Understanding the history behind geographic locations is often key to understanding a prophecy.
This post has been a bit delayed, in part because of the elections (which I’ve commented on elsewhere, but don’t intend to on this blog), and in part because it’s taken me a while to figure out how best to attack Matthew 2:16-18:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (quoting Jer. 31:15)
There’s a bit of an incongruity in this passage: Ramah is about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, while Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. As a result, commentaries on Jeremiah generally assume that this passage refers to the Rachel weeping for the captives of Jerusalem as they were marched north, past Ramah, on their way to Babylon (see for example Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, pp. 128). An alternative explanation is that Rachel’s voice, emanating from Benjamin, in the southern kingdom, spoke in mourning for the northern tribes that were taken away by the Assyrians (Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 14). It therefore seems odd that Matthew would take this as a Messianic prophecy.
Or perhaps not. Let’s look at this passage in light of the principles that we’ve already discovered.
First Principle: “That which has been fulfilled in spirit may be fulfilled again in both spirit and letter in the Messiah.” As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the Sinaic covenant as written in Deuteronomy is very specific that Israel would suffer not one, but two distinct exiles. Nearly all of the NT writers at least allude to this coming judgment. Matthew sees Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem as a precursor to this second exile.
Second Principle: “The context of a prophecy may be thematic rather than chronological.” If we look just a few verses over, we come to Jeremiah 31:31-34, the key proclamation that there would be a New Covenant (and quoted as such in Hebrews 8). And the verses leading up to it speak of Israel’s restoration. Matthew undoubtedly had this in mind when he tied verse 15 into Yeshua’s life.
Third Principle: “Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa. Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.” Longenecker combines our first and third principles together as follows:
For Matthew, however, who thought as a Jew in terms of corporate solidarity and typological correspondences in history–and who was convinced as a Christian concerning eschatological fulfillment and messianic presence in the person and work of Jesus Christ–the lament of God for his people of old finds its fullest expression and can be legitimately applied to Herod’s murder of the infant boys in Bethlehem at the time of of Jesus’ birth. (ibid., pp. 128f).
In short, Matthew 2:16-18 provides a confirmation and expansion on the principles discovered in his first three quotes.
Next, we’ll tackle the prophecies of John the Immerser all together. I’m not sure yet if that will be one post, or several. Until then,
Basically, Johnny McMahon of the ever-goofy, ever-fun Iron Show, where I’ve been more or less a permanent guest for the last couple of years, needed a break. Also, to be wisked away to a secure location for his safety due to the anti-Trump riots in his area getting out of control. But mainly a break. I’d been thinking about starting my own show for some time, so jumping into his time-slot for the next couple of months to get it started seemed like a cool idea.
The Last Trump Podcast is about the intersection of faith, science, and politics. So, basically an excuse for me to babble about whatever I want (whereas I’ve generally avoided politics on this blog). Or, to quote the blurb:
Is there a battle between faith and science? Should religion be kept out of politics? Not here! Join Michael Bugg (affectionately known as Rabbi Mike to the Iron Show audience) as he looks at the intersection of the spiritual, the physical, and the cultural through the eyes of a Messianic Jewish science buff, sci-fi geek, political hack.
It’s being produced by the Fringe Radio Network, a network about which I should have some really cool things to share in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned!
One of the great joys of having children is watching them learn. Preschoolers in particular always seem to be asking questions: “Why? Why? Why?” My four-year-old son’s favorite questions all start the same way, “How did God make ____ ?” He hasn’t yet figured out the difference between the natural and the artificial, so the questions range from, “How did God make trees?” to “How did God make cars?” Frankly, answering the questions about the natural world are a lot harder than answering those about man-made things, but both are difficult. My son doesn’t have a lot of background knowledge, so I’m always walking a line between answering truthfully but incomprehensibly and just making stuff up. (“Well, you see, babies are brought by a stork . . . “)
It was after a long series of questions one day that something clicked with me about the Biblical creation narratives. (Yes, there are more than one. No, they don’t contradict.) While the prophets of old weren’t children, and certainly weren’t stupid, they also weren’t very scientifically advanced. So how then could God explain creation to them in a way that was a) accurate, b) meaningful, and c) actionable?
To suggest that the ancient Hebrews would have read into Genesis 1:1 the creation of a universe over 30 billion light-years across in a “big bang” almost 14 billion years ago is, of course, ludicrous. To the ancients, “the heavens” referred to that which they could see with the naked eye: Sky, clouds, the sun, moon, and stars (which included the “wandering” stars, or planets) in their constellations, etc. They did not, and could not, distinguish between the atmosphere and outer space, let alone interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space. They also had no conception of, and no concern about, our current scientific debates about the ultimate origin of a universe that was largely invisible to them and which we have only begun to perceive through powerful telescopes in the last century. Nor would they have cared about the extent to which evolution played a role in the development of the earth’s life-forms. Atheism and materialism were not even on the table for discussion.
What was on the table for discussion was the means by which the visible world was created and by whom. All Ancient Near-East (ANE) pagan systems personified nature into their gods. These gods, in turn, were not eternal, but arose (evolved) spontaneously from a chaotic, primordial world which they proceeded to shape and vie over. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (thought to have been composed around the 18th to 16th century BCE) tells us that Apsu and Tiamat, the personifications of fresh and salt water, mixed together and created the gods. Apsu wished to kill them, but Tiamat prevailed in keeping them alive. Ea, the chief of the gods, killed Apsu in his sleep, leading to Tiamat seeking revenge. Marduk in turn killed Tiamat in battle and divided her, using half of her corpse to form the earth and half to form the heavens. The Egyptians and Greeks had myths of a similar sort.
The chief point of Genesis, then, is to correct these pagan traditions of personified nature. In their place, Genesis asserts that in the beginning was one God, transcendent and separate from the visible world, and that he alone created the natural entities and forces that the pagans worshipped. God did not bring into being by strife, nor with the help of (or death of) other gods, by simply by the Word of his power. The deep (Heb. tehom) was not a god or a monster, but was simply the primordial ocean over which the Spirit of the Living God brooded before acting to create, and so forth. This is the plain-sense, historical interpretation.
Does this mean that Genesis has nothing to speak to today’s issues, or that it is ahistorical and simply a polemical device for countering paganism? Not at all. First of all, its polemical value is anchored on being a true, historical account by the One who created everything. And if that is the case, then we should expect that as our scientific knowledge of creation expands, we should find confirmation of God’s account. Secondly, the major difference between paganism and philosophical materialism is that paganism personifies the natural elements. (Though given how non-theists tend to personify “the Universe,” “the Cosmos,” and “Evolution” when speaking of the design in nature, that’s an even thinner line between the two than may be apparent at first glance.) The Bible’s response to paganism would therefore answer materialism as well–and such a response would have to be rooted in real, verifiable natural history in order to be effective. Moreover, if the God of the Bible is truly all-knowing and eternal (outside of the created dimension of time), we would expect that he would anticipate future attacks on his sovereignty over creation just as much as those in the past.
This is a long way of saying that I believe that my Father engaged humanity much like I try (however imperfectly) to engage my son: He is never untruthful, but by necessity he is often simplistic when the original human authors and readers would not be in a position to know the whole truth. Peter notes that the prophets did not always understand their own messages: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced” regarding the Messiah and the Good News (1Pt. 1:12). In the same way, I think the clues are there so that when we gained greater knowledge of the physical universe, we would be able to look back at Genesis and say, “Hey, that still fits!”
Those who think that only a Young Earth Creationist viewpoint is consistent with a normal or “literal” reading of the Word should read the Report of the Creation Study Committee organized by the PCA. For the record, I’m mostly in the Framework Hypothesis when it comes to the plain sense, but an Old Earth Creationist midrashically. Those interested in getting the Old Earth Creationist viewpoint can do far worse than to look into Reasons to Believe, Dr. Hugh Ross’s ministry. You might also enjoy his debate with Kent Hovind on the John Ankerberg Show a few years ago:
This post is getting a little long, so I’ll leave the question of why I consider this issue to be so important for another time.
Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa.Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.
Some years ago, I had dinner with an Israeli friend of the family. He wasn’t Messianic. Heck, some days he wasn’t even sure if he believed in the God of Jacob. Nevertheless, he had a vast collection of rabbinic commentaries. As a kind of party game, he started doing off-the-cuff translations of both the commentaries and the Tanakh (OT) itself for us. My mother-in-law cheekily asked him to translate Isaiah 53 for us, and he readily agreed.
He got three verses in, looked up with a frown, and said, “That sounds positively Christian, doesn’t it?” Four more verses later he suddenly stopped, shaken, and said, “I don’t understand this–I-I have to look at the commentary.”
We didn’t have to tell him whom the passage referred to. He knew. The commentaries he pulled, however, said that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was not the Messiah, but referred to the sufferings of the Jewish people as a whole instead. He latched onto that and ended the conversation, even though I could point him to passages from the Talmud and the Midrash that state in no uncertain terms that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah (e.g., Sanhedrin 98b, Ruth Rabba 5:6ff).
Actually, though, the anti-missionaries who claim that the “servant” of Isaiah 40-53 is Israel aren’t entirely wrong. There are several places in that passage where the servant must refer to Israel, like “But now hear, O Jacob my servant” (44:1, cf. 41:8, 42:19). There are also places where, apart from having a NT reading, we would consider the reference to be ambiguous, possibly referring to Israel, and possibly to a particular individual (42:1-4, sandwiched between 41:8 and 42:19). So how do we explain the apparent inconsistency in Isaiah’s use of the word “servant”?
This brings us to Matthew 2:13-15:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The quote is from Hosea 11:1. However, when we look at Hosea, we find that the context makes it impossible to regard it as a Messianic prophecy:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt.
They called to them, so they went from them.
They sacrificed to the Baals,
and burned incense to engraved images.
Yet I taught Ephraim to walk.
I took them by his arms;
but they didn’t know that I healed them.
I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love;
and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks;
and I bent down to him and I fed him. (Hos. 11:1-4)
Very obviously, just like Isaiah 44:1 uses the term “servant,” Hosea is using the singular term “my son” (beni) collectively for all Israel, a beloved child who had gone astray. So how can we explain Matthew’s use of this passage as Messianic?
History Becoming Biography
Here I’ll quote from Richard N. Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd Edition):
In applying the passage to Jesus, Matthew seems to be thinking along the lines of corporate solidarity and rereading his Old Testament from an eschatologically realized and messianic perspective. . . [H]e is making the point that what was vital in Israel’s corporate and redemptive experience finds its ultimate and intended focus in the person of Jesus the Messiah. (p. 128)
In other words, Matthew is setting up in his audiences mind that the King and his people are as one, that Yeshua’s life is a microcosm of Israel’s–only where Israel became tainted by idolatry and went astray, Yeshua remained pure and opened up the way back through his own sacrifice. Longenecker expands on this theme (p. 125):
Like Israel, Yeshua is
a child of promise (Mat. 1:18ff; Gen. 15-21);
delivered from the hand of Herod (Mat. 2:1ff), as Jacob was from Herod’s ancestor Esau (Gen. 27:41ff, 32:1ff);
who came out of Egypt (Mat. 2:15, 19ff; Exo. 12:31ff);
passing through the waters (Mat. 3:13ff; Exo. 14);
entering the wilderness for testing (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 15:22ff);
calling out the “twelve sons of Israel” (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 24:4, Num. 1-2);
giving the Law from the mount (Mat. 5-7; Exo. 20:1ff);
performing ten miracles (Mat. 8-9; Exo. 7-12 or the ten miracles that occurred after Israel left Egypt, starting at Exo. 15:22ff);
sending out the Twelve to “conquer” the land (Mat. 10:1ff; Joshua 1:1ff);
feeding the multitudes to with “manna” from heaven (Mat. 14:15ff, 15:32ff; Exo. 16:14ff);
and being transfigured before his disciples (Mat. 17:1ff; Exo. 34:29ff).
I would add a few things to Longenecker’s list, but the point here is not to be absolutely completest. It is enough to demonstrate that Matthew see’s Israel’s history and Yeshua’s life as completely interconnected, and that he uses the passage from Hosea to highlight it.
Added To, Not Replaced
There is an error that we need to avoid here. All too often Christians claim that the fact that Yeshua “fulfills” Israel’s history means that there is no more purpose for “Israel of the flesh.” The Gentiles of the Ekklesia are truly “grafted in” to Israel’s tree (Rom. 11:25ff), having become both fellow heirs and fellow citizens of Israel (Eph. 2:19, 3:6). But just as an adopted child does not replace the one born into the family, neither does “the Church” replace Israel.
The fact that the King and the people are as as one runs in both directions: As Yeshua was stripped, tortured and killed without cause by the Gentiles, so the Jewish people have been stripped, tortured and killed by the Gentiles. As Yeshua died and came back to life, so Israel as a nation has “died” only to be resurrected in these last days. And as Yeshua was glorified after his resurrection, so too shall be Israel.
The autumn season has always been the one in which I most feel the “pull” of prophecy, specifically end-times prophecy or eschatology. The slow fading of the year appeals to my default state of cheerful melancholia, putting me in the right mood for contemplating the end of history with a Messianic hope. In addition to the prophetic nature of the fall feastdays, there’s something about the final brilliant transformation of the leaves before they wither and fall, something about the sudden chill in the wind combined with grey and rainy skies that sets me in the mood to contemplate the End of All Things.
On Sukkot I emphasize the “cheerful” part of my cheerful melancholia. It is, after all, the time when Yeshua will officially take office as King over the whole world, having reconciled with Israel and pouring out the waters of the Holy Spirit over them. It is the feast where Israel sacrificed seventy bulls for the seventy nations, acting fully in her capacity as a “nation of priests.” And, it is arguably Yeshua’s birthday today (though many would argue for Rosh Hashannah instead). There’s an optimism built into Sukkot that surpasses every other Feast, to the point that Hashem actually commands us to rejoice this week (Deu. 14:26, 16:14).
So this seems like the perfect time to talk about prophetic optimism. No, not the kind of optimism that the post-millennialists and Dominionists have, where they think that we will succeed in politically conquering the world, putting it under Christ’s feet so that he can return. The Scripture is pretty clear that we can expect the political systems of this world to always turn back to serving the prince of this world, the Adversary.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to consistently lose.
When most people read the Olivet Discourse (Mat. 24-25, Mark 13; cf. Luke 21), they focus on the wars and rumors of wars, the famines, the earthquakes, and the persecution of God’s people, the Great Tribulation. That must mean that everything has to go straight to hell for the Lord to return, right?
No, not at all. I mean really, the whole of human history is full of wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecution, so what kind of sign would that be? No, the real signs of the Lord’s immanent return are three very positive developments hidden in the text:
First, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations (ethnoi), and then the end will come” (Mat. 24:14). In other words, one of the signs of the Lord’s near return will be the completion of the Great Commission. It’s almost complete now, with only a handful of places in the world that yet need to be evangelized properly. Is not the spread of the Good News to every tribe and tongue and people and nation despite all of the Adversary’s attempts to block it something to look forward to–and more than that, to participate in?
Second, “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. . . Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” (vv. 16, 20). This warning presupposes two things: That Israel would be back in the land of ancient Judea and in control of its mountains (the West Bank), and that there would be disciples of Yeshua living there to whom the Sabbath matters. In other words, the return of both the Jews and of a considerable number of Jews who practice Judaism and yet are followers of Yeshua is predicted in this passage.
Third, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place . . .” (v. 15) presupposes that there will be a holy place to stand in.
To rebuild the Temple would require an incredible upsurge in devotion to Hashem and his Torah in Israel–even before the Messiah’s return. I’d call that a pretty optimistic outlook for Israel’s future, as predicted in Scripture.
So as we enjoy this time of feasting, family, friends, and faith, let’s renew our vigor to see the Gospel spread “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile,” knowing that our Lord will not rest until the task is complete, and neither should we. We need to play to win, striving in excellence in all things so as to bring glory to our King.
The context of a prophecy may be thematic rather than chronological.
The birth of Yeshua in Bethlehem, “the city of David” (Luke 2:11), is iconic in Christian circles, the center of Christmas pageants in churches all over the world every December. I still enjoy the songs of the Christmas season (even though I know it’s closer to the Lord’s conception date than his birth-date), particularly the minor key, melancholic ones like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
But did you know that the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is one that, if we applied the standards of many or even most Christian scholars, is taken completely out of context?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” (Mat. 2:1-6, cit. Mic. 5:2)
Now let’s turn to the book of Micah, from which this prophecy was taken, and really look at it in its historical-textual context: when it was written and why. And when we do, we find out that Micah’s immediate concern was not the future coming of the Messiah (unlike his contemporary Isaiah), but the near-term descent of the Assyrians on Judah. The immediate context is so clear that some Christian scholars have even argued that Micah’s prophecy “failed,” and must therefore have been contingent based on Judah’s reception to it. While we deal with that argument here, the fact remains that Micah’s prophecies seem entirely local to his situation, even if they do anticipate the later Babylonian captivity–except for chapter 5, verses 2-4, which speak of the Messiah.
The great Jewish rabbi and scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak (aka Rashi) wrote that this passage referred to, “the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): ‘The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.'” His commentary on this passage probably deserves its own post, so for now let’s just point out that it’s an established fact in Judaism that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So how then do we explain this out-of-context reference to him in the middle of a prophetic description of events 600-800 years before Yeshua’s birth?
From Micah’s prophecy, we actually learn an important prophetic principle: A prophecy can be thematically linked with its context without being chronologically linked to it. In other words, a section of prophecy can be linked to the theme of its surrounding verses, but still take place hundreds or thousands of years apart.
While some translations (like the ESV) try to separate the clause, “And he [the Messiah] shall be their peace” from the following, “When the Assyrian [or Assyria] comes into our land . . .,” there is no hard break between the two. The passage can just as easily be understood as a continuance of the Messianic prophecy, e.g., “This [promise of the coming] Messiah will be our peace when Assyria comes into our land and treads on our palaces, because [we know there will come a day when] we will raise against Assyria seven shepherds . . .”
Micah 7:12 is parallel to Isaiah 19:19-25, which prophesies of the day when the enemies of Israel, both Egypt and Assyria, would be at peace with both Israel and with each other. The promise that these Gentile nations would be called by God “my people” and “the work of my hands” likewise parallels the promise of Amos 9:11-12 that the nations would one day be called by the name of the Lord. Since that latter passage was used by the Acts 15 council to make the decision to include the Gentiles as Gentiles and not as converted Jews, we can safely take all three of these OT passages to be eschatological, referring to the reconciliation of the nations to their original Creator through his Messiah–and thereby their reconciliation to the Creator’s nation of Israel as well.
In a way, this is a reiteration of the point from the previous post, but driven home in a different way. Before, we saw that a prophecy can have two fulfillments, one near to the prophet and one centuries later in the Messiah himself. Here we see that it is not always necessary to try to find a “local” fulfillment first.
Theme in Eschatology
One of the easiest places to illustrate the use of this principle is in Daniel 11-12. Pretty much all scholars agree that 11:21-35 was fulfilled by Antiochus IV and the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BCE. Some of us believe, on the basis of the “near-far” principle and direct NT citation (as discussed in the previous post) that they will be fulfilled again by the final Antichrist. But let’s set that aside for the moment and assume for the sake of discussion that we’re wrong, that there’s only one fulfillment to 11:21-35.
Now look at 11:36-12:13. These verses contain prophecies that no one has ever fulfilled, and which are alluded to several times in the NT. Does this mean that we have to take them “out of context” to use them in a futurist sense? Not at all. The theme of these verses is still the same: The great enemy of Israel and Israel’s God will arise in the last days to test the faithful, but will fall by the hand of the Most High himself. Whether or not you choose to recognize the “near-far” element of the prophecy, the connecting theme itself is still there.
The book of Revelation has 404 verses and, depending on who you ask, 800-1200 quotes and allusions from the Tanakh. Many of these may seem out-of-place or out-of-context at first glance, but are they really? Is there a linking theme that Revelation is drawing on that we can use as our guide? For example, most recognize that Joel’s army of locusts represents a human army, and that Revelation 9:1-11 alludes to Joel. What is the linking theme?
When we discover someone seemingly taking a prophecy out of its historical-textual context, Matthew 2:1-6 gives us a guide: Is the quote truly out of context, or has the person correctly identified an underlying theme?
All of this is obviously tricky, and even subjective to a point. However, it is Biblical, and serves as a baseline–or perhaps a safety railing–as we seek to understand our very strange days in light of God’s Word.
Yom Kippur! There is no holier day in Judaism! In ancient days, it was on this day that, according to Jewish tradition, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with two new stone tablets, showing that Hashem had forgiven Israel for the sin of the golden calf (cf. Exo. 34). It was on this day, and this day alone, that the high priest entered into the holy of holies to commune with the Eternal (Lev. 16). And this is the day on which Yeshua will finally be reconciled with all Israel in our very near future!
Now, as popularly told in Christian circles, the sacrifices through the year, and the sacrifice at Yom Kippur, were indeed effective and necessary for the forgiveness of sin before the coming of Christ, but following his “once and for all” sacrifice (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 26, 10:10), those sacrifices ceased to be effectual, and anyone who continued to offer them were guilty of “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:6).
However, as we’ve pointed out on this blog, Paul himself continued to offer sacrifices some thirty years after the Cross-and he was far from the only one! How then can we reconcile these two lines of thought?
Let’s back up for a second. Wherever did we get the idea that the Old Covenant sacrifices purified the offerer from sin? As Tevye might sing, “Tradition!” On both the Christian and Jewish sides.
Even a cursory scan of the Talmud reveals an ongoing discussion about when a person was obligated to bring a sin offering. The general rule was that failures to carry out a “positive” commandment (a “thou shalt”) were covered by the daily burnt offering, but that any failure to carry out a “negative” commandment (a “thou shalt not”) obligated the individual Jew to offer up a personal sin offering. It would be easy to take all of this to understand that sin offerings indeed atoned for the individual sin so as to avoid Divine punishment. Christianity naturally picked up on this idea and filtered it through Hebrews to come to the idea that animal sacrifices had something to do with personal salvation in the Old Testament, but that they were superseded by the sacrifice of Christ in the New.
Modern scholarship, such as the work of Jacob Milgrom, has recognized that the sacrifices of the Torah never covered the offerer in their blood: Instead, the blood was sprinkled in the Holy Place, the temple, on the outer altar, on the inner altar of incense, or on the Ark of the Covenant itself. The implication is that the blood did not atone for the individual, but that it in some way cleansed holy territory of the sins of everyday life so that the Sh’khinah, the Presence of the Living God, could continue to dwell among his people. While I would depart from Milgrom’s thesis that the sacrifices were only concerned with ritual purity and had nothing at all to do with the moral sins of the people (I think Lev. 16:16 is pretty clear on this point), he’s precisely on point that for the individual, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).
(At this point, I would suggest that the student of the Bible listen to the Naked Bible Podcast episodes specifically dealing with Leviticus. While I think that Dr. Michael Heiser has failed to apply his own conclusions properly to the NT, I do believe that he gives one of the better layperson presentations on the subject–and as usual is good about citing his sources.)
As Paul points out, being justified–that is, being vindicated before the Heavenly court–was based on one’s trust and faithfulness long before the Levitical system was given (Rom. 4, Gal. 3). So what then was the point of the Levitical sacrificial system? It was not to justify the individual offerers, but to purify sacred geographical space, the holy place where the Presence of the Eternal Creator dwelt among his people. This is why the blood of the sin offering of a lay person was put on the horns of the altar in the courtyard (Lev. 4:34) while a sin offering for a priest or for the community (which would include the priests) was brought to the altar of incense inside the holy place (vv. 7, 17). The high priest in turn brought the blood of his sin offering inside the holy-of-holies itself on Yom Kippur (16:14). In each case, the blood was brought as far inside the temple as the contamination of the sin may have spread.
So where does the Messiah’s sacrifice fit in? Simple: We who trust in him, both collectively and individually, are living temples of the Holy Spirit (1Co. 3:16-17, 6:19; 2Co. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). As Heiser so eloquently wrote:
The implications are startling. We have all likely heard the verse where Jesus says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mat. 18:20). But put in the context of this other New Testament language, which in turn is informed by the Old Testament imagery of the tabernacle and temple, it means that wherever believers are and gather, the spiritual ground they occupy is sanctified amid the powers of darkness.
If we could see with spiritual eyes, we would see a world of darkness peppered with the lights of [Hashem’s] presence, spreading out to meet each other, inexorably pressing and spreading out to take back the ground of the disinherited nations from the enemy. (Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm, p.328)
The blood of bulls and goats was sufficient to cleanse a geographical space, but only the blood of Messiah is sufficient to cleanse a human being and turn them into a mobile holy place!
This was why Paul and the other Nazarenes could and did continue to take part in the sacrificial service: They didn’t view the Levitical system as having been “fulfilled” (as in abolished) by Yeshua’s sacrifice. Rather, they viewed it as being in an entirely different category, having an entirely different purpose. Therefore, they could continue to offer sacrifices without impinging on the uniqueness of Yeshua’s–the one literally had nothing to do with the other, except insofar as the Levitical sacrifices provided illustration into Hashem’s ultimate purpose in the Cross. It also explains how we could have a renewed Levitical system in the end times and the Millennium: They would not be “memorials” of the Messiah’s work, but rather operate in their ancient purpose of sanctifying the sacred geographical space of the third temple.
So how does this fit with Yom Kippur? Traditionally, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and repentence, of praying for God to forgive us personally and cleans us from sin and iniquity. It turns out that for the Messianic Jew, who is a holy place and has a great High Priest in Yeshua, both the Levitical and traditional observances of the day take on a new life and an enhanced meaning, just like Passover.
For all my bretheren, both Jewish and Christian, g’mar chatima tovat haSheh, may you be sealed in the Lamb’s book of lie!