The year is almost over, and 2015 is almost here. Before we move on, let's take a moment to reflect on 2014. Looking back on the year, there was a lot that made the headlines: the terrible persecutions of Christians in Iraq, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the violence of Ferguson, Missouri, and the continued challenge of racism in our country.
How was this past year for you, personally? I don't mean just the stuff that happened to you, but how did you live your life this past year? How did you do in the relationships God has given you? As a parent, or a spouse, or a child? Did you honor those he placed in authority over you? Were your relationships characterized by service or by selfishness? How did you steward the resources and opportunities that God gave you? How did you respond to the hardships God brought into your life? How did you respond to blessing? Did you make good use of the time and talents God has given you?
It's one thing for us to think through these questions and decide how we would answer them. It's another thing to have God give an assessment of our lives, even for just this past year. How would we do? Well, if you're anything like me, then you'll be relieved to know that it's 2015.
I think that's one of the reasons we celebrate New Year's: we love new beginnings. No matter how bad the past year was, a new year has come, and we anticipate a fresh start on things. So we make resolutions, set new goals for ourselves, and promise things will be different. Yet, year after year, we end up in the same place. We end the year knowing that we could've done better. Sure in the busyness of life, that easily gets drowned out. But it's in the quiet moments of life, when we take inventory of ourselves, not only of what we've done, but who we are, we have to face the reality that we have not measured up to our own expectations, let alone God's.
What will we do when have to stand before God and give an account, not just for one year, but for our whole lives? In many ways, this is the question that the Bible is seeking to answer. All will one day have to give an account of their lives to God. So how can sinful, imperfect people, ever be accepted by a holy and perfect God? The surprising answer that we'll find has not so much to do with us, but more to do with the humble, faithful service of a Priest chosen by God on our behalf.
We need a priest
The story of Israel is the amazing story of God's grace to a nation of slaves, set free miraculously from captivity in Egypt. But more than just setting them free, God makes a covenant with them, that he would be their God and they would be his people, not just in an abstract sense, but that his presence would actually be with them. Unique to all the nations of the world, God would dwell in their midst, in a tent called the tabernacle. Ever since Adam and Eve were cut off from the Garden of Eden, God's presence had not dwelt with man in this way.
Read Leviticus 16:1-24
In Leviticus 16:1-2, we get the context of this great event, the Day of Atonement. The holy God of the universe is dwelling in the midst of sinful people, and unless God makes a way, and these people follow that way, they're going to die. Unless he provides a way for sinners to be accepted before him, his presence in their midst means their certain death. So what will God do? Enter the role of the priest.
Leviticus 16:3-4 reveals the appointed day Aaron was to enter the sanctuary area with the appropriate sacrifices; but even before the sacrifices were offered, there were preparations that needed to happen. According to Jewish tradition, the priests would isolate themselves for days. They would have no contact with other people, and would have their food prepared and brought to them, so that there would be no risk of being ceremonially unclean. We see that in preparation, Aaron had to bathe himself with water, washing his body from any impurity. Instead of wearing his priestly clothes, which would've been ornate and elaborate, he exchanges them for a simple linen tunic and sash and a linen turban. In other words, this priest enters into the presence of God humbly, recognizing that he has nothing with which to commend himself before Almighty God.
Moses goes on to give more detailed instructions in the following verses, but we get a summary in these verses of the main events of the day: a sacrifice for the priest, a sacrifice for the nation, and the scapegoat. Once all the preparation is ready, and the time has come, Aaron is to enter the tabernacle, first into the outer room, called the Holy Place, and then into the inner room, called the Most Holy Place. Priests would regularly serve in the outer room, but this inner room is the place where God dwelled, where only on this day, the high priest was allowed inside. The room would be filled with smoke and incense to protect the priest from seeing the presence of God. And there, in the Most Holy Place, he was to offer the blood of a slaughtered bull for himself.
It's striking here that the priest must first offer a separate sacrifice for himself. He's not being lumped together with the rest of the people, but has to present a sin offering first for himself. As priest, unless his sins are dealt with first, God will not consider any sacrifice he brings on behalf of the people.
God deals with our sin
After his own sacrifice, Aaron is to go back out of the tent, and there cast lots between two goats. One goat will be released; the other will serve as a sin offering. That goat will be slaughtered, and once again, Aaron will enter into the Most Holy Place, except this time to offer blood for the sins of the nation. Amazingly, even though it was the people who sinned, and deserved to die, somehow, God would allow the death of this goat to stand in their place. This blood would cause God to withhold his wrath against the people for their sins, because the goat has suffered in their place. All this would take place inside the tabernacle, beyond the sight of the people. But God, in his mercy, provides a visual picture of this transaction through the other goat.
In verse 20, we see that Aaron is to lay his hands on the head of the goat and confess all the sins of the nation over it. Israel is to know that these sacrifices being offered are not for just sinful humanity in general. No, they are being offered for their sins, their specific acts of sin that they've committed. These very sins are transferred from the nation to the sacrifice. They're not swept under a rug, they're not rationalized away, but God deals with the sin by placing them on the head of another and that other is sent away, outside the camp, into the wilderness, where it would surely be destroyed.
In these two goats we see two images of how God deals with our sin: satisfying his wrath against us by the shedding of blood, and then cleansing us from our sin, removing it from us and sending it away forever. This is how God forgives his people. It's through these sacrifices that God would dwell among the people, for blessing, rather than for their destruction.
And yet, this chapter closes with an important instruction in verse 34. Israel wasn't unique in the Ancient Near East for offering sacrifices to their God. Many nations at that time offered sacrifices. But those nations offered their sacrifices mostly according to circumstances, if there was a flood or a drought, or in times of war. Israel was different. Once a year, regardless of what was happening in the life of the nation, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Israel had to remember this one thing—the Holy God of Israel was dwelling in their midst, and therefore atonement needed to be made for their sins.
If this idea of blood sacrifice and slaughtered bulls and goats to satisfy God's judgment sounds grotesque to you, then perhaps you're beginning to get a glimpse of the ugliness of sin. If we were to see the bloody spectacle this morning and hear the animals bleating helplessly, we would probably feel nauseous. That's the point. This isn't meant to be a clean and sterile sight. This is what our sin deserves. As grotesque as all that might appear to us, it doesn't compare to how infinitely worse our sin appears before the gaze of a holy God. We all stand condemned because of our sin, and therefore God must deal seriously with our sin.
How do you approach God?
This should cause us to be more careful in how we think about God. When it comes to approaching God, we don't want to approach him casually or carelessly, especially when it comes to our worship of him.
What do I mean by this? Well, there are so many ways we do this, we mouth the words to a hymn while checking our watches, we say, "Let's just pray real quick," as if we're just stepping in and out of the throne room of God. We become merely listeners of the Word and not doers of it. Any time we treat religion as merely an outward show, we are treating God as unholy. Can you imagine if a priest treated the rituals of Yom Kippur merely as a religious game? Okay, wash up here, put on these clothes, sprinkle some blood there—a priest like that would not last very long. No, the point is that these commands are meant to communicate something of the sheer holiness of God, and therefore, we need to respond in reverence and awe.
While it's true that our obedience is not only about outward appearance, but about the heart, at the same time, if our heart is right, we would not dare approach God in any way that we want. We approach God on his terms. And that means, most fundamentally, we approach God by faith, through the gospel. Closely connected to that is the worship that we offer God as a church. God has shown us how he is to be worshiped by his people. We are to sing from his Word, to pray his Word, to read his Word, to hear his Word preached, and to see his Word acted out in baptism and the Lord's Supper.
The Old Testament priesthood prepares the way
Well, the question we're left with is: Did the Old Testament priesthood work? Were they able to cleanse God's people from their sins? Look at Zechariah 3:1-3. In response to centuries of idolatry and sin, God finally removed his presence from among his people, allowing the Babylonians and Assyrians to take his people out of their land. But now, God is speaking words of restoration and comfort, and he gives them this vision.
We see in verse 1 that Joshua, the remaining high priest of Israel, is standing in the presence of the LORD. We can assume that this means that this is the Day of Atonement. This is the day that God has appointed, where the sins of Israel would be atoned for through sacrifice. This is a big deal given the context. The nation has sinned terribly and has been driven out of their land by God. Could God ever forgive them? Is there any hope for restoration? If so, Joshua the high priest must perform his service on behalf of the people, to make atonement for their sins.
But there's a problem. Satan is standing there accusing Joshua. Though God rebukes Satan, when we look over at Joshua, we are shocked to find him, the high priest, covered in filth. The Hebrew word there for "filthy" is actually a word associated with excrement and vomit. This would've been unthinkable for a high priest. What we see here is what God sees. Even past all of our external washings, God sees the filth of our hearts, he sees our sins down to our very core. It turns out that Satan actually has a case against Joshua, and against every one of us.
This is the dilemma we are facing. We need a priest to represent us before God, to intercede for us, to plead our case, someone God will listen to. In order for him to represent us, this priest needs to be one of us. Man has sinned against God, and therefore we need a man to represent us before God. Yet, all of us, no matter how clean you may look on the outside, are filthy; all of us are captive to sin. How can you or I, filthy sinners, ever plead our own cause, let alone the cause of another, before the holy God?
We see the answer in verse 4. This will not happen by our efforts, but will only happen if God intervenes. In this vision, God does not wait for us to clean ourselves up, he cleanses us himself, and clothes us in his righteousness. In doing so, he points forward to the salvation that he will one day provide through the Branch, the long awaited Messiah. So we learn that we need more than a priest.
We need more than a priest
When we come to the life of Jesus, the Messiah, in the New Testament, we never hear him explicitly identifying himself as a priest. This makes sense, because such a claim would have seemed absurd. Jesus was not from the clan of Levi, and he never served in the temple courts. Yet, without claiming to be a priest, Jesus does make some amazing statements that point us in that direction. He talks about his unique relation to the temple. When the Pharisees condemned his disciples for working on the Sabbath, Jesus responds and tells them "the one greater than the temple is already here." Jesus is declaring that the true center of worship of God was shifting from the temple in Jerusalem, to himself.
Jesus not only identifies himself with the temple, but he identifies himself with the sacrifice in Mark 10:45. It's no accident that the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion happens during the Passover. During the feast when the Jews remember God's deliverance of them from Egypt through the slaying of a lamb. On that night, Jesus tells his disciples, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Rather than the blood of any animal, it is the blood of Jesus, on the cross, that will save God's people from their sins.
When we read the Gospels, it's clear that the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was saying. They knew him to be the Messiah, but they didn't understand the work that he had come to accomplish. It's not until later, as the disciples reflect back on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that they come to understand that actually the whole Old Testament priesthood was preparing us for Jesus Christ, to understand what he came to do.
In the book of Hebrews, we get a sermon on how Jesus Christ is a superior high priest to any that has ever gone before him. Let me give you four ways in which Jesus is a better high priest.
1) Jesus is the perfect priest
In Hebrews 4:15-16 we see that in Jesus Christ, we finally have a suitable priest, one who 1) identifies with us, and 2) yet is without sin. When the eternal Son of God humbled himself to become man, he didn't just put on the clothes of humanity, sort of like a garment. No, he was incarnate. He entered into our experience. God became man, which is why we're shocked when we hear the writer of Hebrews talk about how Christ was tempted, how he suffered, and learned, and grew. These are words that we associate with man, not God. But that's precisely the point. Jesus Christ became man and was tempted "in every way, just as we are," yet was without sin. We shouldn't think that because Jesus was without sin that somehow changes the reality of his temptation and suffering. The difference between Jesus and us is not in the experience of temptation and suffering, but in the outcome of it. We failed. Jesus, though he was tested to the very limit, even to a shameful death on the cross, he was without sin. Therefore, Jesus Christ is perfectly suited to be a priest—he is one of us, and yet without sin.
We have a High Priest, who doesn't just know the fact of our struggles, but who sympathizes for us in our struggles. He was tempted in every, just as we are, so he knows just how difficult and bitter life can be. He sympathizes with you. Therefore, when you pray to God in those dark times, don't just pray to God in general, but pray to God believing that Jesus Christ is your High Priest, who feels and understands your shame and your sorrow. In your time of need, don't turn away from him, but approach the throne of grace, with confidence, to receive all the mercy and help that you need.
2) Jesus offered a better sacrifice
Hebrews 9:11-12 shows us that no priest ever presented so costly a sacrifice. In Christ, here was a life that God was delighted with, that perfectly reflected back to God his glory, day after day, year after year. This was the life of God's beloved Son, with whom he is well-pleased. In the entire universe, what more valuable thing can you imagine than such a life? Amass all the wealth of this world, combine all the beauty of the nations, gather all the technological power of the centuries—will God be impressed with any of that? No, only the perfect life of the spotless Lamb of God lived out and laid down, can be a sacrifice pleasing to the Father.
Even though Jesus, our High Priest, is one of us, here he brings to God something that is entirely separate from us. Unlike the priests who would take the goats from the assembly and offer it on their behalf, when it comes to Christ's work, we do not contribute a single thing to this offering. If there is any part for us to play, it's only that we've sinned. For this is the reason for the shedding of blood in the first place: that's what our sin deserved. In shedding his blood, Christ bore the punishment that our sin deserved. Not just our sinfulness in general, but our very sins.
3) Jesus' work is complete forever
Hebrews 10:11-14 reveals that, unlike the priests, who day after day, year after year, stood offering sacrifices, Christ has offered one sacrifice and has sat down at the right hand of God. The work of Jesus Christ is complete! God accepted the sacrifice, meaning all that wrath, all that judgment that God had in store against us for our sins has been completely satisfied. There is not one drop in the cup of God's wrath left for us to drink. Like that goat sent out into the wilderness, Christ's sacrifice has forever removed our sin from us, as far as the east is from the west. God accepted Christ's sacrifice, and therefore he accepts us.
This is why God raised Christ from the dead, because his wrath against the sin that Christ bore was completely exhausted. There was no reason for Christ to remain under the power of death. God raised him from the dead, and now Christ is seated at his right hand, and we see in Hebrews 7 that unlike the former priests who died, he lives forever to intercede for us. As our permanent High Priest, Christ lives eternally engaged to bless and protect those who have committed themselves to him.
If you are not a Christian, this is the choice you face: You can approach God alone, having to give an account for your own life, and bearing the consequences of your life yourself. Or you can approach God represented by Jesus Christ, the High Priest, accepting his finished work on your behalf. That's what Christians mean when we talk about faith, about believing in Jesus. It's not about living some sort of moral life to commend you to God. No, it means, fundamentally, that you need to repent and turn away from the lies of sin, and place your trust in Jesus Christ as your High Priest, to identify yourself, as it were, with this One Man, and the priestly work that he has done. This salvation is so complete, so perfect, and so fitting for you, that to turn away from this salvation would be to turn to certain judgment. This is all that God has provided and what an amazing provision it is! Repent from your sins, and place your trust in Jesus Christ as your High Priest.
My brothers and sisters, when we doubt our forgiveness, when we wonder what God thinks of us, when we try to work for God's approval, what we're really saying is that Christ's work isn't finished, that it wasn't sufficient. On the surface of it, this sounds humble. We're broken up over our sin, we're discouraged by our failures, and we don't want to be presumptuous about God's grace. But do you see how it's actually pride? It's a refusal to humble yourself and accept what Christ has done for you. It's a deficient view of just how perfect and complete Jesus' work on our behalf was. Was Christ's blood sufficient for the sins of the world, but not for your sins? The question is not, "How badly did you sin?" no, the question is, "Are you trusting in Jesus Christ?" If so, then know that Christ is seated at the right hand of God! He's not standing, frantically trying to get our salvation in place. No, he's seated. That work is forever finished and secure.
4) Jesus grants us access to God
When Aaron served as high priest, God strictly warned him that no one else but he could enter the Most Holy Place, and that only happened once a year. But now, Jesus Christ has so completely cleansed us from our sin, that the way into the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God, has been opened to us. The veil has been torn. Jesus Christ, the High Priest, has not only gone in the Holy of Holies before us, but now, he invites us in!
Now, through Christ, we are those who can enter into the Holy of Holies ourselves, with confidence. That separation has been done away with. No earthly priest could ever bring someone in with him, but Christ has secured our place in the presence of God.
We experience a taste of this now, when we gather as a church to worship, when we draw near to God in our prayers, when we partake of the Lord's Supper, but one day, we will know this fully. The hope of God's people is that we will be with God himself.
As you begin 2015, make your resolutions, set your goals, but don't let it stop at that. Begin this year trusting and knowing that Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and he has opened the way for us to be accepted and loved by God, forever.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.