's face so as to take a better look at him. He raised his face to smile at the parents. Then he closed his eyes, placed one hand gently on the small head, and raised a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving for the child.

When he was done, Nathan bent low and kissed the child's forehead. "You are loved, Jedidiah," he whispered.

The name Solomon means "peace." No doubt this meaning was a great comfort to David and Bathsheba, as their recent history had been marked by anything but. Their adulterous affair lead to a surprise pregnancy. The pregnancy lead to the murder of Bathsheba's husband Uriah. God then sent Nathan the prophet to confront David about his actions and pronounce judgement on his house. Their son died as part of that punishment.

But now God had given them another son, a son He had told them would be called Solomon. They were at peace with God. Their judgement was over. And they were told that this son would grow and prosper. He would become king, know peace and rest, and would be the one to build the temple in which God's presence would dwell.

So it is even more astounding that the child is given another name by God, Jedidiah, which means "beloved by the Lord." But then again, when telling David about this son who would be born, God did explain that they would have a very special relationship: "He will be My Son and I will be his Father."

Solomon had two names: one used by his human father, and one by his Heavenly Father. The names speak to the different ways Jesus is viewed from a human and a divine perspective. To mankind, Jesus is the means by which we need no longer fear the judgement for our sins. Paul tells the Colossians that He has made "peace with God through the blood of His cross." But from the Father's perspective Jesus is the only begotten Son, the One that He loved. To us He is Solomon, but to God Jesus is Jedidiah.

(2 Samuel 12:24-25; 1 Chronicles 22:6-10)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Noah's ark: The protective covering

"Look!", Ham shouted. Seven heads turned in time to see the giant door closing. They watched silently until it thudded closed, shutting them in, and dropping them into darkness.

Noah lit a lamp. He reached for a bucket of pitch and walked over to seal the edges of the doorway.

He had never gotten used to the smell, which surprised him. When he thought of the hours they had spent coating the wood, inside and out, he figured that he would have habituated by now. But who knew how long he would be sealed up with his family and these animals? With time, he thought, he might begin to appreciate how the pitch overwhelmed other odors.

He stood back to admire his handiwork. Seven days ago the Lord had told them that today would be the day. Of course, the ark was finsihed by then and most of the preparations had been made. But it had still taken most of the hours in those seven days to get everyone and everything loaded aboard and stowed away. It felt good to be still for a change.

His wife walked over and stood beside him. Together they stared at the doorway in silence for a few moments more before she spoke. "Do you think it will hold?"

"It will have to," he replied. "It is the only hope we have."

She slid her fingers into his, still not looking at him but at the door. They lingered there until they heard the first drops of rain hit the roof. Now they looked up. And the sound of the rain grew louder and louder as it beat upon the ark.

God gave Noah detailed instructions for the construction of the ark. Along with the material, He specified the dimensions, the number of decks, and the location of the door and the window. Noah was also told to "coat it with pitch inside and out."

There is some word-play in that particular instruction that gets lost in translation. The noun "pitch" is the Hebrew word kopher. In addition to referring to a tarry substance, it can also describe a sum of money, like a ransom or a bribe. The verb "coat with pitch" is the Hebrew word kaphar, which is more often translated as "atonement." Both these words hint at the figurative significance of the ark.

God's judgement was coming upon mankind. Yet a way of deliverance was prepared. There was protection for those who believed and responded to God's invitation. They would be covered while judgement passed over.

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes "there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." God's judgement for sin came down upon the Lord Jesus, but there is protection and deliverance for those who are in Him. He is our covering.

But just like the ark, there are aspects of atonement and ransom to the protection Christ provides. His work on the cross has atoned for our sins, reconciling us to God. The price paid at Calvary has also ransomed us, delivered us, from our slavery to sin. He is one in whom we can have complete and utter confidence. He is the only hope we need.

(Genesis 6–9; Romans 8:1)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Esau: The scented son

As his father blessed him, Jacob exhaled slowly. He relaxed. "That was a close one," he thought to himself.

His mother's plan had been a good one. The clothes, goat skins, and recipes had all made him appear to be his brother. But he hadn't thought to disguise his voice? Stupid! All that preparation was almost wasted the moment he opened his mouth.

His father, who was obviously suspicious, had called him over. Jacob had obeyed. There was nothing to be gained from running away at this point. His father had reached out and grabbed his hands. Isaac felt them. Then he had said: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but those hands are the hands of Esau." Jacob had given thanks that his father's eyesight had declined. He had then closed his own eyes as his father proceeded to bless him.

He assumed that the worst was now over. But then the old man asked, "Are you my son Esau?" Jacob steeled himself and replied, "I am." "Well, then bring me the food so that I may eat it and bless you."

"WHAT!?! No, no, no, no, no!" he thought to himself. "I thought this was done!" He tried to keep his hands from shaking as he brought the food to his father. He silently prayed that the inside of the goat would be as successful at deceiving his father as the outside had been.

They ate in silence. Seemingly interminable silence, as far as Jacob was concerned. He was silent with fear. Isaac, although he seemed to be enjoying his meal, seemed unsettled as he ate.

When he was finished, and the food was taken away, Isaac spoke: "Come here, my son. Give your father a kiss."

Jacob stood. He approached his seated father and leaned down to kiss him. As he did so, Isaac grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and pulled him closer. Unbalanced, he would have fallen had his father not had such a strong grip on him.

Jacob proceeded to place a kiss on his father's cheek. Isaac, in turn, gave him a kiss of his own. He then inhaled deeply. Jacob found this action oddly frightening. Seemingly satisfied, Isaac released him and allowed him to again stand.

Isaac smiled as he placed his hand on the son —believing him now to be the son that he loved— and proceeded to bless him. He began, "The smell of son is like that smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!"

Esau was the firstborn. The Bible tells us that he was a man of the field, a skillful hunter. It also tells us that he was his father's favorite, the beloved son. So, as Isaac grew older, and his eyesight failed him, he decided that it was time to bestow the customary blessing on his eldest.

He instructed Esau to hunt and then prepare him a meal so that he could receive his father's blessing. Rebekah, who overheard this exchange, then devised a plan whereby her favorite of the two sons —Jacob— would receive that blessing. They dressed him in Esau's clothes, covered his hands and neck with goat hides, and then sent him in with a meal — all steps designed to deceive Isaac.

Each of their techniques worked to some degree; however, it was Esau's clothes that finally convinced Isaac to unleash his full blessing. Jacob smelled like Esau. As he leaned in to kiss his father, he carried the scent of the beloved son. The start of Isaac's blessing makes it clear that this was the factor that finally settled the son's true identity in his mind.

Like Jacob, we dare not approach God the Father smelling like ourselves. There is no blessing for us. But when we approach God clothed with the scent of His dearly beloved Son, we receive spiritual blessings to which we are not naturally entitled. God treats us, in effect, as if we were His Son.

God is not hoodwinked like Isaac was. Yet Paul makes it clear that scent again plays a factor. He writes to the Corinthians to tell them that "our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God." Because we bear the smell of Christ, God chooses to treat us and bless us as His only beloved Son.

(Genesis 27, 2 Corinthians 2:15)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jonah: The resurrected prophet

At first, he was sure he was dead. His final memories were just fragments: being thrown; the wind; hitting the water; sinking. The storm had seemed dark, but now he found himself in utter blackness. Cold. Silent. Dead.

The thought of death was almost calming. The slow realization that he was still alive was puzzling. Understanding that he was trapped inside something was ... terrifying! He thrashed. He screamed. It made no difference.

His mind raced. Of course he knew that God was displeased with him. He had known that before he got on the boat. The sudden storm confirmed it. When the sailors said they would throw lots, he knew that it would identify him. He knew he was guilty. That was why he had had them toss him overboard. But he still wasn't sorry. He didn't want to go Assyria. They were a bloodthirsty people. They deserved God's judgement for all they had done. They did not deserve mercy.

So he lay there in the darkness, shivering. One day passed, and then a second, although Jonah could not tell that sun sank or rose. Jonah's could feel his skin soften and pucker, but he could not see its skeletal in the dark.

With time his heart softened too. From deep within his grave in the deep and the dark, Jonah prayed. He began with a note of faith: "In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me..." As he finished, he felt movement. A rushing, shaking, constriction, propulsion, and then...

Daylight!

Jonah would not make the list of Top Ten Most Exemplary Prophets. In the four chapters of the book that bears his name, Jonah reveals himself to be rebellious, stubborn, ungrateful, and petulant. I find him quite relatable. Yet God is able to use Jonah —despite his obvious animosity toward his listeners— to bring many Assyrians to repentance. I find this encouraging.

Still, I wouldn't naturally hold up Jonah as a picture of the Lord Jesus. Christ was obedient and submissive. He wept over Jerusalem for the people's obstinancy. Jonah set up camp outside Nineveh in the hopes that God would still destroy the city.

So it is curious that twice in the book of Matthew Jesus identifies himself with Jonah. When the people demands a miraculous sign, He responds that the only one He would provide that was the one of Jonah the prophet: three days and nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus too brought a message of salvation. He too would rise again after three days.

Jesus then puts the onus on the inquirers. Jonah was not a model prophet. He half-heartedly preached his message while half-hoping for vengeance. Despite the limitations of the messenger, the people of Nineveh still repented in sackcloth and ashes. Now one greater than Jonah stood before them and they were without excuse. How would they respond?

(Jonah 1—4; Matthew 12:39—31, 16:1-4)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The scapegoat: The sin bearer

"...Are you sure? I think you may have it backwards."

"No. The bull is sacrificed for the high priest. One goat is chosen to be sacrificed for us. The other becomes the scapegoat."

"But they don't sacrifice the scapegoat too?"

"No, someone takes it out into the wilderness. But before they do, Aaron puts his hands on the goat's head —like this— and confesses all our sins. That way, when the goat is taken out into the wilderness, it takes our sins with it."

"How does Aaron know all my sins, Father? Do you tell him? Do you have to keep a list?"

"That would be a pretty long list, wouldn't it? And mine would be even longer! The truth is that I don't know. I've never seen it happen. I am just thankful that God has provided a way for our sins to be removed..."

On the Day of Atonement, the roles of the two goats were chosen by lot. One was identified as the Lord's and sacrificed for the sins of the people. The other became the azazel, the scapegoat. As Aaron placed his hand on its head, and confessed the sins of the nation over it, the goat was symbolically loaded with those very sins. It was then entrusted to a man appointed to take the goat out of the camp and release it into the wilderness. Because the sins had been laid onto the goat, it carried those sins from the camp when it left. These sacrifices and ceremonies were repeated on an annual basis to make atonement for the sins of the Israelites.

The Lord Jesus is our scapegoat. The apostle Peter wrote that He "bore our sins in His body on the tree". At the end of that verse, Peter quotes from Isaiah 53. Three times in that passage (verses 6, 11, and 13) Isaiah speaks prophetically of the fact that that our sins and iniquities were laid on, and borne by, Him. Our sins have been removed. Taken away. Not just for the year, but for all time.

(Leviticus 16; Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24)