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According to the Scriptures: The Cross and the Covenant
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PART 3 OF THE SERIES “THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS”

GENESIS 15; I CORINTHIANS 15:1-4

lent series title"I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the Scriptures; he was buried and raised on the third day in line with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This is Paul’s concise way of describing the gospel—the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ; but it is “good news” that is part of a much larger story being told by the whole Bible.

 

So often, when we attempt to understand the message of the cross, we fall back on bits and pieces of doctrinal statements from various traditions, or popular assumptions we have bought into. As we said in the first sermon in this series, atonement theories tend to channel our thinking into one aspect of Jesus’ death or another. But Paul and the other New Testament writers want us to see Jesus’ crucifixion through a much larger lens—the lens of the whole biblical story.

 

We see this paradigm throughout the New Testament. When the risen Christ talks with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he chides them for not understanding that his death (even though they don’t know it’s him at the time) is part of the whole story. “”Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these these things and then enter into his glory?” he says to them. “Then he interpreted for the them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:26-27). In the Book of Acts, when Stephen is confronted by the Jewish leaders for his speaking the gospel, recites the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament to explain his devotion and their error (Acts 7). An Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem was reading a scroll from the prophet Isaiah when the Holy Spirit prompted the apostle Philip to explain the gospel using the Scriptures (Acts 8:26-40). From the earliest days of the church, Jesus’ death was not interpreted as an isolated event, but as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures.

 

So it is to those Scriptures, the story of the Old Testament, that we must first turn in order to understand how Jesus’ death is the centerpiece in God’s redemptive plan for his people and his creation. Last week, we looked at the basic human problem that emerges in the very beginning—a failure of worship, leading to idolatry, sin, and death. Humans gave their worship to that which is not God and became enslaved to the very things over which they were to have dominion. We are born into this slavery and cannot escape it on our own.

 

We see that slavery played out in the subsequent chapters of Genesis–in the Noah story, where humanity had become so evil and corrupt that God sought to wipe the slate clean and start over with one faithful family. But it takes just a few more chapters before the humans gather together and build a tower to honor themselves and that represents their own self-elevation and idolatry. God scatters them for their own good.

 

It’s into this world, now broken by the human slavery to sin and death, that God launches his rescue plan. He begins again with another representative man and woman—though unlike Adam and Eve, Abram and Sarai are old and barren, very unlikely candidates to launch a new family. And yet, God makes a covenant with Abraham that through him, and through his family, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. It will be his family, a nation of priests, that God will bring his redemption to reality.

 

GOD’S COVENANT WITH ABRAM

That’s the background of the scene we read about in Genesis 15. In this passage, God “cuts a covenant” with Abram. In the ancient world, covenants were made usually between a patron and a client—a greater and a lesser person. The patron would promise to do things for the client, but the client had a responsibility to live up to the covenant. Think of it like The Godfather—“Perhaps someday you will do a service for me…” If the client failed to uphold the covenant, it would result in his destruction.

 

That’s the symbolism of the animals that Abram cuts in two, laying a bloody path between them. In an ancient covenant ceremony, the client would walk between the bloody pieces as a way of saying, “If I fail to keep the covenant, may I become like these animals.” Reading this text, ancient people would have expected Abram to take the bloody walk and receive any penalty, including death, for not keeping his covenant with God.

 

But before he can take that walk and sign the covenant with his own life, Abram falls asleep and has a dream. God says to him that his descendants (and remember, Abram still doesn’t have any children) will live in a land that isn’t their own and they will be slaves for 400 years, after which God will deliver them. Abram’s family will be a representative people—representative of the slavery that binds all of humanity—but God will deliver them.

 

And then something unexpected and powerful happens in Abram’s dream. Instead of Abram walking through the bloody pieces and sealing the covenant with his own blood, Abram sees “a smoking vessel with a fiery flame” walk that bloody path instead. This is an image of God himself taking on the stipulations of the covenant. The patron God takes on the responsibility—he will keep the covenant regardless of what Abram and his family do or fail to do. God will seal the covenant with his own blood.

 

The Old Testament then spins out how God’s covenant with Abram and his family becomes the means by which God will carry out his promises. A people enslaved will be set free. It’s no coincidence that the book of Genesis ends with the Joseph story—a typology of slavery in which a Hebrew slave, sold into slavery by his brothers, rises to power and then, instead of pouring out his wrath on his brothers when the tables are turned, offers them forgiveness instead. Genesis 50:20 offers a summary of what God has been up to, though it comes through the mouth of Joseph: “You meant this for evil,” Joseph says to his brothers and God says to humanity, “but God meant it for good in order to preserve a numerous people as he is doing today.” One of my seminary professors, David Seamands, called this, “the 50:20 vision of the Bible”—despite human evil, God is still keeping the covenant and will save his people.

 

THE EXODUS

Exodus continues this typology of slavery. What God said to Abram became a reality—his family, now the nation of Israel, was enslaved in Egypt. They had become “fertile and populous, the multiplied and filled the land” (an echo of the vocation God had given humans from the beginning). This representative people, enslaved and helpless, needed deliverance and God provides through the hand of Moses, someone who is within the family, but one who also comes from the outside as a deliverer. Moses will confront the gods of Egypt through the plagues, and then, in the last plague, the death of the firstborn, God will act to deliver to his people.

 

The Passover meal is where this image of slavery and redemption is rehearsed in detail. God commands the people to celebrate it as a perpetual ritual that will look back to this event, but also forward to the day in which slavery to sin and death is broken forever. Those who participate in this meal thus become part of the story and its two key themes: rescue from death, and deliverance from slavery.

 

The Passover lamb is the centerpiece of the ritual. In this case, however, it is not an offering for sin but God’s ordained means of delivering people from death. The blood of the lamb is the lifeblood, and the lamb’s blood is shed and smeared on the doorpost so that Israel’s lifeblood would be preserved. The blood is a representative and powerful symbol, a foreshadowing of what God will do for all of humanity generations later on a cross.

 

The people of Israel, Abraham’s family, are delivered from slavery through the sea and then, in the desert, God forms a new covenant with the people centered around the law—the law that reminds them of their vocation. In Exodus 19:6 God says, “You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” Notice, this is the same vocation that God gives the first humans in Genesis 1—they will be priests in his temple of creation, serving as God’s representatives, worshipping God and glorifying him. God will bring them to a Promised Land—a new kind of Eden, a new creation—and God dwells with his people in the tabernacle. It’s a microcosm of the creation story all over again—God creating a people to serve as priests, and then God moving in to dwell with them.

 

But slavery is a hard habit to break, and while God took Israel out of Egypt, getting Egypt out of Israel was a difficult proposition. Though free from slavery, the people longed to return to its familiar bondage. Humans are like that—slavery to sin has a hold on us. Even while Moses is getting the covenant law from God, the people have already turned to idolatry, making a golden calf fro themselves, misplacing their worship. That misplaced worship will lead to wandering for 40 years, and the law God gave them would become a burden because it further defined their slavery to sin and challenged their self-indulgent identity.

 

While they will enter the Promised Land, slavery to sin still had a hold on God’s representative people. At the end of Judges, there is a telling line: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). The people may have been physically free from slavery, but they were still in bondage.

 

THE TEMPLE

It’s at this time, however, as Israel became settled in the land, that God’s temporary dwelling in the tabernacle would be made permanent in the building of the temple in Jerusalem, which King David captured from the Jebusites. Here we see the narratives all converge—creation, priesthood, Eden, sin, and death. The temple was designed as the place where heaven and earth met, where God himself would dwell, and it’s no coincidence that the interior of the temple was decorated to look like a garden—a reminder of God’s original dwelling place with Adam and Eve. And it was in this temple that the mediation of the problem of slavery to sin would be played out in blood.

 

The sacrificial system of Israel’s worship in the temple reminds us that sin costs something. The life of the sacrificial animal, represented by the blood, represents a redemptive payment for the slavery of sin. The priests sprinkled the blood on the altar to make atonement for the sins of the people and their uncleanness. But, ultimately, the sacrificial system was inadequate because while it dealt with a person’s sins (the symptoms), it did not deal ultimately with the real problem—humanity’s slavery to sin and death as destructive forces. Sacrifices for sin needed to be made again and again in the temple—a constant and bloody reminder that something even greater was needed if God’s people were to be ultimately set free.

 

THE MONARCHY

The temple sacrificial system ran parallel to the other typology of Israel, and that was the monarchy. God promised King David that he would have a dynasty—that one of his offspring would sit on Israel’s throne forever. If Israel represented all of humanity, the King would be Israel’s personal representative. The Kings of Israel would fail to lead the people well, however, and their continuing spiral of sin and idolatry led to another period of slavery under foreign powers. In Ezekiel 10, God’s glory and his dwelling presence departs the temple, and soon after the temple itself is destroyed by the Babylonians. The people are carried off into exile and, prompted by the prophets, the people realize that the exile is of their own making—they are slaves to a foreign power but, even more so, they continue to be slaves to sin. To return from that exile, their sins would need to be forgiven—they would need a new Exodus, a renewed land of promise, and someone to set them free—someone like Moses who came from within, but also came from the outside.

 

The prophets spoke of such a person—a Messiah, David’s promised descendant and Israel’s promised king, who would set God’s people free. But how that would be accomplished, according to the prophets, would run against the typical notion of kingship. Isaiah, for example, spoke of Israel’s representative as a suffering servant—that this representative would come and bear Israel’s sin on himself. As the prophet put it in Isaiah 53:5-6 – “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

 

This is the one whose blood would be given to save his people from slavery to sin and death—one who will come as a king, but also a slave; one from Abram’s family, but also from God; one whose sacrifice will be once for all; one who will be the new temple in whom God dwells with his people.

 

WHY DID GOD CHOOSE TO DO IT THIS WAY?

We might ask the question, “Why does God choose to do it this way? Couldn’t God just wave his hand, forgive human sin, and be done with it? Why all this blood, this suffering, this pain?

 

They are good questions, but they are questions that dismiss the depth of the problem. Slavery requires redemption, the payment for which is a steep price. The enslaving powers of Sin and Death must be ultimately defeated, not just circumvented or appeased. To truly set people free will require a new Exodus and a new Passover. And that Exodus must be led by one who comes from the outside, who is not a slave to sin, but who will freely, voluntarily, and willingly identify with an enslaved people in order to set them free.

 

The Old Testament story is essential to understanding the death of Jesus, because Israel’s story is representative of the whole human race. It is through the family of Israel that God seeks to redeem the whole world bound in slavery to Sin and Death. It is through Israel’s true representative and King that God’s redemption will be accomplished; but it will be accomplished through suffering.

 

In other words, we need a Moses. We need a King. We need a deliverer. We need a Savior. We need God. We need his incarnate Son. We need the cross.

 

This is what Paul means when he says that Christ died for our sins “according to the Scriptures.” This story is our story; the situation is our situation.

 

But, more importantly, this God is our God. So many people see the God of the Old Testament as cantankerous and cranky, always ready to smite someone, always seeking to pour out his wrath on people. Well, the Old Testament does reveal that God takes sin seriously. Perhaps our aversion to God’s judgment says more about us than it does about him, however. Perhaps it’s an indicator that we don’t take sin seriously enough. God’s wrath is aimed at the forces of sin and death that enslave us. A God who didn’t take them seriously would not be a just God, nor a loving God.

 

But what the Old Testament reveals is a God who is so deeply in love with his people and his creation that he will go to any lengths to redeem them. This is the God who walked the bloody path through the animals of the covenant and said through his action, “I will keep this covenant, even if it means that I must shed my own blood.” He will go to great lengths to keep his promise—all the way to the cross.

 

This is the God we gather to worship today. May we give him our lives because he has given us his own. Amen.



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