Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
For many years, I fasted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Day referred to as the Day of Atonement. I did so wrongly thinking that abstaining from food and drink on that day was reconciling me to God. Many of you recall that erroneous reasoning. But no matter how it was presented to us at the time, fasting on Yom Kippur for that purpose meant trying to maintain our Atonement (at-one-ment) with God through our own works. We were practicing a religious system of grace plus works—one that overlooked the reality that Jesus is our Atonement.
Perhaps you recall my letter from two weeks ago concerning Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration referred to as the Feast of Trumpets. I noted that Jesus has blown the trumpet once and for all, and that he is the head of the year—indeed, the head of all time. As the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel (the old covenant), Jesus, the creator of time, changed all time, forever. This is the new covenant perspective on Rosh Hashanah. And when we view Yom Kippur with new covenant eyes, we understand that Jesus is our Atonement. As is the case with all of Israel’s worship festivals, the Day of Atonement points to the person and work of Jesus for our salvation. He is the embodiment of ancient Israel’s worship system.
Though we now understand that the Hebrew calendar pointed forward to Jesus’ coming, and thus is now obsolete because Jesus has come and inaugurated the new covenant, we acknowledge that God used that calendar to help us see who Jesus truly is. Today, our focus is on the four major “Christ events”—the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Yom Kippur pointed forward to Jesus’ death. When we seek to understand what the New Testament teaches us concerning that death, we bear in mind the Old Testament patterns of understanding and worship provided within God’s covenant with Israel (the old covenant). We do this because Jesus said that it all testifies about him (John 5:39-40).
In other words, Jesus is the lens through which we properly interpret the entire Bible. We interpret the Old Testament (which includes the old covenant) through the lens of the New Testament (with its new covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ). If we do this interpreting in the reverse order, we end up with false ideas like thinking that the New Covenant does not begin until Jesus’ return. That was a fundamental error in Herbert Armstrong’s reasoning, and the reason that he focused so much on the worship calendar of Israel. He wrongly believed that we were in a time between the old and new covenants, and thus still obligated to observe the sacred Hebrew calendar.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus explained the temporary nature of Israel’s worship system. Even though God gave Israel a specific pattern of worship to follow, Jesus taught that it would change through himself. He emphasized this in the conversation he had with a woman at a well in Samaria (John 4:1-25). To paraphrase Jesus, he told her that the worship of the people of God would no longer have a physical, material center in Jerusalem or any other geographical location. In another place he promised that wherever two or three would gather in his name, he would be present in their midst (Matthew 18:20). Jesus told the Samaritan woman that there would no longer be such thing as a single “holy place” at the conclusion of his earthly ministry. Note his words to her:
“A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth…” (John 4:21-24).
With this statement, Jesus was eliminating the significance of Israel’s worship system—a system described in the Law of Moses (the old covenant). Jesus did so because he embodied, and thus fulfilled, that system since almost every aspect of it was, in one way or another, centered on the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman indicates that a wide range of worship practices are no longer required in the same literal way. If Jesus’ true worshipers would not be worshiping at Jerusalem, they could not be taking their cues for worship as it was established in the Law of Moses, since that worship system was dependent on the existence and use of the physical building of the temple.
So, as we pass beyond the Old Testament language to Jesus himself, we move from the shadows into the reality. That means allowing the person of Jesus and his work as the one Mediator between God and humanity to shape our understanding of the Atonement. As the Son of God, Jesus came into the situation long prepared for him in Israel and acted critically and creatively to fulfill the entire old covenant, including the Day of Atonement. In the book Incarnation, the Person and Life of Christ, T.F. Torrance explains how Jesus accomplished our Atonement with God:
Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgment: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgment, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgment on evil simply by smiting it violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into it from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin (p. 150).
Viewing the Atonement solely as a legal transaction related to “getting right with God” leads to a flawed understanding that, sadly, many Christians hold to in our time. Such a view misses the depth of what Jesus has already accomplished on our behalf. As sinners, we are in need of more than mere freedom from the penalty of sin. We need sin itself to be dealt a deathblow and thus eradicated from our nature.
That is exactly what Jesus did. Rather than just dealing with the symptoms of our sin, he went to the cause of it in a way very much like the title of one of Baxter Kruger’s booklets indicates: The Undoing of Adam. This title speaks of what Jesus actually accomplished in reconciling us to the Father. Yes, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. But he did far more—he performed “cosmic surgery.” He gave our fallen, sin-sick humanity a heart transplant! That new heart is a heart of reconciliation. It is the heart of Jesus—the one who as both God and man is the one Mediator and High Priest, our Savior and elder brother. Through the Holy Spirit, just as God promised through the prophets Ezekiel and Joel, Jesus creates new life in our dry bones, giving us new hearts. In him, we are a new creation!
Living in the new creation with you,