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Jesus—the Ultimate Sacrifice: Sacrificial offerings were an integral part of Old Testament worship. We learn about five key types of sacrifice in Leviticus 1–7. Through these offerings, the Israelites presented their gifts to God (grain offering: leviticus 2; 6:14–23) and also shared fellowship together (fellowship offering: leviticus 3; 7:11–34), but most critically Levitical priests offered animal sacrifices on behalf of Israelites in order to restore their relationship with God (burnt offering, sin offering, guilt offering: leviticus 1; 4:1–5:13; 6:24–7:10).
Sacrifices reminded the Israelites that God took their sins seriously. Sin separates people from their holy God. Sin deserves death, but God in his grace allowed his people to substitute an animal in their place. To offer such a sacrifice showed that sinners acknowledged their sin and recognized the consequences of sin. The sacrifice was an outward symbol of an inward repentance that led to atonement, in other words the making right or restoration of God’s relationship with the repentant sinner.
These sacrifices were not magical rituals. They were symbols of an individual’s heartfelt repentance; otherwise, as the prophets reminded Israel, they meant nothing (isaiah 1:10–15; jeremiah 6:20). Even more, they had no power in and of themselves. They pointed to something in the future, and that is to the death of Christ on the cross.
The book of Hebrews tells us that sacrifices are “only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (hebrews 10:1). After all, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v. 4). They pointed to the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus died on our behalf. He is the once-and-for-all sacrifice, and by his “one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (v. 14).
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Reading from the Front and from the Back: Many different people composed the sixty-six books of the Bible over about fourteen centuries (roughly 1300 bc–ad 100), but the end result has a unity that reads smoothly from the beginning to the end. The story has a beginning (creation), a middle (the fall and redemption), and an end (the restoration).
When reading the Bible for the first time, we usually start in the middle by reading the story of Jesus’s ministry and his death and resurrection. That is the heart of the message of the Bible.
God can speak to us through this story even if we don’t know much about the beginning of the story (the Old Testament), but we have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gospel when we know what led up to the crucifixion and resurrection.
The Bible is God’s word to us, and our love for God should lead us to be constant readers of his Bible from the beginning to the end. After we get to know the whole story, we can read both from the front (the New Testament) in the context of the Old Testament and from the back (the Old Testament) with the knowledge of where this story is heading.
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God’s Judgments: The Case of the Flood: God created humans morally innocent and capable of moral choice. The story of Adam and Eve tells us that right from the start humans rebelled against God, and right from the start we learn that God judges sinners when he removes Adam and Eve from Eden and death becomes a part of our human experience.
But the story of the Bible does not center on human sin or God’s judgment, but rather on grace. God shows his sinful human creatures unmerited favor—again and again.
God sent the flood (Genesis 6–9) as his judgment against humans who had achieved a new depth of sin (“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time,” (genesis 6:5).
The story of the flood demonstrates God’s intention to judge sin. But the most amazing line of the flood account is “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). God does not annihilate humanity. The message of the story is that God judges sin, but he also reveals his magnificent grace to humans in order to restore an intimate relationship with them.
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In the ancient Near East, the firstborn son was the main heir of a father. He would normally inherit twice as much as the other sons and would control the distribution of the inheritance. Thus, according to the human customs of the day, Ishmael should have been Abraham’s main heir, not Isaac. Then later in Genesis, Isaac’s main heir should have been Esau the older of the twins, not his brother Jacob.
The choice of Isaac and then Jacob reminds us that God does not always follow human conventions. God chose the unexpected son to carry forward the covenant promises into the next generation. Isaac and especially Jacob well illustrate the teaching of Paul that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 corinthians 1:27–29).
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Case Laws: The foundation of the law in the Torah is the Ten Commandments (exodus 20:1–17; deuteronomy 5:6–21). These express God’s will as general ethical principles (“You shall not murder,” exodus 20:13).
Many laws follow the Ten Commandments and are found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. These case laws apply the general principles of the Ten Commandments to specific situations to help Israel know how to apply them to their everyday lives. For instance, in Deuteronomy 22:8 we find a law that requires the Israelites to build a parapet (or fence) around their roof. This applies the commandment not to murder since Israelites used their roofs as living space; without such a parapet someone could fall off and kill themselves. Such an instruction may still guide people today if they have houses with roofs that serve as living space. For most of us though, this law helps us think through danger spots in our homes (fences around swimming pools, protective plugs in electrical sockets, etc.).
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God did not give the Israelites random laws to see if they could obey them. They weren’t laws designed to show that Israelites were suddenly something more than human because of their relationship with God. In fact, it was their relationship with God that made them truly human. Remember we were created in a blessed state—right relationship with God, each other, and the land.
Beginning with Abram, God began to restore humanity’s relationship with himself. The laws that God gave were intended to continue restoring what was lost in the Garden of Eden. The laws reflect how God intended humanity to live in the first place. In other words, the law reflects what life would have looked like if Adam and Eve had never sinned. Living according to the law would have been a full and flourishing life. Understood in this way, the law itself is a gracious act of God.
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The Law Drives Us to Christ: The Law is an expression of God’s will for our lives. For that reason, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (romans 7:12). But the law also condemns us because we are sinners who cannot keep the law (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” romans 3:23). We cannot save ourselves from sin, guilt, and death. What are we to do? Paul raises this question when he asks, “Who will rescue me from this body . . . of death?” And almost in the same breath he answers it with “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24–25). The law would condemn us, but it also drives us to Christ who kept the law and suffered the penalty of the law on our behalf.
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Ceremonial Laws: Among the many case laws of the Torah are those that concern the religious rituals or ceremonies of ancient Israel. These are laws that concern special holy days (Sabbath and annual festivals), holy people (priests), holy actions (sacrifice), and holy places (the sanctuary).
These were all shadows of the coming of Christ (see colossians 2:16–17). They anticipated Christ; and when he came all time, all places, all people, and all actions become holy. Thus, Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law and therefore no longer has the force of legal requirements.
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God has not changed. His desires for humanity have not changed. Jesus did not call for a life that was different than what God had prescribed for Israel. He did present a new way of relating to God and the law—through his sacrifice and through his Spirit.