Jesus is the True Priest Who Offers a Better Sacrifice

goodfriday04In his modern classic, The Cross of Christ, John Stott begins his consideration of Christ’s crucifixion by outlining all the times Jesus speaks of his impending death. For Christ, his earthly mission focused not on his teaching, his healing, nor his ruling; his singular focus was on his sacrifice and his atonement for sin. He knew this and as we remember Christ’s death and resurrection this week, it is good for us to know the same.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we find at least nine places where Jesus speaks about his death. In John’s Gospel, we find seven more statements that describe the hour of his death. In all, these passages tell us a great deal about what Jesus’s death accomplished and how our Savior understand the purposes of his crucifixion. Following Stott’s outline (see pp. 25–32), let’s consider what Christ says about his death in the Synoptic Gospels. Perhaps, if time permits, we will return to John’s Gospel. Continue reading

Moses’ Gospel Logic

Yesterday, we saw how Abraham wrestled with God’s word in order to believe his promise (Gen 15:6) and to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:1ff).  We called such thinking that gave precedence to God’s revelation over our reasonable (or unreasonable) feelings “Gospel Logic.”  Today, we turn to Exodus 32 to see how Moses engaged in the same kind of thinking.

A Sinful People in Need of Something…

1 Corinthians 10 points to Exodus 32 as a universal example of what not to do. Poised to receive God’s order of service for true worship, Israel gets impatient (Exod 32). They hire Aaron to make new gods, and on one of the forty days that Moses in on the Mount of Sinai, the people of Israel sin against God and break the covenant that had just been ratified in Exodus 24.

On the mountain, Moses receives word from the Lord, “And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” (Exod 32:7-8).

What is Moses to do?

On the way down the mountainside, he hears the drunken sound of pagan worship in the camp (32:18-20).  He gets to the base camp, and he smashes the tablets.  The covenant is broken.  In the scenes that follow, Moses inquires of Aaron (32:22-24) and commissions the sons of Levi to slaughter their own family members in order to avert the wrath of God (32:25-29).  The day is done.  The people are undone.  Night falls.

Exodus 32:30 records a new day.  The day of judgment has passed, but the threat of the plague remains (v. 35).  What will Moses do?  Surely he was thinking the same thing.  The covenant people of Israel have broken their wedding vows, and something must be done.  Not a passive man, Moses sets off to inquire of God telling the people, “You have sinned a great sin.  And I will go up to the Lord, . . . ” (32:30).

What would he do?  What would he say?  The rest of verse tells us, “perhaps I can make atonement for your sins.”

Atonement.  This is what the people needed.  But how would he accomplish this.  The plans for the tabernacle were destroyed.  The sin was so great, and God’s holiness was so much greater what would he do?  How would he plead his case?  Such questions lead us to see how Moses reckoned the matter, and in his offer, we will see how gospel logic at work.

Moses Gospel Logic: From Sinai to Eden and Back Again

To understand fully how Moses might have arrived at his self-sacrificing offer, we need to consider the antecedent theology that Moses would have had, and that he would have drawn upon to plead his case and make his offer.

Atonement, and the need for blood sacrifice, was common throughout the ancient near east.  Accordingly, Israel as they worshiped around the golden altar made sacrifices.  While they needed divine instruction for true sacrifices, they did not need information on how to sacrifice.  While they did not have the book of Exodus, they had ample knowledge of the sacrifices offered In Egypt.

But where did these come from?  From God, where else?  Pagan sacrifices are echoes of the first sacrifice, the one God made in the Garden.  Indeed, sacrifice in general terms was imprinted on human civilization from the Garden of Eden forward. Remember: When Adam and Eve sinned they needed a covering, and so God killed an animal an clothed them.  The seed of substitution was sown in this act, and it was passed from God to Adam to Abel.

(For a biblical exposition of these patriarchal and pagan sacrifices, see William Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ [1834], pp. 66-92; likewise, for a helpful explanation of the way pagan worship corresponds to the original pattern passed down from Adam and Noah, see Jeffrey Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology)

As the biblical testimony goes, not all offerings were of equal value.  In Genesis 4, Abel’s offering was based on his faith (Heb 11), but what was his faith in?  Surely, it based on the revelation conveyed to Cain and Abel’s parents, modeled in Genesis 3, that said bloodshed was needed. By contrast, Cain’s offering was faithless, because he refused to believe the need for shed blood.  Instead of substitutionary offering, he brought fruit from the field.  His offering was not according to God’s word, it did not substitute life for life, and thus it was not acceptable to the Lord.

If Moses was indeed retracing the history of God’s atonement and means of provision, he would have next thought of Abraham and Isaac.  In what would become Genesis 22, YHWH commands Abraham to offer his son. This is far more than an animal sacrifice, something Abraham (and Moses) had done plenty of times.  Now, God was upping the ante.  He was testing Abraham (22:1), and he was setting in redemptive history a portrait of a substitution—a divinely provided lamb in place of Abraham’s seed (people of faith).

Like Abel, Abraham had to make this offering in faith–faith in God’s word.  As we saw yesterday, this is exactly what God’s friend did.  Thus, he believed that God could raise his son from the dead.  If indeed Moses was pondering all that God had revealed to him in the law on Sinai, and all that God had done in Israel’s history, it is little wonder that Moses concluded that perhaps his own substitution might become the means by which Israel would be saved.

Putting this gospel logic in dramatic prose, James M. Boyce imagines what the night might have been like,

The night passed, and the morning came when Moses was to reascend the mountain.  He had been thinking.  Sometime during the night a way that might possibly divert the wrath of God against the people had come to him.  He remembered the sacrifices of the Hebrew patriarchs and the newly instituted sacrifice of the Passover.  Certainly God had shown by such sacrifices that he was prepared to accept an innocent substitute in place of the just death of the sinner.  His wrath could sometimes fall on the substitute.  Perhaps God would accept… When morning came, Moses ascended the mountain with great determination. Reaching the top, he began to speak to God (Quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus, 1013).

Concluding Thoughts

Like Abraham, Moses practiced Gospel Logic.  He reflected on the character of God, God’s revealed word, the sin of the people, and like Abraham who reckoned that God could raise the dead, Moses conjectured, maybe, just maybe God might take me in place of my people.  So Moses, with boldness and selfless love for God’s sinful people laid himself on the altar: “No if you would on forgive their sin.  But if not”–and here is where the offer comes–“please me from the book You have written” (Exod 32:32).

In the end, his offer is not accepted (32:33-34), but not because the idea is wrong, but because the substitute is blemished.  Even though Moses was not complicit in the crime, he was a son of Adam and by nature incapable of atoning for the sins of the people.  Relatively speaking, he was innocent, but time would reveal that in his own heart lay a dark distrust for God and a willingness to strike the rock when God said speak (Num 20:10-13).

Moses was not the perfect substitute.  Yet, his intercession foreshadows the one whose self-sacrifice would be accepted.  Moses receives God’s word to continue to lead the people which implies that the story will continue, the hope of the true Messiah remains. This is good news for Moses, Israel, and us.  And Moses example of wrestling with the Lord like Abraham and Jacob should remind us to press into the truths of God’s word and to find solace in the darkest nights.

When God’s wrath was ready to consume Israel, Moses Gospel Logic reckoned that “perhaps” he could intercede.  We must reckon in the same fashion, not that we can intercede for others (although see Paul in Romans 9).  No, we must reckon with greater  confidence that because in Jesus Christ there is no “perhaps,” all that we ask in his name will be accomplished.  This is God’s promise to us in John 14:13-14, and it is based on the inexhaustible merits of Christ.  In his priestly service, Jesus was gladly received by the Father, and as the Father’s beloved Son, all that he does and asks, is answered.  This is our good news.

May such knowledge of our great high priest comfort us today, and beckon us not to lose heart for tomorrow.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Sermon Notes: The Priest’s Particular Work (OT)

In typological fashion, the names of Israel engraved on the breastpiece & ephod show how the priest represents God’s people before YHWH.  In other words, in Exodus 28 we learn that the priestly duty was to represent Israel before God in the holy of holies (cf Heb 5:1).  Specifically, verses 12 and 29 say that Israel was to remember them as they were kept on Aaron’s heart as he entered the holy of holies.  In this way, he made atonement for Israel.  Notice, in the OT, he didn’t make atonement for Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon.  He only represented those who were redeemed from Egypt, who passed through the sea, who were in covenant with God at Sinai.  It tells us that the priestly service was for those who are in covenant with God.  In fact, the Exodus 28 is a very strong typological argument for definite atonement.  Let’s consider.

To start, the priestly garments are made “for glory and for beauty” (28:2), but they are not simply for aesthetics; they are highly symbolic and even instructive for discerning what the priest did behind the veil.[1]  As Carol Meyers puts it, “priestly office and priestly garb are inextricably related.”[2]  G.K. Beale has developed the connection between the priestly garments, the temple and the universe,[3] but there is also good reason to examine the relationship between the priest and the covenant people.

In this regard, the priestly attire ‘visualizes’ the particular nature of the atonement.[4]  It does so in this way: From head to foot, the priest is to wear the holy attire designed and decorated to teach Israel and later generations what the priest is doing as he enters into the holy of holies.[5]  Of greatest interest (and illumination) are the “shoulder pieces” and the “breastpiece of judgment.”   Concerning the former, YHWH instructs,

And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together… You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel… And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance (Exod 28:6-12; cf. 39:2-7).

The purpose of the shoulder pieces is far more than ancient Near Eastern fashion or utilitarian function.  The names of the twelve tribes were “deeply and permanently cut into the onyx,”[6] signifying the priest’s intimate connection with the people of Israel. As the priest of the covenant, he mediated for the people of the covenant.  Of this “corporate solidarity” that the priest shared with Israel, it was a necessary function of his office to be in communicative relation with those whom he represents. In other words, the priest does not mediate for an unspecified group or number, the “stones of remembrance” were designated to represent “the sons of Israel”—one stone for each tribe.  So that, when the priest entered the tabernacle, and later the temple he did so with Israel on his heart and mind.[7]

In the same way, the high priest’s breastpiece of judgment functioned as a symbol of the high priest’s covenantal representation.[8]  Moses records,

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work… It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes… So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD (Exod 28:15-30; cf. 39:8-21).

Like the shoulder pieces, the breastpiece is designed to bring the sons of Israel into “regular remembrance before the Lord” (v. 29).  Again, as a priest chosen from his brothers for his brothers and their families, he does not generally atone, intercede, or minister.  Rather, God has appointed the high priest to make atonement for God’s particular people, people who knew they had a priest.  Rightly, D.K. Stuart says, “the high priest symbolized Israel” and “that whatever he did, he did as the people’s representative, and his actions would have the same essential effect that they would have if all of them, one by one, had done the same thing.”[9]  This, by itself doesn’t prove definite atonement, but it does show the exact representation of his priestly office.  It is not general, but particular.[10]

In fact, this notion of personal relationship between priest and people has been forcefully argued by Hugh Martin as evidence against indefinite atonement. Unpacking Hebrews 5:1, which develops the Levitical priesthood, Martin argues that the law of the office of the priest “rests on personal relation,” and this relation is not abstract.  Rather, the priest represents “individual men, particular persons.”[11]  Moving from textual observation to dogmatic assertion, he concludes,

If the atonement of Christ falls under the category of His Priesthood, it is impossible it can be impersonal, indefinite, unlimited; for the priesthood is not.  In order to its very constitution, it pre-requires personal relation; and the same must be true of the Atonement, unless the Atonement transpires outside the limits and actings and conditions of the priesthood…The pre-requisite of personal relation to particular persons is so indispensable in all real priesthood whatsoever.  It is true of “every” priest that is taken from among men [Heb 5:1].  Any “general reference” contradictory to this, or in addition to this—except simply community nature, secured by his being taken from among men—violates the very first principles of the office.[12]

While the priestly garments do not give conclusive evidence for Christ’s particular work on the cross; they are very suggestive.  Moreover, the fact that Christ, as the antitype of Israel’s high priest, wears the golden plate on his head declaring ‘Holy to the Lord’ and the names of his covenant people on his chest; there is great reason to see in his attire the inseparable union of Christ and his elect from every nation.

What do you think? Would love to hear how you think Christ’s priestly garments typify the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss


[1]They also connote a strong sense of authority.  See Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 604.

[2]Carol Meyers, Exodus, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 240.

[3]G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 39-45.

[4]For instance, speaking of the priest in his vestments, Alec Motyer writes, “he is the visual display of the Lord’s ‘judgment,’ his opinion regarding his people” (J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus, The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J.A. Motyer [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 279.

[6]Stuart, Exodus, 609.  Stuart’s offhand comment about the engraving does not in itself signify anything about the definite nature of the atonement, but it does add to the mounting evidence that the priestly work was for a people whom he would not forget (cf. Isa 49:16).

[7]“This feature [the names engraved on the priestly attire] has commemorative symbolic value, bringing all Israel into the tabernacle with Aaron as he carries out the rituals thought to help secure the well-being of the people or adjudicate their conflicts” (Meyers, Exodus, 241).

[8]“The breastpiece was not merely a patch on his ephod but a square frontal vest, a very prominent, central, expansive, symbolic display of the covenant relation of God to his people” (Stuart, Exodus, 610).

[9]Stuart, Exodus, 611.

[10]On this point, it should be noted that the priests served the covenant people only, and they stood against those who were outside the people of God (David Williams, The Office of Christ and Its Expression in the Church, 13-14).

[11]All these quotes are taken from Hugh Martin’s discussion of the nature of Christ’s priestly office in The Atonement, 58.  Martin ties this particular relationship to the definite nature of the atonement.  Speaking of the Levitical priests, he says, “The priests of Levi were chosen for, or in lieu of, the first-born [Num 3]; and they were ordained for [Lev 8-9], or in room and on behalf of men, even for the Israel of God collectively and individually.  They acted for individuals; and besides such action, they had no priestly action whatsoever, no official duty to discharge.  The introduction of a ‘general reference’ into the theory of their office is an absurdity” (The Atonement, 65).

[12]The Atonement, 63-65.