“Joyful are people of integrity, who follow the instructions of the Lord. Joyful are those who obey his laws and search for him with all their hearts. They do not compromise with evil, and they walk only in his paths” (Psalm 119:1-3, NLT).
I recently read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and the key founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany prior to and during World War II. Bonhoeffer, who wrote the Christian classic, The Cost of Discipleship, was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis at the age of thirty-nine for his Christian faith and participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
The detailed biography was an interesting and inspirational read but left me with some disturbing theological questions concerning the tension between good and evil in this present world. Although Metaxas probably didn’t intend to agitate his readers when writing the biography, the story of Bonhoeffer’s brief life and tragic death certainly raised some concerns about God’s justice for me!
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel… This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord'” (Exodus 30:13-14, NIV).
The census was actually a way to determine a record of military manpower. But, when Moses enlisted men for military service, he was also to take a ransom from each twenty-year-old or more male and use it for the construction and ministry of the Tabernacle.
“Crossing over to those already counted” literally meant passing over to those who are mustered. It meant joining the ranks of the enlisted men. By passing muster the Israelite male effectively became a soldier in the Israeli militia–the Lord’s army.
“I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. They shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God” (Exodus 29:43-46, NASB).
This chapter gives regulations for the consecration of the priests that would minister to God in the Tabernacle. The priests were to be ordained for service in the Tabernacle through purification rites and the offering of burnt sacrifices for atonement of sin. First, the priests were to be washed with water in the doorway of the Tabernacle. Then their priestly garments were placed on them and anointing oil poured over their heads.
“Then Moses took the blood from the basins and splattered it over the people, declaring, ‘ Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions.'” (Exodus 24:8, NLT).
After God had given the terms of the covenant to Moses, Israel agreed to its terms (vs. 3), which was then ratified in several ceremonial activities. These activities included the formal writing and reading of the covenant (vs. 4, 7), the splattering of blood (vs. 6), a covenant meal (vs. 11), and the appearing of the glory of the Lord on the mountain (vs. 15).
“He takes away the first to establish the second” (Hebrews 10:9, HCSB).
The Hebrews writer explains how the sacrifice of Christ on the cross replaced the Old Testament system of blood sacrifices and burnt offerings.
The Hebrews writer says that the Old Testament law was a representation of God’s reality, not the reality itself: “The law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of these realities” (vs. 1).
“But Aaron burned the incense and purified the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped.” (Numbers 16:47-48, NLT)
Numbers 16 is the record of yet another rebellion by the Israelites against Moses’ leadership and God’s authority.
This rebellion seemed to be a power struggle that was a more egregious challenge to God’s authority than any of the previous rebellions. This rebellion was led by certain Levites who had some of the most important duties related to the upkeep of the Tabernacle.
“And if any native Israelite or foreigner living among you eats or drinks blood in any form, I will turn against that person and cut him off from the community of your people, for the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.”
These verses explain the theology of substitutionary atonement.
Israel was forbidden to consume blood because blood was symbolic of the life given by God and was reserved as God’s portion of each animal sacrifice.
God had also designated the sacrificial blood as the means of atonement. In other words, God’s grace permitted the life of the animal to be a substitute in exchange for the life of the human sinner.
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross follows this same pattern for substitutionary atonement as described in Leviticus with the exception that Christ’s sacrifice, because He was God Incarnate, was once and for all while the sacrifice of bulls and goats had to be made repeatedly.
“If the animal you present as a burnt offering is from the herd, it must be a male with no defects. Bring it to the entrance of the Tabernacle so you may be accepted by the Lord. Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and the Lord will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him.” ( Leviticus 1:3-4, NLT)
The Hebrew word for “burnt offering” means “what goes up” and refers to the ascent of the animal in flames and smoke (to the Lord).
The burnt offering was an offering for atonement.
“Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them…Have the people make an Ark of acacia wood…place inside it the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, which I will give to you. Then make the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—from pure gold…Then make two cherubim from hammered gold, and place them on the two ends of the atonement cover…Place inside the Ark the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, which I will give to you…I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:8-22, NLT).
After God gave Moses the law, He proceeded to describe the plans for the Tabernacle and its furnishings so the Israelites could construct a place where God could abide among His people.
“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” Unlike most other Old Testament offerings, the tabernacle priests could not eat the meat of the sin offering from the Day of Atonement. The body of that sacrificial animal was burned outside the camp (see Leviticus 16:27). Because Jesus’ sacrifice was an atonement for sin, once and for all, Jesus suffered “outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (vs. 12). Thus, we don’t receive atonement through religious ceremonies or by doing good deeds, but we find forgiveness and redemption “outside the camp” at the cross of Jesus! We should, therefore, leave behind the love of this world and the desire for its approval by enduring the same contempt by this world that Jesus suffered. Our endurance of the contempt of this world is based on the realization that we are only sojourners in this world en route to our eternal residence: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (vs. 14).