A concept often linked to the work of Christ is that of covering. “Jesus is a covering for sin,” is a popular way of expressing it. The evangelical movement since Luther has had the concept of our being “covered by the righteousness of Christ,” which often gets tied to the idea that “God cannot look on sin.” Quickly we get into the passage in Genesis 3 in which Adam and Eve attempt to cover themselves with fig leaves, but instead God makes clothing of animal skins for them. The text in Genesis does not say why God does this, but popular interpretation sees this as the first blood sacrifice, that God is showing that the literal shedding of blood is necessary to cover sins.
As we’ve been doing in this series, let’s examine these ideas to find out which ones stand up to scriptural scrutiny.
In what sense can it be said that God cannot look on sin? Perhaps God looks at me and sees a sinner, but then He covers me with Christ in some way and pretends I’m not that bad after all? Clearly not. God doesn’t play games with Himself.
This way of thinking gets into trouble because it doesn’t check where the shortcoming is. We would be falling into the trap of laying the need for atonement on God, saying in effect, “The problem is with God, that He is not able to accept us the way we are,” and so God has to invent the idea of a ‘covering’ to resolve His issue! This is inconceivable. As we have been discovering time and time again, the real problem is always with us. It is never with God.
Who actually needs a covering? That is, who would have the problem if we came to God (spiritually) naked? I’d like to suggest that the answer is “Us”, that God is not the one who needs us to be covered, but rather that we are the ones who feel the need for covering. Let’s see why.
We have a natural (and understandable) set of reactions when we come face-to-face with God. We feel ashamed, we are afraid, we hide. We’re ashamed because we aspire to so much more than we have accomplished. We’re afraid because God is so awesome; He could destroy us in a moment. Shame and terror manifest themselves in a natural reaction to hide.
Consider what Adam and Eve did. They took the fruit; suddenly their eyes were opened and they realised they were naked, which they had been all along. Their reaction was obvious: they covered themselves with whatever was handy, fig leaves. Then they heard the voice of the LORD God, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. What was their response to the sound of God? They hid! Even though they had covered themselves, they still hid. They still felt naked. Within themselves they knew that they were afraid of God; afraid of His presence. And so they hid.
This kind of fear occurs in lots of other places. Isaiah is particularly instructive. Isaiah sees God seated on a high throne, seraphim around Him declaring, “Holy, holy, holy…” Isaiah is overcome with dread.
‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’ (Isa. 6:5-7, NIV).
Now, where in scripture is the doctrine of atonement through fire? Nowhere, of course! Scripture has no general doctrine of atonement for sin being by means of hot coals being touched on the lips. So, what’s going on here?
As the text doesn’t explain it, it’s hard to be definitive, but consider: Isaiah is terrified; he is truly aware of his weakness and his limitation. In response, the seraph does something symbolic to say: “You don’t need to worry!” This symbolic act provides Isaiah with reassurance. It transforms him! One minute he is, “Woe to me! I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips.” The next?
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ (Isa. 6:8, NIV).
Do you see what that live coal did? It transformed Isaiah from being fearful, terrified at the presence of God, into somebody who stands up, who is willing to go out as God’s messenger! It transforms him into someone ready to go out and preach and preach and preach. For how long? Until the cities lie ruined without inhabitant and the houses are left deserted, the fields ruined and ravaged – until there’s no possibility of doing anything more.
With these live coals, God works an object-lesson, an experience-parable, in order to help Isaiah and give him courage and confidence.
I suggest exactly the same kind of thing took place with Adam and Eve, that it was they who considered their fig leaves inadequate, not God. Note that scripture is not explicit on this so either viewpoint is a matter of interpretation, and needs to be weighed carefully.
The very fact that Adam and Eve chose to hide provides strong evidence that they found their fig leaf clothing inadequate. They still felt naked, afraid of God, and in their fear they hid. So God said, in effect, “Let me provide you with a better covering so that you will feel confident about coming back into my presence.” And indeed, once they were clothed with skins, they then had the courage to approach God again.
This same theme lies behind some of the arguments advanced by the writer to the Hebrews, that the work of Christ is intended to give us confidence in the same way. Just like the work of the angels back in Eden, or the work of the seraph in Isaiah, so the work of Jesus is to give us courage, to have us stand up, to have us be willing to come near to God.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16, NIV).
He’s calling for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence! He doesn’t want us to hide in the bushes. He wants us to stand up and approach His throne with confidence.
Now let’s be clear. This is not the sort of confidence that says, “Here I am, God, I’m perfect and ready…” That was the attitude of the Pharisee deemed unacceptable in Jesus’ parable. Rather, it’s a kind of confidence that enables us to say, “Here I am. I am ready to serve. You have picked me up, you have made me new. I’m your servant and despite my failings I’m ready for you to send me out. How do you want me to serve?” Underlying this attitude is the assurance that we’re not going to be turned away. When we need something from God, when we’re in our time of need, He wants us to approach with confidence.
Remember what we’re told in Romans 8? God is on our side. He has proved it by not sparing His Son. Do you want any greater proof that God is already on your side? How much more could he possibly do to encourage you to come to Him? If He did not spare His only son, will He not also, with him, generously give us all things? So let us truly have a sense of courage and confidence to approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Cleanse our conscience
Let’s now look at Hebrews 9:14. The context is the requirement, under the Law through Moses, for the sacrificing of bulls and goats etc.
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
The role of the sacrifice, says the writer here, is to ‘cleanse our consciences’ – just as it was in the Law, interestingly. It wasn’t about getting God to agree, or appeasing God as others have taught. Rather it was about affecting the mind, the conscience, the attitude and the heart of the person bringing the sacrifice, and perhaps of those looking on too. And if the sacrifices of the Law had that effect, just think how much more effective is the blood of Christ to cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.
We learn a major principle of salvation here that God works to reassure us. Almost every thing God does, one way or another, is Him reaching out. “Let me give you courage, let me give you strength, let me give you an idea of the love I have for you.”
Review of the Principles Covered so Far
We have reached a point in this series of articles where it would be good to pause, and review where we are on the principles of salvation.
It was not God who needed the death of Christ. It is important to recognise that it was not God Himself who needed Jesus to die, but that it was our weakness and limitations that both necessitated it, and our sin that made it happen.
The death of Christ is intended to change us. It’s intended to change us in lots of ways. He said in effect: “I am giving up my life for you; I want you also, therefore, to give up your lives for one another.” God had been first reaching out to people like us through the prophets. Now, and ultimately, He’s reaching out to us through Christ.
God knows we are fearful; so He reassures and gives us confidence. We have good reason to be fearful, of course. We each, in our own way, take of the forbidden fruit. We each, in our own way, are ashamed of what we’ve done. We are ashamed of the separation that our sin creates between us and God. And so we hide. We go into the bushes. We are like Isaiah, “Woe unto me!” And God says, “I know you feel like that, so what can I do to help repair this relationship between us? To have you come back to me, to have you trust me – to have you close to me again? It’s not that I’m angry with you and somehow I have to be appeased; I know that you’re scared because you know that I know the position you have put yourselves in.”
Jesus devoted his entire life to our salvation. Jesus devoted everything in his life for our salvation. Just think about the things he gave up, that he chose not to do in order that we might be able to have salvation. He worked in the builder’s shop in Nazareth. Who knows whether it was or wasn’t a successful business? It wasn’t the business he was there for; it was for his relationships with the people. And then, when the time was right, he leaves to devote himself full-time to preaching. Here is a man whom many women would have been attracted to and to each one he says, “No, because I am single-mindedly fixing my mind and heart, on the purpose of God. I have a very limited time in which I’m going to pour out everything that I have into the life of the church.” He devoted the whole of his life to our salvation. The pinnacle of that was, of course, Calvary, where he says with terrible finality, “Everything I’m doing, everything that I have done, is for my Father.”
His work is not yet finished, so he had to rise from the dead. Many scriptures particularly stress the importance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead for our salvation, and the forgiveness of sins. Remember I Corinthians 15:17? “If Christ is not raised your faith is futile, you’re still in your sins.” A very powerful verse! If Jesus stayed dead we would not have a chance of salvation. That’s really important! If we start to think it was something about the blood sacrifice that made God accept us, if it was the blood sacrifice that mattered, then the death of Christ would have been sufficient. But no, if Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins. The pattern is the same, again and again and again. As Jesus himself says, in John 14, “Because I live, you also will live.”
We have a Lord who devotes his life – every aspect of his life – to saving the people around him, reaching out, finding individuals, supporting them and strengthening them. He dies, and remains dead for three days. Then the Father raises him back to life again so that he can continue his work – that same work that he started there in Nazareth, Capernaum, Judea – that same work he’s doing in our lives today! Whether Jesus himself is moving around, or whether he is directing angels as was done through history, is neither here nor there. The work of salvation, the work of the High Priest, is continuing. We’re called because Jesus is doing the calling. The things that happen in our lives are because Jesus is working with us in the same way that he worked with the disciples, or with the woman who had the bleeding, or as he worked with Jairus. We should see the work of God in our lives and respond to God.
The reality is Christ
In these articles, we’ve really tried to step back from metaphor and parable, and look at the underlying realities. It’s valuable to consider the Law of Moses in that light. Sometimes we forget God’s perspective from eternity, and have the picture completely the wrong way around. We may think of the Law as the foundation, then Christ as a fulfilment of the Law. Actually, the truth is that it all starts with Christ. Christ is the reality; the Law was just shadows on the wall.
We would be making a big mistake by first trying to understand the Law and then using that to try to understand Christ. It would be as though someone was standing in the middle of the room with spotlights focussed on him, and then we walk round the walls, with our backs to the person in the center, looking at all the shadows on the walls, trying to figure out what this person would look like. It’s challenging! You get the sense of parts of the figure: you know they’ve got two arms, it looks like the hair’s flowing, or impressions like that, but to see the real three-dimensional Christ we need to turn round so he’s in front of us! Let’s look at Christ directly, see who he is, and what he’s accomplishing. Then by all means let us go back and look at the shadows on the wall and say, “Oh! Yes! Now I understand the shadows.”
Recall the principle in the Law that, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s just a shadow. The fundamental reality is what Christ shows us, that salvations comes from the complete and utter devotion of life. Christ gave his life; he gave every aspect of his life, to our salvation.
Take this principle as fundamental, and now look at the Law. Now it’s no surprise that in the Law, they had to take a perfect lamb and have it pour out its life. Do you see the point? When God designed the Law, he had Jesus in mind. To express that, he uses the notion of blood sacrifice. It’s not that God wants spilt blood per se. Psalms 51:16 is explicit on this point (as are many other passages):
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The reality is the broken and contrite spirit – the One that comes to God and says: “I have no strength of my own, Father,” or, “Not my will but yours be done,” or, “Everything I have done is my Father living in me and working through me.” He completely devotes himself, every aspect of his life, to his Father. Through inspiration David knew this too, “You don’t want dead animals, God, it’s not the blood actually being spilt that you are interested in. What you want is the giving of myself, the giving of my life.”
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this series)