Set Apart to Be Set Free

43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

50 All the people of Israel did just as the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And on that very day the Lord brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. – Exodus 12:43-51 ESV

Verses 1-13 of this chapter contain God’s instructions concerning the establishment of the Feast of Passover, one of the first of seven annual feasts that God would institute for the people of Israel. Verses 14-20 contain His instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. These two annual feasts are closely linked in terms of their place on the Hebrew calendar but also in their association with God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt.

God commanded that Passover be celebrated on the tenth day of the first month of Abib, which would put the exodus as taking place somewhere around March or April. The Passover meal was followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted seven days. Together, these two God-ordained rites were to form a single memorial commemorating the day that God delivered His people from their captivity and oppression in Egypt. Sometime after Moses led the people out of Egypt, he reiterated God’s command concerning these two national feasts.

“Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 16:1-3 ESV

On the very day that God had ordained for Israel’s deliverance from captivity, every Israelite household was to sacrifice the unblemished one-year-old male lamb that they had set aside four days earlier. These young lambs would have served as fitting symbols of Israel’s fruitfulness in the land. Not only had the Israelites multiplied greatly during their four-century sojourn in the land of Egypt, but also their flocks and herds flourished and expanded in number. These young lambs would have been prime breeding stock and, therefore, their use as sacrifices would have been costly to those who made their living from tending sheep.

“Freedom from blemish and injury not only befitted the sacredness of the purpose to which they were devoted, but was a symbol of the moral integrity of the person represented by the sacrifice. It was to be a male, as taking the place of the male first-born of Israel; and a year old, because it was not till then that it reached the full, fresh vigour of its life.” – C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch

On the 14th day of the month Abib, the Israelites sacrificed their lambs and spread the blood on the doorpost and lintels of their homes. God told them that the blood was to be a sign for them so that, when the death angel passed through the land of Egypt, he would pass over every home marked with the blood of an innocent lamb.

This event held powerful prophetic meaning, standing as a “sign” for a greater sacrifice to come. The New Testament contains numerous insights into the foreshadowing contained in both the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In John’s gospel, he records the words spoken by John the Baptist concerning Jesus.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! – John 1:29 ESV

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul wrote:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 ESV

The apostle Peter gave the recipients of his first letter the following instructions:

…conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. – 1 Peter 1:17-19 ESV

The sacrifice of the innocent lambs was to serve as a preview of coming events. And each year after their miraculous exit from Egypt, the Israelites were to reenact the ordinances given to them that fateful night in the month of Abib. More lambs would be sacrificed and more unleavened bread would be eaten as a way of commemorating and celebrating what God had done. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the greater sacrifice of Jesus was a one-time event that was never to be repeated.

…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 10:26-28 ESV

The Israelites would go on to celebrate countless Passovers after they arrived in Canaan. But they would also go on to sin against God’s commands and enslave themselves to the worship of false gods, which would end up with their subsequent captivity in foreign lands yet again. The northern kingdom of Israel would end up defeated and enslaved by the Assyrians. Years later, the southern kingdom of Judah would be destroyed and exiled by the Babylonians. All ten tribes of Israel would one day find themselves returned to their former roles as virtual slaves in a land far away from Canaan.

Before the Israelites could be delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had to obey God’s command to remove all leaven from their homes. Leaven was used in baking bread and it caused the dough to rise. In the Old Testament, it is often used as a symbol for sin, which can permeate and influence every area of an individual’s life. God demanded that all leaven (sin) be removed. This meant that the bread they made to take with them on their journey into the wilderness was free from leaven. God’s deliverance was going to happen so quickly that they would have no time to wait for their dough to rise. Baking this leavenless dough produced a cracker-like bread that was less likely to spoil and perfect for sustaining life on the journey that lie ahead.

Once again, this unleavened bread was a foreshadowing of the better bread to some. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35 ESV). He went on to explain the superior, life-sustaining nature of this “bread.”

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 1:48-51 ESV

The Israelites would take their unleavened dough with them when they left, and it would sustain them along the way. But, in time, it ran out and God provided them with manna from heaven. He continued to miraculously meet their needs all along the way.

This brings us to the closing verses of chapter 12, where God provides some final, detailed instructions regarding the Passover. It was to be restricted to Israelites. No foreigner was to take part in the Passover meal. We know that when the Israelites left Egypt they were accompanied by a large contingent of non-Hebrews. Verse 38 states that a “mixed multitude also went up with them.” This could have represented a mixture of Egyptians and people from other nations who wanted to escape the ravages of the plagues that had devastated the land of Egypt.

But God had not delivered them. His miraculous intervention in Egypt had been on behalf of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, God made it clear that the Passover was off-limits to all non-Hebrews.

“…no foreigner shall eat of it.” – Exodus 12:43 ESV

But God also provided a gracious exemption to this restriction.

“…but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him.” – Exodus 12:44 ESV

God made provisions for any foreign-born individuals who shared Israel’s fate as slaves. If those individuals wanted to take part in Israel’s celebration of their deliverance and join in the worship of Israel’s God, they would have to undergo the rite of circumcision. All non-Hebrew males who would willingly succumb to this requirement, demonstrating their faith in Israel’s God, would be allowed to take part in the Passover meal. But they would be expected to follow every requirement God had stipulated concerning the meal.

From that day forward, circumcision became the key determiner for any “stranger” or foreigner who wished to become a part of the covenant community known as the people of Israel. Their association with the nation required a sacrifice that would serve as a sign of their commitment.

“If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.” – Exodus 12:48 ESV

God’s deliverance had been for the descendants of Abraham, and circumcision was the covenant sign of His relationship with them.

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 ESV

God had promised to produce from Abraham a great nation. He had also promised to provide for that future great nation a land of their own – the land of Canaan. But God had also told Abraham that his descendants would spend more than four hundred years as captives in a foreign land before any of those promises could be fulfilled.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

And now, the time had come for God to fulfill that promise to His covenant people.

And on that very day the Lord brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. – Exodus 12:51 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

No More Sacrifices Required

12 “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days. 13 And you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, thirteen bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old; they shall be without blemish; 14 and their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for each of the thirteen bulls, two tenths for each of the two rams, 15 and a tenth for each of the fourteen lambs; 16 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.

17 “On the second day twelve bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 18 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 19 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings.

20 “On the third day eleven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 21 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 22 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

23 “On the fourth day ten bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 24 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 25 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.

26 “On the fifth day nine bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 27 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 28 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

29 “On the sixth day eight bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 30 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 31 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering, and its drink offerings.

32 “On the seventh day seven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 33 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 34 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering, and its drink offering.

35 “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly. You shall not do any ordinary work, 36 but you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord: one bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish, 37 and the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bull, for the ram, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 38 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

39 “These you shall offer to the Lord at your appointed feasts, in addition to your vow offerings and your freewill offerings, for your burnt offerings, and for your grain offerings, and for your drink offerings, and for your peace offerings.”

40  So Moses told the people of Israel everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Numbers 29:12-40 ESV

Reading through chapter 29, it’s impossible not to be staggered by the sheer number of offerings God required the people of Israel to make. This chapter only covers the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year, which was the first month of the civil year. When the people came into the land this would be the time of year when they had the most leisure time, because it would fall between the harvest and the next planting. So, God seemed to fill it with a wider array of sacrifices and solemn occasions.

But in this one chapter alone you have outlined the observances for the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the month, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Booths on the fifteenth day. In that one month alone the people would sacrifice 73 bulls, 17 rams, 120 male lambs, and 10 male goats.

That doesn’t include all the other sacrifices that were to be made on various days of the month on an annual basis. In fact, if you look at chapters 28 and 29, it would appear that the yearly offerings, made at the peoples’ expense, without taking into account a vast number of voluntary vow and trespass offerings, would have added up to 15 goats, 21 kids, 72 rams, 132 bulls, and 1,101 lambs. So, the total of animals sacrificed at public cost would have been an incredible 1,241. Then if you take into account the huge quantity of lambs slain at Passover each year, the number goes out the roof. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, in the time of Christ, the number of lambs sacrificed at Passover in a single year would have been in the vicinity of 255,600. That is an incredible amount of animals.

Think of the cost to the people. These were not the runts of the litter they were sacrificing, but the very best they had to offer. They were sacrificing their breeding stock, all those animals who were free from disease or disfigurement. Any animal they offered to God had to be completely free from blemish. They were required to provide only the very best. In an agriculturally based society, this was an expensive proposition. And it was mandatory. No options. No excuses. So what’s the point? What does all this blood and sacrifice have to do with us? In The Expositors Bible Commentary, Ronald Allen says this:

“As we, the modern readers of Numbers, think scripturally, this overwhelming emphasis on sacrificial worship has one intent: to cause each reader to think of the enormity of the offense of our sin against the holiness of God, thus driving the repentant sinner to the foot of the Cross. All sacrifices—whether of the morning or evening, of Sabbath or New Moon—have their ultimate meaning in the death the Savior died. Apart from his death, these sacrifices were just the killing of animals and the burning of their flesh with attendant ceremonies. After his death, sacrifices such as these are redundant—indeed, offensive—for they would suggest that something was needed in addition to the Savior’s death. But before his death, these sacrifices were the very means God gave his people in love to help them face the enormity of their sin, the reality of their need for his grace, and—in some mysterious way—to point them to the coming cross of Savior Jesus.”

Thousands of lambs could never add up to the one sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us. But they can reveal the incredible cost of sin, and that sin required a payment. The shedding of blood.

In fact, we can say that according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified by sprinkling with blood. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

Every one of the sacrifices God required the Israelites to make was meant to foreshadow and point to the final sacrifice of the unblemished Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:20). They were intended to be a temporary solution to mankind’s ongoing problem with sin and the penalty of death that accompanied it. And the author of Hebrews points out the temporary and imperfect nature of the sacrificial system.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. – Hebrews 10:1 NLT

He went on to reveal the built-in limitations of animal sacrifices. While they could offer a temporary means of atonement, all they could really do was remind people of their ongoing struggle with sin. And he pointed out the reason for their ineffectiveness.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:4 NLT

The sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to the problem of sin. The very fact that the offerings were required on a repetitive and perpetual basis reveals that they were like treating a terminal disease with a bandaid.

The whole reason Jesus Christ came to earth was to bring about a permanent solution to the death sentence hanging over the heads of a sinful humanity.

Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). – Hebrews 10:8 NLT

Yes, God had been the one to institute the whole sacrificial system, but it was never meant to be the final solution. Jesus was always intended to be the one true sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.

God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

That holy sacrifice was presented by God Himself, and it cost Him dearly.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

He sacrificed His precious Son on mankind’s behalf. He gave the best He had to atone for the sins of humanity. And, as a result, those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus’ sacrificial and substitutionary death, have forgiveness of sin. And we do not need to offer any more sacrifices. Jesus Christ accomplished it all with the sacrifice of His life in our place. No more blood needs to be shed. No more lives need to be sacrificed. And the author of Hebrews points out the remarkable nature of this once-for-all-time gift.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. – Hebrews 10:11-12 NLT

No more sacrifices are needed. Why? Because Jesus’ death paid the death we owed and now God has forgiven and forgotten our sins.

“I will never again remember
    their sins and lawless deeds.” – Hebrews 10:17 NLT

The Israelites, who were destined to keep on sinning, were also required to keep on sacrificing so that they might receive a temporary reprieve from their well-deserved judgment. But for all those who are in Christ, “when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Hebrews 10:18 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Redeemed!

40 And the Lord said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273.

44 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 3:40-51 ESV

It is easy to view the Levites as nothing more than the priestly order, the one tribe whose sole responsibility was to care for the tabernacle and serve as priests on behalf of the people of God. But there is a much deeper theological significance to their role as the spiritual mediators of Israel.

As has been stated before, God had spared the firstborn sons of Israel when He sent the death angel to punish the nation of Egypt. As a result of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to release the descendants of Jacob from their captivity, God gave Moses instructions concerning the final plague He would bring upon the Egyptians.

So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” – Exodus 11:4-6 ESV

Then God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the coming judgment by selecting an unblemished lamb for every household.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:1-3, 5-6 ESV

Each household was to sacrifice their lamb at the same time and follow God’s exacting instructions.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:7-13 ESV

When the death angel passed through the land, he would “pass over” those homes on which the blood had been sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels. The sacrifice of the unblemished lambs would redeem any firstborn residing in that home.

“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” – Exodus 12:23 ESV

On the fateful night when the death angel passed over the city, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29 ESV). But because of the sacrifice of the unblemished lambs, the homes of the Israelites were protected and their firstborn sons were spared. But “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV).

As a result of this miraculous redemption of Israel’s firstborn sons, God commanded Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1 ESV).

God had spared the firstborn of Israel, and He commanded that they be dedicated to His service. But as the Israelites were making their way to the land of Canaan, God ordered the tribe of Levi to serve as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. The males of this one tribe would act as stand-ins for all those firstborn sons of the 11 other tribes who rightfully belonged to God. The Levites would redeem or ransom their brothers and serve on their behalf.

God ordered Moses to make a list of all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward. It would appear that these were the sons who had been born since the Israelites left Egypt. According to verse 43, that number amounted to 22,273 firstborn male sons from the 11 tribes of Israel. Verse 39 reveals that there were 22,000 firstborn male sons from the tribe of Levi.

“The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote “a son of Levi,” and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, “five shekels.” These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money…was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.” – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

The Levites were more than just priests, they served as God-ordained substitutes whose lives were used to redeem or ransom those who rightfully belonged to God. They served in place of and on behalf of all those whom God had redeemed from death at the original Passover. And when the number of Levites didn’t match that of the firstborn males from the other 11 tribes, 273 families had to pay a sizeable tax of five shekels. The lack of a substitute came at a high price.

And this cost was meant to convey the value of each Levite’s life. No firstborn male was to take his freedom from service lightly or to treat the life of his Levite counterpart flippantly. This passage should serve as a reminder of the tremendous price God paid on behalf of every sinner whom He redeemed from death through the sacrifice of His Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 ESV

The author of Hebrews refers to the church as “the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NLT). Each has been “ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord’s by creation, and all true Christians are his by redemption” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary).

According to Paul, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NLT). He was the firstborn Son of God who served as the sinless substitute for sinful men and women. His death made possible the gift of eternal life for those who at one time stood condemned before God. And had Jesus not offered His life as our substitute, none of us could have afforded to pay the debt we owed to God.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

Numbers chapter 3 should remind us of the lines of that great old hymn, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.”

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child, and forever, I am.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

By His Stripes

1 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before. Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10 In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’” 14 Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16 All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.” Genesis 31:1-16 ESV

Once again, Jacob finds himself with more enemies than friends, all because of his own self-serving actions. Nearly two decades earlier, Jacob had been forced to flee Beersheba because his older brother wanted to kill him for having stolen his birthright and blessing. Now, Jacob discovers that his brothers-in-law are furious because he has managed to abscond with the majority of their father’s flocks. Through a rather stranger process of selective breeding and what appears to be a healthy dose of luck, Jacob amassed a sizeable flock of speckled, spotted, and black sheep. And this unexpected transfer of wealth has left Laban’s rightful heirs furious. Their brother-in-law has cheated them out of their inheritance.

“Jacob has robbed our father of everything!” they said. “He has gained all his wealth at our father’s expense.” – Genesis 31:1 NLT

This should all sound eerily familiar. Nearly 20 years earlier, Esau had expressed his own frustration after having discovered that his twin brother, Jacob, had not only left him with no claim to their father’s inheritance but had stolen his blessing as well.

“No wonder his name is Jacob, for now he has cheated me twice. First he took my rights as the firstborn, and now he has stolen my blessing. Oh, haven’t you saved even one blessing for me?” – Genesis 27:36 NLT

It’s quite obvious that Jacob never read Dale Carnegie’s classic work, How To Win Friends and Influence People. His penchant for self-promotion coupled with his uncanny talent for deception resulted in great success as well as a growing list of enemies. When Laban and his sons finally realized what Jacob had done to them, it was too late. He had robbed them blind. And recognizing their anger, Jacob knew it was time to go. He seems to have operated by the old American proverb: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But while that adage promotes brave action in the face of difficulty, for Jacob it meant “run for your life.” Things had heated up, so it was time to go – again.

But somewhere along the way, Jacob received a word from God. All the while Jacob had been building his earthly empire by less-than-honest means, the Almighty had been watching and waiting. Now, God provides His young covenant partner with divine confirmation that the time has come for him to return to Canaan.

“Return to the land of your father and grandfather and to your relatives there, and I will be with you.” – Genesis 31:3 NLT

So, Jacob called his two wives and informed them of his plan to leave Haran. He begins by recounting the many ways in which their father had taken advantage of him over the years.

“I have noticed that your father’s attitude toward me has changed. But the God of my father has been with me. You know how hard I have worked for your father, but he has cheated me, changing my wages ten times. But God has not allowed him to do me any harm. – Genesis 31:5-7 NLT

Jacob is painting himself as the victim and staking out the moral high ground by claiming to have God on his side. And while all that he says is true, it still has a slightly dishonest and deceitful feel to it. Jacob positions himself as fully innocent of any wrongdoing. He insists that it never really mattered what criteria Laban established for their agreement because God would have ensured that the outcome was in Jacob’s favor.

“For if he said, ‘The speckled animals will be your wages,’ the whole flock began to produce speckled young. And when he changed his mind and said, ‘The striped animals will be your wages,’ then the whole flock produced striped young. In this way, God has taken your father’s animals and given them to me.” – Genesis 31:8-9 NLT

He wasn’t guilty of stealing Laban’s flocks. God had done it all. And, once again, while there is a ring of truth to Jacob’s claim, he appears to be using God to justify his own actions. But this is where Moses discloses an important, as-yet-unrevealed aspect of the story. It seems that Jacob had received another divine encounter in which he was given detailed instructions from God. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly when this conversation between Jacob and the angel of the Lord took place but Jacob indicates that it occurred sometime “during the mating season” (Genesis 31:10 NLT).

One night, as Jacob had been shepherding Laban’s flocks, he had a dream in which it seems he received the idea for breeding the speckled and spotted sheep.

“The angel said, ‘Look up, and you will see that only the streaked, speckled, and spotted males are mating with the females of your flock. For I have seen how Laban has treated you. I am the God who appeared to you at Bethel, the place where you anointed the pillar of stone and made your vow to me. Now get ready and leave this country and return to the land of your birth.’” – Genesis 31:12-13 NLT

This is the first time that Jacob has divulged this information. Notice that the angel doesn’t explain to Jacob how the vision will take place. Perhaps the angel had given Jacob the idea about placing the multicolored branches in the water troughs. This would provide a plausible explanation for Jacob’s actions, and portray the entire process as nothing less than a supernatural miracle orchestrated by God Himself.

So many times in Scripture, God performs His extraordinary activities on earth by using common, everyday objects. He used Moses’ shepherd’s staff to turn the water of the Nile into blood.

“Look! I will strike the water of the Nile with this staff in my hand, and the river will turn to blood. The fish in it will die, and the river will stink. The Egyptians will not be able to drink any water from the Nile.” – Exodus 7:17 NLT

That very same staff would be used to create a plague of frogs.

“Raise the staff in your hand over all the rivers, canals, and ponds of Egypt, and bring up frogs over all the land.” – Exodus 8:5 NLT

And when it came time for the people of Israel to return to the land of Canaan, God ordered Moses to use that same wooden staff to part the waters of the Red Sea.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving! Pick up your staff and raise your hand over the sea. Divide the water so the Israelites can walk through the middle of the sea on dry ground. – Exodus 14:15-16 NLT

So, it takes no stretch of the imagination to consider that God had been the one to give Jacob the idea to use the “striped” branches.

Then Jacob took some fresh branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled off strips of bark, making white streaks on them. Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated. And when they mated in front of the white-streaked branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted. – Genesis 30:28-30 NLT

God had miraculously used the “striped” branches to produce striped sheep. And, as always, God had a purpose for performing this inexplicable miracle in such an unlikely manner. It brings to mind the words of Isaiah prophesying the coming Messiah of Israel. In Isaiah 53, Moses presents the Messiah as the suffering servant, describing the gruesome death He would face as Israel’s Savior. He opens by describing the Messiah as being “like a young plant” (Isaiah 53:2 ESV).

Then Isaiah records in great detail the excruciating and humiliating suffering of this “young plant.”

He was pierced for our offenses,
He was crushed for our wrongdoings;
The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him,
And by His wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

But the Hebrew word translated as “wounds” is חַבּוּרָה (ḥabûrâ), which can also be translated as “stripes.” Now, look closely at what Isaiah is saying. The “striped” young plant would be used to bring healing and restoration to the wandering sheep.

All of us, like sheep, have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all
To fall on Him. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT

Now, look closely at verse 37 of Genesis 30.

Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. – Genesis 30:37 ESV

The Hebrew word for “fresh” can also be translated as “new.” These were tender young shoots that Jacob “striped” and placed in front of the sheep. And the result was many offspring. Now, look back at Isaiah’s prophecy.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring – Isaiah 53:10 ESV

God performed a miracle. He guided the “wandering” Jacob and showered him with undeserved blessings. And the means by which God performed this miracle points to the future blessing that God will shower on the descendants of Jacob in the form of the “tender young shoot” – Jesus Christ. He will be “the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10 ESV). He will be “a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5 ESV). And He will come from the line of Judah, one of the 11 sons of Jacob born while he lived in Haran.

Berean Study Bible

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Blessings and Obedience

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.

20 Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, 22 Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” 23 (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24 Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah. Genesis 22:15-24 ESV

Abraham had fully intended to follow through with God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But God had graciously intervened and provided a ram to replace Isaac as the sacrifice. This imagery of a substitute is found throughout the Scriptures and foreshadows the coming of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were spared the devastating consequences of the final plague if they followed Yahweh’s command to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes (Exodus 12:7). He gave them detailed instructions for preparing and consuming the lamb and promised to spare their firstborn sons if they did as He commanded them.

“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. – Exodus 12:12-13 ESV

These Passover lambs served as substitutes for the people of Israel, providing a gracious and undeserved means of escaping the wrath of God. The Israelites had not earned God’s deliverance from judgment. While their suffering at the hands of the Egyptians was unwarranted, so was their salvation. God’s offer to spare them was in spite of them, not because of them. And God’s provision of a substitute for Isaac was not based on Abraham’s obedience or Isaac’s innocence. According to God’s Word, there is no one who stands before God as righteousness and deserving of His grace and mercy.

They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

God looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 53:1-3 NLT

Don’t overlook the fact that God still required a sacrifice. He had demanded the death of Isaac but had willingly provided a ram to serve as the boy’s proxy. This ram, which appeared at just the right moment and had somehow been ensnared in a thicket, had been preapproved and preordained by God. Its sacrificial, substitutionary death provided Isaac with life. Once again, this scene foreshadows another Lamb whose life would provide victory over death and the grave.

“Worthy the Lamb for sinners slain,”
Cry the redeemed above,
“Blessing and honor to obtain,
And everlasting love.”

“Worthy the Lamb,” on earth we sing,
“Who died our souls to save;
Henceforth, O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?”

– James Montgomery, “Worthy the Lamb for Sinner’s Slain,” 1825, 1853

One can only imagine the extreme joy that Abraham experienced as he untied the ropes that held his son and embraced him in his arms. And on the altar he had constructed, Abraham and Isaac placed the body of the ram God had provided. This lifeless animal became a token of Abraham’s gratitude and an expression of his reverence for his gracious and merciful God.

And having completed the sacrifice, Abraham received a second message from the Lord.

“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” – Genesis 22:16-18 ESV

God reiterated the promise He had made when He called Abraham out of Haran.

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

But this time, God seems to indicate that the blessings are conditional.

“Here again God promised Abraham that he would become the recipient of the covenant blessings. The covenant was not based on obedience, nor was the perpetuity of the covenant based on obedience—but rather the reception of covenant blessings was conditioned on obedience. Remember, an unconditional covenant may have conditional blessings.” – J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come

God was recommitting Himself to His covenant obligations. He assured Abraham that He would do what He said He would do. He would make of Abraham a great nation, and Isaac would be the means through which that promise was fulfilled. But He was also reminding Abraham that the blessings associated with the covenant would be conditional. They would require obedience. In order for Abraham to experience the blessings of Canaan, he had been required to leave Haran and his kinsmen behind. God had forbidden Abraham from declaring Eliezer, his servant, to be his heir. And Abraham had been required to obey God’s command and disinherit Ishmael. The result of all of this was God’s commitment to bless Abraham through Isaac. Obedience always precedes blessing.

Centuries later, when the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were preparing to enter the land of Canaan after their 400-years of captivity in Egypt, Moses had delivered God’s clear call to obedience.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

God had kept the promise He had made to Abraham nearly half a century earlier.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

And God would ensure that Abraham’s offspring received the inheritance He had promised them. But to fully enjoy all the blessings the land had to offer, they would have to live in obedience to His commands. And Moses had been very specific.

“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” – Deuteronomy 28:3-6 ESV

The blessings were contingent upon obedience. And Moses made it painfully clear that disobedience would result in severe and costly consequences.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-19 ESV

They would find themselves living in the land of promise, but unable to enjoy all the blessings the land afforded. And Moses warned them that their continued failure to live in obedience would result in their eventual removal from the land.

“Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” – Deuteronomy 28:62-63 ESV

Abraham had been willing to obey the command of God and offer up his son as a sacrifice. And, according to God, Abraham’s obedience was the reason the blessings associated with the covenant would be fulfilled

“…because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” – Genesis 22:16-17 ESV

Abraham had not earned God’s blessings. God is simply stating that His blessings are always contingent upon obedience. Adam and Eve enjoyed the blessings of Eden as long as they obeyed God’s command to abstain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But as soon as they disobeyed God’s command and ate of the tree, they were cursed and eventually cast out of the garden. But their disobedience did not keep God from fulfilling His preordained plan to redeem the world through the seed of Adam and Eve. In fact, their disobedience set in motion the grand redemptive plan that God had put in place before the foundation of the world.

In choosing to obey God, Abraham received his son back. But even more importantly, Abraham secured the arrival of another “offspring” who would become a blessing to the nations. Abraham had no way of knowing what God had in store for him and his descendants. He could only take his son and return to his recently purchased property in Beersheba.

Moses closes out this chapter with a short genealogy of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. And his intent for including this list of obscure and difficult-to-pronounce names is simple. He is beginning to shift the focus from Abraham to Isaac. From this point forward, Moses will begin to chronicle the lives of Abraham’s descendants. And one name should stand out in the family tree of Nahor: Rebekah. Through a series of God-ordained events, she will become the wife of Isaac. And with their marriage, the stage will be set for Abraham to pass on his inheritance to his son, whose very life he owed to God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Be Careful What You Ask For

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:32-45 ESV

For the third time, Jesus reveals to His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem, including additional details that paint an even bleaker picture. They are making their way from the region of Perea to the capital city, and it is a somber and silent procession. This time, there are no arguments about greatness taking place among the disciples. They are still trying to take in all that Jesus had shared with them while they were in Perea. And the last thing they heard Him say must have made an impact on them.

“I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions…” – Mark 10:29-30 NLT

To their shock and surprise, Jesus had told them that one of the rewards awaiting them for having left everything to follow Him (Mark 10:28) was persecution. They each aspired to greatness, but Jesus had thrown cold water on those lofty aspirations, promoting a lifestyle of humility and service instead. In fact, He had turned their expectations upside down by claiming, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31 ESV).

So, as Jesus leads the way, the 12 disciples and a small contingent of other faithful followers tag along behind Him, confused and perplexed about what may lie ahead.

Jesus, fully aware of their reservations about returning to Jerusalem, pulls aside the 12 and provides them with one last reminder of His fate.

“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him severely, and kill him. Yet after three days, he will rise again.” – Mark 10:33-34 NLT

Jesus was painfully explicit, refusing to hide the truth from His disciples. They are on the path that leads to Jerusalem, and Jesus reminds them that once they reach their destination, all hell will break loose – literally. The religious leaders of Israel will allow their hatred of Jesus to come to an explosive crescendo, resulting in His torture and execution. The one they consider to be the Messiah of Israel is telling them that He is going to die. Rather than being crowned the King of Israel, He will be condemned to death. Instead of being revered as the chosen one of God, He will be ridiculed and mocked as a common criminal, then killed.

But, as He had done before, Jesus adds the most important detail that His disciples continue to ignore: “after three days, he will rise again” (Mark 10:34 NLT).

What happens next is truly amazing, and it portrays the disciples in a very unflattering light. But it is not the first time these men revealed their true colors. In the previous chapter, Mark recorded their response to another one of Jesus’ attempts to explain His destiny in Jerusalem. The disciples had gotten into an argument over which of them was the greatest.

This time, it’s James and John who get exposed for their insensitivity and apparent stupidity. They just didn’t get it. Nothing Jesus had said seemed to have registered with them. Perhaps they were simply trying to avoid the awkward subject Jesus had raised. But, whatever their motive, their actions are difficult to comprehend or justify. Immediately after hearing Jesus describe His pending death in Jerusalem, these two brothers have the unmitigated gall to approach Jesus with a totally self-centered request.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. – Mark 10:35 NLT

These two men were the sons of Salome, the sister of Mary. This would have made them the half-cousins of Jesus. And it would appear that they believed their blood ties to Jesus qualified them for special treatment. In essence, they ask Jesus for a blank check. They want Him to affirm their request even before they make it known. But Jesus makes no such assurances, instead, He asks them to state their request. And what they share is truly remarkable and unfathomable.

“Permit one of us to sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Had they heard nothing Jesus had said? Were they so incredibly dense that they could not comprehend a single word He had spoken to them? All His comments regarding greatness in the Kingdom of God had gone in one ear and out the other. They were still expecting Jesus to ascend the throne of David and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem, and they were hoping to nab the two most powerful and prominent positions in His administration. These two fishermen from Galilee were demanding that Jesus elevate them to the two highest ranks available in any royal court. When they had heard Jesus say, “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” they had completely misconstrued His meaning. They must have assumed that their lowly estate as fishermen made them the perfect candidates for these two highly prestigious roles.

But they had no idea what they were asking. When they mentioned Jesus coming into His glory, there were thinking a royal throne. But Jesus had referred to His glory as being His crucifixion. He told His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25 ESV). 

The cross would be the means by which Jesus received glory from the Father. He would die, but then He would be raised back to life again. And it would be His death and resurrection that provided the final proof that He was the Messiah and the Savior of the world. That is why Jesus was able to say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). And John clarified that Jesus was speaking of His death.

He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. – John 12:32 ESV

So, when James and John asked for the right to sit on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His glory, they were unwittingly asking to take the place of the two thieves who would be crucified beside Him. That’s why Jesus told them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I experience?” (Mark 10:38 NLT). 

Their understanding of glory was way off. They were thinking of thrones, crowns, royal robes, power, and prominence. But Jesus was speaking of doing the will of His Heavenly Father. He would be “lifted up,” but to a cross and not to a royal dais with a golden throne. Jesus’ path to greatness and glory would pass through the valley of death. He would have to drink the cup of God’s wrath and be immersed into the suffering that must accompany the sacrifice of His life for the sins of mankind.

James and John, still unable to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, boldly proclaimed their readiness and willingness to handle whatever responsibilities came with their new positions. But Jesus informed them that their time would come. They would get their opportunity to prove their allegiance by experiencing the same kind of harsh treatment from the world as Jesus was about to undergo.

“You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I experience.” – Mark 10:39 NLT

James would be the first of the disciples to become a martyr for the cause of Christ (Acts 12:2). John would later be exiled by the Roman Emperor to the island of Patmos. And it is believed that he too eventually suffered a martyr’s death. But both men would be glorified and reunited with Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom.

When news of what James and John had done reached the rest of the disciples, they were incensed. Once again, the issue of greatness raised its ugly head as the remaining disciples fumed over the attempt of James and John to secure for themselves the two best spots in Jesus’ royal administration. And once again, we see that none of the 12 disciples were able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Their anger reveals their jealousy and thinly veiled hope that they might be chosen for greatness. So, one more time, Jesus attempts to open their eyes to the truth. He contrasts the ways of the world with the ways of the Kingdom of God. They are two diametrically opposed systems that promote completely different brands of leadership.

In the Gentile world, leadership was all about power and domination. It was maintained by wielding authority and motivated by self-promotion and the subjugation of others. But God’s Kingdom operated on a completely different paradigm.

“…whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.” – Mark 10:44 NLT

And just to make sure they understood what He was talking about, Jesus used Himself as the quintessential example of true greatness.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:45 NLT

Jesus was about to lay down His life for the sheep. Even though He was the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel, He was going to make the ultimate sacrifice that would pay the ransom for the sins of mankind. He would lead by serving. He would display His sovereignty by sacrificing. He would achieve glory through dying. And when James and John later witnessed the two thieves hanging on either side of their friend and teacher, it seems likely that their awkward conversation with Jesus would have come to mind. There before them was the greatest display of what Jesus had been trying to tell them. The innocent Lamb of God dying on behalf of sinful men and flanked by two common criminals who deserved exactly what was happening to them. In that moment, James and John must have realized that those were the two positions they had so arrogantly requested and so rightfully deserved.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Down, But Not Out

55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. – Matthew 27:55-66 ESV

Jean_Jouvenet_Descent_From_The_Cross

Man’s sin debt had been paid, but the cost had been high. Jesus, the Son of God, had given His life so that those condemned to death might experience eternal life. He died so that others might live. But, as the apostle Peter reminds us, “God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT).

But as the Roman soldiers removed the lifeless body of Jesus from the cross, He was anything but spotless. His body had been beaten and bruised. His face had been slapped repeatedly leaving it swollen and practically unrecognizable. And hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had described just how badly Jesus would be disfigured by this tragic event.

But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. – Isaiah 52:14 NLT

Jesus was covered with His own blood that had flowed from the wounds left by the large nails pounded into his hands and feet. He had a gaping wound in His side from the point of the spear that had been meant to ensure His death. The crown of thorns that had been mockingly pressed onto His head had caused blood to flow down His face and into His eyes. The sinless, spotless Lamb of God had been brutally and mercilessly murdered.

In the book of Revelation, John records a vision he received of Jesus in His resurrected and glorified state, standing in the throne room of God Almighty. And John’s description of Jesus is quite interesting.

…between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. – Revelation 5:6 ESV

Jesus doesn’t appear in the form of a man but as a Lamb. And John adds the telling descriptor: “as though it had been slain.” The Greek word translated as “slain” is sphazō and was commonly used to refer to the slaughter of an animal for sacrifice. It can also be translated as “butchered.” Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, offered for the sins of many, and the ordeal had left its marks on Him.

It’s interesting to note how Matthew describes those followers of Christ who had remained at Golgotha to the bitter end. He says they were looking on from a distance. Yet, he only mentions the names of women. Not a single one of the disciples is named. And among the women was “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56 ESV).

One has to wonder what had been going through her mind as she watched Jesus being crucified between the two thieves. She is the one who had come to Jesus and begged Him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). And Jesus had told her, “You do not know what you are asking” (Matthew 20:22 ESV). It’s likely that, as she watched Jesus die, she imagined her own two sons, James and John, hanging on the crosses to His right and left. Little had she shown that Jesus’ crowning as King was going to involve thorns, not gold. His entrance into His Kingdom was going to demand crucifixion, not a coronation. His exaltation would be proceeded by humiliation and death. And rather than taking up residence in a palace, Jesus would be placed in a borrowed tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus, offered up his own tomb so that Jesus could have a proper burial. And once again, the prophet Isaiah spoke of this long before it ever happened.

But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. – Isaiah 53:9 NLT

As Joseph had the stone rolled across the opening to his own tomb, the entire scene has a sense of finality to it. Jesus was dead. The crowds had dispersed. The supernatural darkness had passed and the light had returned. And everyone in Jerusalem had gone back to their lives as usual. Only a handful of women stood by, watching as Jesus was buried. This sad and sobering scene was also foretold by Isaiah.

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. – Isaiah 53:3 NLT

But the religious leaders, still wary of the influence Jesus had over the people, took steps to ensure that nothing would happen that might resurrect the memory of Jesus. They knew that Jesus had predicted that He would rise again. So, in order to prevent His disciples from stealing the body of Jesus and spreading rumors that He was alive, they stationed guards at the tomb with orders to remain there until the three days had passed. Evidently, they had attempted to get Pilate to provide Roman guards, but he had refused. “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27:55 ESV).

And they waited.

This chapter ends in sadness. Its tragic conclusion provides the reader with little in the way of hope. Jesus is dead. The disciples have scattered to the four winds. The mother of Jesus and the women who loved and followed Him are in deep sorrow, having not been given the opportunity to anoint His body for burial. Which makes the anointing of Jesus in Bethany so important. Matthew records that “a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table” (Matthew 26:7 ESV), and Jesus had clearly pronounced, “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:12 ESV).

As dark as this moment may appear, the invisible, yet sovereign hand of God is evident throughout the narrative. Everything is taking place according to His divine plan – down to the last detail.

…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins… – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was beaten so we could be whole. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was oppressed and treated harshly. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

…He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

…Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

his life was cut short in midstream… – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

…he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. – Isaiah 53:9 NLT

All of this had been pre-ordained by the will of God. And Jesus had willingly played His role in the whole affair – out of obedience to His heavenly Father and as an expression of His love for mankind. And while the closing verses of chapter 27 present a dark and dismal scene, we know that the story was far from over. There was more to come. God’s plan was not yet complete. And Isaiah provides us with yet one more premonition of what lies ahead.

And because of his experience,
    my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
    for he will bear all their sins. – Isaiah 53:11 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Life is in the Blood

15 “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

20 “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, you may eat meat whenever you desire. 21 If the place that the Lord your God will choose to put his name there is too far from you, then you may kill any of your herd or your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your towns whenever you desire. 22 Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 25 You shall not eat it, that all may go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. 26 But the holy things that are due from you, and your vow offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place that the Lord will choose, 27 and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God. The blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, but the flesh you may eat. 28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 12:15-28 ESV

The Israelites were about to enter the promised land where they would begin a new chapter in the story of their relationship with God. During their years in the wilderness, God had provided them with the tabernacle as their worship center and the place where they offered sacrifices to Him. And He had given them strict rules that accompanied their use of the tabernacle.

“If any native Israelite sacrifices a bull or a lamb or a goat anywhere inside or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to present it as an offering to the Lord, that person will be as guilty as a murderer. Such a person has shed blood and will be cut off from the community. The purpose of this rule is to stop the Israelites from sacrificing animals in the open fields. It will ensure that they bring their sacrifices to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle, so he can present them to the Lord as peace offerings.” – Leviticus 17:3-5 NLT

The tabernacle had been designed by God to be kind of a pack-and-go temple – a temporary structure that the Israelites carried with them all during their days in the wilderness. They were instructed to follow the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of could by day, both representing God’s guiding presence. Whenever the presence of God stopped, so did they, and they immediately erected the tabernacle, around which the tribes of Israel assembled their camps.

It was only at the tabernacle that the Israelites could slaughter animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. They were prohibited from shedding blood anywhere else within or without the camp. Anyone who violated this command and shed the blood of an animal anywhere else but at the tabernacle was to be cut off from the community. They were exiled.

But their entrance into the land was going to bring about a series of dramatic changes. First of all, God had told them that He would select a location within the borders of the land as the place where He would “make his name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11 ESV).

The land of Canaan was their final destination. There would be no more wandering necessary because they had arrived in the place God had promised to give to them as their inheritance. Not long after their initial victories over the cities of Jericho and Ai, the Israelites erected the tabernacle at a place called Gilgal. It would remain there for most of the years it took the Israelites to conquer the land. Eventually, it was moved to Shiloh, and then years later, to Gibeon. But, for the most part, the tabernacle remained in a fixed location during the years of the conquest of the land of Canaan. And God intended to provide Israel with a permanent place within the borders of the land where His glory would dwell and where they would offer sacrifices to Him.

“When he gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:10-11 NLT

But until the time in which God designated that place, the Israelites were given a divine dispensation, allowing them to slaughter animals for meat anywhere within the land of promise. In a sense, all the land was considered holy by God because He had set it apart as His own. He had sanctified or consecrated as His possession, which He was giving to the descendants of Abraham. So, they were free to kill and butcher animals anywhere within the boundaries of the land. They were no longer required to bring the animals to the tabernacle. But there is a bit of confusion in God’s command. At first glance, it would appear that He is also allowing them to eat unclean animals, something He had explicitly prohibited in the Mosaic law. Leviticus 11 outlines the various animals that God had deemed as unclean and, therefore, off-limits to the Israelites. Yet, in this passage, it appears that God is changing His mind because He mentions the clean and the unclean. But this is a reference to the status of the people of Israel, not the animals. The New Living Translation helps clarify God’s point.

“All of you, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you now eat gazelle and deer.” – Deuteronomy 12:15 NLT

This special dispensation was due to the fact that the Israelites were going to be settling all across the land of Canaan, while the tabernacle would be permanently erected in a fixed location. Distance would make it nearly impossible for people to bring their animals to the tabernacle. Which meant that those offering the sacrifice could not receive personal purification, and their animals could not be slaughtered on site. So, Moses let them know that God was amending His laws concerning the sacrifice and consumption of meat.

It might happen that the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—is a long way from your home. If so, you may butcher any of the cattle, sheep, or goats the Lord has given you, and you may freely eat the meat in your hometown, as I have commanded you. Anyone, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you do now with gazelle and deer. ” – Deuteronomy 12:21-22

But one thing remained unchanged. They were not allowed to consume the blood of the animal. Moses made this point quite clear.

“But never consume the blood, for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the lifeblood with the meat. Instead, pour out the blood on the ground like water. Do not consume the blood, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what pleases the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 12:23-25 NLT

While they were free to kill and butcher meat anywhere within the borders of the land, they were not free to consume the blood of the animal. Why? Because the blood is the life. It was the blood of the animal that was used for purification during the sacrificial ceremonies. The blood represented the life of the animal and was sprinkled on the altar in order to purify it. The animal’s life, represented by its blood, had been given in place of the guilty individual who had offered the sacrifice. And the blood provided purification by offering forgiveness from sin.

“…according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

The blood was not to be treated lightly because it represented the life of the creature. And hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ would offer His blood as a sacrifice for many. The author of Hebrews describes the ultimate sacrifice where the blood of the sinless Lamb of God provided atonement for the sins of mankind.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:12-14 NLT

There is life in the blood. And because Jesus gave His life by shedding His blood on our behalf, we have the guarantee of new life now and eternal life to come. So, even for the Israelites, the blood was to remain sacred. It represented life and was meant to serve as a purifying and cleansing agent in God’s sacrificial system. It was to be shed, not consumed. It was to be treated with reverence and awe. But the day would come when God would amend His commands yet again, making another special dispensation for His people. Fast-forward to the upper room on the night Jesus was betrayed and listen carefully to the words He spoke to His disciples.

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” – Matthew 26:27-29 NLT

The life is in the blood. But while the blood of bulls and goats could only be sprinkled and provide temporary forgiveness of sins, the blood of Jesus is to be symbolically consumed, providing permanent forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

The Lamb Who Was Slain.

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:6-14 ESV

angus-dei-francisco_de_zurbarc3a1n_006As John’s vision of the heavenly throne room continues, he mentions seeing someone else in the midst of the scene whose appearance gets his attention. John describes this individual as “a Lamb standing.” But what makes this detail significant is that he adds, “as though it had been slain.” This Lamb somehow has the appearance of having at one time been dead, but is now standing before the throne of God, fully alive. Perhaps the Lamb bore the marks of death, his fleece covered in blood. John does not provide us with the details. But from the rest of the passage, it is clear that this Lamb is a representation of Jesus Christ Himself. The designation “Lamb of God” is a reference to Jesus in His first advent, when He came to earth as the meek and mild, sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. This title would have been familiar to John, because he recorded in his gospel the words of John the Baptist when Jesus appeared at the Jordan River: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). It was the apostle Peter who provided us with even greater detail concerning Jesus’ role as the sacrificial Lamb.

18 …you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. – 1 Peter 1:18-21 ESV

In the book of Exodus, we have recorded the institution of Passover, the God-ordained event that led to the release of the people of Israel from their 400-year captivity in Egypt. God had instructed each Hebrew household to select an unblemished one-year-old male lamb and then to sacrifice it, placing a portion of its blood on the doorpost and lintel of their home. And God told them, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13 ESV). The blood of the lamb was the sign of their belief. By obediently placing the blood on their doorways, the people were expressing their trust in God and His promise to exempt them from the coming destruction of the first-borns. And Moses records:

“It is the sacrifice of the Lord‘s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses. – Exodus 12:27 ESV

It is Jesus’ role as the sacrificial Lamb of God that makes Him worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. And this fact is supported by the way in which the other individuals gathered around the throne of God react as He takes the scroll from His Father’s right hand. John describes them as falling down before the Lamb and shouting in unison:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.” – Revelation 5:9-10 ESV

It was the death of Jesus, requiring the shedding of His blood, that made possible the salvation of mankind. There was no other way. As the author of the book of Hebrews points out, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). The death of Jesus made Him worthy to open the scroll. The resurrection of Jesus made it possible. It was His resurrection, His restoration to life, that gave proof that the righteous wrath of God had been totally satisfied by His Son’s sacrifice. And the apostle Paul explains that it was God the Father who offered up His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. – Romans 3:23-25 ESV

But notice the words of the song sung by those gathered around the throne of God. They speak of Jesus’ death as a ransom, a payment that impacted the lives of people from every tribe, language, people and nation. And the words of their song are in the past tense. His death has made them a kingdom and priests to God. And, as a result, they shall reign. It is a done deal. The sacrifice of Jesus was efficacious or, in other words, effective. His blood was not wasted. Mark records in his gospel that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ESV). There was no doubt that His death would result in the salvation of many. It had not been a wishful shot-in-the-dark on God’s part. God had already planned for the salvation of those who would eventually be ransomed by the blood of Jesus. And His Son’s death is what made it all possible.

One of the more fascinating things about John’s vision of Jesus is his description of Him having “seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). This imagery conveys some significant details about Jesus and His role as not only the sacrificial Lamb, but as the Messiah. The horn is often used in Scripture as a representation of power, and as we have noted before, the number seven represents completeness or perfection. Jesus is the embodiment of divine power. His very presence in the throne room of God, having once been dead, but now alive, is due to the fact that He had been raised back to life by the power of God. And Jesus has seven eyes, which John explains to be the seven spirits of God. We have seen this phrase before. Back in chapter one, John described seeing the seven spirits of God standing before the throne. They are mentioned along with God the Father and Jesus, the Son of God, which seems to indicate that they are a reference to the Spirit of God, thus presenting the unified presence of the Trinity in the heavenly scene. Once again, the number seven speaks of the Spirit’s perfection and completeness. In this case, the seven spirits are presented as being the eyes of the Lamb, which conveys the idea of vision or awareness. Jesus is not only all-powerful, but all-knowing. He has unparalleled strength and unwavering knowledge of all that is going on, both in heaven and on earth. And John indicates that a countless number of angels join in the singing, proclaiming the worthiness of the Lamb.

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” – Revelation 5:12 ESV

He has power, wealth, wisdom, and might and all honor, glory and blessing are rightfully His. And in keeping with this fact, the four beasts, the 24 elders and the heavenly host are joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Revelation 5:13 ESV), as they all sing together:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” – Revelation 5:13 ESV

Jesus, the Lamb of God, now holds the scroll in His hands. He stands ready to take the next step and begin opening the seals and revealing the long-hidden judgments of God. The transfer of the scroll into the hands of Jesus sets the stage for all that it is to come in the rest of the book. It is Jesus who will open the scroll and reveal its content. He alone is worthy to do so. He has earned the right to stand in judgment against all those who have rejected His sacrificial death. But Jesus is also going to fulfill each and every promise made to the people of God. John described seeing the 24 elders falling down before Jesus, and each of then holding a golden bowl full of incense, which he described as the prayers of the saints. We are not told the content of these prayers, but it is likely a reference to the countless prayers prayed by God’s people over the centuries as they faced persecution, pain and suffering as a result of their faith. It is reminiscent of God’s words spoken to Moses regarding the captivity of the people of Israel in Egypt.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Jesus was about to begin the process of making all things as they should be. As He opens the seals and reveals the content of the scroll, He will begin to make right every wrong and to restore the fallen condition of God’s creation to its rightful order. But it begins with judgment. All the prayers of the saints prayed over the centuries will be answered once-and-for-all. The prophet Isaiah provides us with a foretaste of what is to come. He let’s us know that while the scroll contains terrible judgments, the outcome of it all will be the restoration of righteousness and the redemption of God’s creative order.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to sprout up before all the nations. – Isaiah 61:10-11 ESV

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The Blood.

This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. – 1 John 5:6 ESV

1 John 5:6-12

It is fascinating to me that so many Christians today want to reject any image of God as judgmental or wrathful. They cannot stand the idea of God being somehow associated with the events found in the Old Testament. So what they do is re-imagine the Bible, seeing it not as the divine Word of God, but as the writings of men. They portray it as the self-revelation of men, not the self-revelation of God. It is nothing more than men, in their unenlightened state, attempting to portray God. Surrounded by pagan imagery of gods who were characterized by wrath and vengeance, and who rewarded good behavior and punished “sin,” they mistakenly placed these same characteristics on God. But as their relationship with Him progressed, so did their understanding. So by the time Jesus came along, He was able to give them an enlightened view of God as loving, kind, gracious and merciful.

But here’s the rub. That same God who Jesus introduced to the Jews of His day was the same God who required His own Son to die a cruel death on a Roman cross. Jesus had to sacrifice His life in order to pay for the sins of man. That had always been the way God worked. The Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. In fact, the author of Hebrews spends a great deal of time talking about the Old Testament sacrificial system – a bloody, primitive-like and ritualistic collection of gruesome animal butcherings – and ties them to the death of Jesus. In referring to the sacrificial system, the author writes,    “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). This was a God-ordained system of sacrifice that was intended to provide remission from or forgiveness for the sins of the people. To us it sounds barbaric and cruel. But there was a divine purpose behind God’s plan. “That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. Then he said, ‘This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.’ And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:18-22 NLT). Every year, thousands of innocent animals had to be sacrificed in order for the sins of the people to be atoned for. Their sins, including sins of omission and commission, inadvertent and premeditated, known and unknown, had to be paid for, or their was no forgiveness. God had a sacrifice or offering for every imaginable sin. Why? Because He is loving and gracious. He wanted His people to have a relationship with Him. But He knew that they were incapable of living sinless lives. He knew they could not remain faithful. So He instituted a system by which they could have their sins paid for and forgiven. But this was a temporary solution. It was a type of something far greater to come. “That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals” (Hebrews 9:23 NLT). For God to restore men to a right relationship with Himself, a greater sacrifice was required. A more precious, permanent and costly offering was going to be necessary.

Again, the author of Hebrews provides us with insight into these seemingly confusing and difficult to understand things. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT). The sacrificial system was perpetual because the sins of the people were ongoing. The whole system was designed to show them their sins and remind them of their need for God. The blood of the bulls and goats was a temporary, impermanent fix to their problem. Something greater was needed. “For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:24-26 NLT).

Jesus died so that we might live. He gave His life so that we might have eternal life. His blood was shed for the permanent forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in order for that sacrifice to be effective, it must be received. Men must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. They must believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sent by His Father to pay for the sins of the world. Peter makes it quite clear: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:18-21 NLT). What kind of God would sacrifice His own Son to pay for sins He didn’t commit? A loving, gracious, merciful, kind God. The God of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and every other Old Testament character. The God of the Bible. The God of creation. The God of the universe who is out to redeem His creation from the ravages of sin and death, and who chose to do it through the loving sacrifice of His own Son.