Here's the third post in what I expect to be a series of many in working out what the role of the OT Law is for Christian believers today (Part 1 and Part 2 are older posts where I looked at the place of the Law in the unfolding Biblical story). Now before moving on, I want to dwell a bit further on the place of sacrifice in the Law. I think that perhaps this is the most underplayed theme in much of the writing about the Law.
As we saw in the section on Leviticus, the purpose of the sacrificial system as a whole was to enable people of Israel to maintain the relationship with the LORD that had already been established through the exodus and his covenant with them at Sinai. The sacrificial system was itself a form of grace – it provided a way of ritually cleansing the people from the sins that defiled them, thus enabling them to continue in covenant fellowship with God and each other.
The burnt offering, described in Leviticus 1, is of particular note. This is dedicated entirely to God and burned entirely for atonement for sin. It is entirely consumed by fire. The established principle is this: if you are to live in fellowship with the Lord, something must die in your place in atonement for sin. The four sacrifices that follow, described in Leviticus 2-5, have different but overlapping significance, and together with the Day of Atonement ritual (of chapter 14) synthesise a way in which Israel could be forgiven having transgressed the covenant with God in different ways.
This shows the place of grace from the LORD within the Mosaic Law. The sacrificial system clearly acknowledges the inevitability of human failure, yet sets such failure in the context of the much greater fact of God’s forgiveness and his ongoing mission to ‘bless the nations’ through the people of Israel. God never forgot that his people were human. He did not expect perfection from his people – rather I think the sacrificial system showed that he expected a commitment from his people to love him and each other in response to the grace that they had been shown and the rescue that had been performed. When they transgressed, they were to rely fully on the LORD's ongoing grace, shown in their commitment to the sacrificial system and the provision of grace that this represented.
When we hold such convictions about the place of the Law for Israel in the Old Testament, I think that this makes sense of many of the psalms that describe Israel’s relationship to God. For instance, Psalm 106 describes in detail the ways in which Israel had rebelled against the covenant God had made with them. Israel had failed both in the time of the psalm-writer (verse 6), and had failed here on numerous occasions throughout the history of the nation (verses 7, 13, 19-21, 24-25 etc.). The psalm also speaks of the punishment that Israel incurred for this rebellion (verses 15, 17, 26-27 etc.) Yet the psalm begins and ends – perhaps surprisingly to modern Christian readers – with the refrain ‘Praise the LORD’ in verses 1 and 48. The final verses of the psalm are of particular attention, following the long section about Israel’s ongoing rebellion:
44 But he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
45 for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
46 He caused them to be pitied
by all who held them captive.
47 Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
48 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, "Amen!"
Praise the LORD.
These verses unlock the rest of the psalm. The psalm is not primarily about Israel’s sin, or even the LORD's punishment of that sin, but rather it concerns the LORD's amazingly patient grace shown to his people in the light of that sin. The Old Testament is full of accounts of Israel’s sin, stupidity, grumbling and rebellion (a mirror of all humanity). Yet, in spite of this, God shows his incredible patience in preserving them, providing for them and maintaining his covenant. The sacrificial system was a visual and God-given reminder of his gracious provision in the light of ongoing and desperate human failure.
This brings us to a question which the Law apparently leaves unanswered. How could so much grace be shown by God under this covenant? In other words, how can a God, who frequently has pointed to his own holiness and righteousness, appear to just simply forgive sin? How can a fair judge let guilty people walk free? Even with the institution of the sacrificial system, Israel would have surely known that the sacrifices of bulls and goats were no just satisfaction for their sin. The answer lies in a future intervention by God, and becomes increasingly clear through the witness of the prophets. Perhaps Isaiah saw it most clearly when he wrote:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Even in the Old Testament, then, under the old covenant, the question of quite how a just God could be so gracious and so freely forgive is pervasive. Isaiah and the other prophets presumably understood that there could have been no covenant with Abraham and no covenant with Moses without God’s further future intervention. Perhaps, then, Israel’s worship would have had a future-oriented element to it, which is something that we seem to see reflected in many of the psalms.
Would love to hear your thoughts on all this - more soon as we look at the place of the Law for OT believers and the prophets' description of the covenant.