Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:
For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)
Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.
Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:
But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)
Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?
Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here?
I propose that, in fact, we have only two basic choices.
Our first option is to believe that God is still as fundamentally difficult and unapproachable as he always was, but that Jesus’ death on the cross has pacified him and absolved us sufficiently for us to be able to get close to him without being consumed in fire. The problem with this view is obvious: it sounds like God is not so much accepting us as tolerating us. I’m convinced that to label this kind of operation as a demonstration of love, you have to do serious violence to the actual meaning of the word.
The alternative is to believe that God was never anywhere near that difficult in the first place, and that all of those sacrifices and rituals and ceremonies were never an objective requirement of his to begin with. Of course, if we decide to embrace this view (as I do), we need to understand that it’s going to mess with our model for understanding what scripture is and how it functions – particularly if we’ve previously tended to view the Bible as a monolithic, inerrant whole dictated directly by God.
All I’m asking is that you think about it. Did God change? If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, why did Jesus have to come to make us acceptable to God? Or could it be that God was never the one who needed to change? Feel free to weigh in with your views and questions in the comments.
[ Image: Sandro Lacorbona ]