There are many things present in the Old Testament that Jesus’ teachings plainly changed. God used a missiological approach to reaching human nature and human culture, to transform us. This means he reached us where we were, in our language, symbols and ideas, and brought us forward to the values of his kingdom. The kingdom values of God aren’t seen in scripture fully until we get to his incarnation in Christ. In Christ is where we see the real revelation of who God is. A simple example of this is where God says his arm is not short that it cannot save. God is not a human, with arms and legs like us, but he uses this human imagery to communicate to us. The Old Testament is full of this kind of symbolism.
Again, there are ideas in the Old Testament that Jesus quite clearly brought to an end. One of these is sacrifice. We have thought that sacrifice was God’s idea, to pay him for our sin, but we see instead that it was a human invention. That is, because of violence in human society, because of human wrath between and within human communities, sacrifice, or substitution of one victim for the sake of peace, became a way of placating wrath and of reducing the threat of violence. Ritual religion developed within communities partly to alleviate this offense. God used this to symbolise peace with himself. He did this because this is a language we would understand, but God himself did not require payment, nor blood, nor violence to forgive sins.
Let’s remind ourselves again of the type of community God wants. Though Moses picks up the concept of sacrifice, we see the Prophets of the Old Testament slowly moving Israel away from this. Jeremiah states that God did not invent the concept of sacrifice. The Psalms tell us plainly God did not require sacrifice. Isaiah said that God detested it. Amos said God wants justice and new lives rather than sacrifice. And Hosea states that God wants mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus reiterated all these truths, as he put an end to sacrifice with his own life. God didn’t require his sacrifice for our sins, but it was the violence and wrath of the people that led to his death. In raising Christ from the dead, God revealed the innocence of the scapegoat.
The point of this is to produce a new community of nonviolence, that cares for the weak and persecuted of society, rather than makes scapegoats of them. Sacrifice has been transformed in our community. It is now an offering of love to one another. (Num 29:2, Eph 5:2) This love of the brethren is the aroma to God, not the smell of burning flesh. It wasn’t blood or violence God wanted, but the display of his nature, his convental obedience in the Son of Man in loving the sinful. By this normal display of God’s nature, he overcame the Accuser. In Christ, God has now brought us to the place he wants us. God took man’s tradition of sacrifice and emptied it of violence and killing and filled it with love and mercy. The aroma to God is now nonretaliatory love: his nature. The gospel has redeemed and transformed sacrifice. Jesus becomes the prime subvertor of pagan culture, turning our hearts and societies towards the weak, building a new kind of kingdom in the world, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah.
Jesus did the same with the temple. The temple was an Old Testament human invention, which God used to reveal new things about himself. In the Garden of Eden, the temple, or the presence of God, did not include a building, but an open communion between God and his people. This is the place the gospel brings us back to, as seen in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. But the people in ancient times developed a building or an open altar to offer gifts to their gods. God himself accepted this in several ways, but transformed it. He moved it away from polytheism, from child sacrifice and finally from the corrupt values within the sacrifice system. Instead of God accepting gifts of sacrifice, God himself became the gift in Christ, giving himself to reconcile us. This also redefines leadership. Leadership doesn’t take, it gives. This defines the cross, the atonement. God rescues us from our guilt and selfestrangement from him. He first expressed this estrangement in terms of law, so that he could take it away forgive us when our violent 23 religious systems would nail him to a cross. But the law itself wasn’t God’s will. It entered our conscience and societies due to our fall; where instead of faith we took hold of the knowledge of good and evil. All these human customs and practices are being radically redefined by the incarnation of God in Christ.
Temples of old were buildings that shut up God away from the people, and prevented the people as a whole from accessing God, and from being his representatives and image in the world. This wasn’t God’s will from the beginning, where all people, male and female, were to be in his image and presence. But God used the temple symbolism to dwell with Israel and to teach them how to be a blessing to the nations around them. It wasn’t until Jesus came that this whole temple concept was thrown out, along with animal sacrifice. Jesus in his own body was the temple. He was filled with God’s glory. And his church also became his body, not shutting God off from the world, but bringing God to the whole world. God hated the curtain in the temple that shut him off. In Jesus, God has what he wants: the whole earth being filled with his glory, as the water covers the sea. These truths that Jesus revealed are radical, and the Pharisees at his time had no patience with them. Jesus was effectively renewing their whole religion.
Another concept God used was the throne imagery. The idea of one king ruling on a throne was a human concept. It was the way in which humans ruled over and oppressed people. It’s not God’s idea. So God used the throne concept to speak to the people about his kingdom, but in Jesus we eventually discover that God’s rule is so, so different to this. Jesus speaks about this in his teachings to the disciples, saying, in the world leaders rule over others, but in his kingdom rulership is from the bottom, amongst the weak and the children. The leader is the servant. This expels the whole throne concept of human empire, and reveals fully the way in which God’s kingdom rules. Though God uses these symbols in the scripture to represent himself, we need to know their human origins, to understand what the scripture is teaching us. Unless we see Jesus, where the lion that conquers is actually the lamb that serves (Rev 5:56), we will not understand what God is saying to us in these symbols: how he transforms these symbols through the gospel message, in the incarnation, and by doing that transforms our own hearts, lives and communities.
We could say the same about vows. In the Old Testament they made vows. God used this custom to also make vows and promises to the people so they would be assured of his good intentions. That is, in human culture you would not trust anyone without a strong vow, a sacrifice to prove their intention. Today we use contracts. The reason for these is because we can’t be trusted. So people also doubted God and he made promises and used sacrifices to show his promises were valid, but this was because of the hardness of our hearts. Without these we could not understand or believe God. Unless God approached us by our human customs we wouldn’t understand him. The problem comes when we think that these human customs originated with God. This gives us an entirely wrong image of God. Our lives aren’t transformed unless we see God for who he really is.
Jesus plainly refuted vow making, though the law of Moses allowed it. It’s the same with divorce. Moses allowed it, Jesus said that was because of the hardness of our hearts. In Jesus we see that the true meaning of holiness is loyalty, love. So Jesus said, instead of vows, just simply let our yes be yes and our no, no. All that is needed is integrity. Anything more than that comes because of evil, meaning because our word or heart isn’t good: isn’t like God’s heart. So God reveals himself in Jesus and puts away many human customs, the greatest of which is probably blood lust, sacrifice. Jesus teaches us to just forgive, without requiring legal satisfaction. Just forgive! Not eye 24 for an eye. Just forgive freely. This is God. He does not require blood, or legal payment. He forgives from love.
In other places we share about the violent Old Testament prophecies, and how God used these to portray his coming victory through Messiah. He used the violent language of their culture to indicate that God would fight against our enemy, and that he would be victorious absolutely. But when Jesus came, this violent language was fully transomed. In Jesus, God took on his enemies in war and fully overcame them, but he did this through his death and resurrection. If we don’t allow these Old Testament images to be interpreted to us through Jesus and his work and teachings, then we will adopt the same blind, violent spirit that the Old Testament people and cultures did. This will prevent our transformation, preventing us from being true followers of Jesus. God is not violent! We are the ones who are violent and so this is how we understand God. This is very hard for us to understand, because we are so used to interpreting scripture the wrong way. God is not violent. More is discussed on this in our other writings.
Whole religious systems for millennia have been built on retribution, from human scapegoats to animal sacrifices… human systems for legal expiation of wrath and cessation of violence. The gospel is God taking that retribution into himself, forgiving and cancelling it, and asking us to do the same for those who offend us.
The problem with sin is not that God can’t forgive it, but that we can’t. We struggle to forgive ourselves and others. This is what God warned us of in the Garden. Sin produces hurt, anger, all sorts of negative, alienating syndromes, ultimately violence and destruction (which we call justice) on a wide scale. It’s not that God is harsh about our sin, but he knows how harsh we are about it. We think retributive justice; Jesus gives restorative justice. This is why it is said of Jesus, “The Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.” He bore the sin that was committed against him, carried it away and absorbed it, forgiving it, taking it out of the cycle of hurt and violence, taking away the enmity, producing reconciliation in its place, in our own conscience towards God and towards each other. And he calls us as his people to do the same with the sin of the world. Follow him. This is Christianity. It isn’t easy, but it’s the way of whole life. And when we acknowledge our sin it breaks the accuser’s hold and sets us free.
We just don’t get it. We still have such difficulty in seeing God’s kingdom and the way he rules. It isn’t sacrificing others that alleviates evil, but service. In Isaiah’s time he said to Israel that they didn’t have national security through militarization, but through care for the refugee and for others in need. It’s the major topic of Isaiah. It’s what Christ was coming to do. “The fruit of this kind of merciful justice will be peace in our surroundings,” is what Isaiah said to Israel. They didn’t get it. And Isaiah 58, when we stretch out our hand to help others, our light shall arise and our nations shall be healed. That’s the message. That’s the kingdom. That’s the new birth. This is the faith that God has chosen.
Instead of scapegoating others, as the church we should follow Jesus who made intercession for sinners on his cross: We are to be vigorous advocates for the accused in our society, all the while groaning for our and their transformation. Romans 8 in a nutshell.