|Poor, sickly Heinrich Heine|
Heinrich Heine lay on his deathbed in 1856. The German poet called his bed “the mattress grave” because he had been confined there for eight years. Born Jewish, converted to Christianity, living in Paris with his wife and mistress, he spoke his last words: “Of course God will forgive me, it’s his job.”
Sometimes I just want forgiveness. I want to be sure I won’t be hit by a lightning bolt. I want assurance there is a way out of the mess I’ve made. I want a system I can depend on, one that guarantees the outcome: forgiven.
I can find the Bible passage I need: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and send us away with the feeling that he has done his job.” (1 John 1:9, kind of) We want a God who is in the forgiveness business the way WalMart is in the cheap junk business: always open, ubiquitous, and always the low price. Always. We want the Jerusalem Temple system of sacrifice, except with as many locations as Starbucks, or more.
The book of Hebrews describes the Old Testament system of sacrifice for sin. Hebrews explains there was a High Priest who represented all the people of Israel. Once a year this priest performed his duties and gained forgiveness for all the people--for one more year. The next year he would do it again. And again. And so on. The High Priest followed the Old Testament instructions to the letter, and the people of the nation found them selves forgiven. Again. And again.
I like to try to imagine the High Priest sitting down with the people one-on-one after the annual ritual of sacrifice:
“Look,” the High Priest asks the busy Jerusalem businessman. “Aren’t you tired of doing the same thing every year? Don’t you ever want to learn how to live a better life? To grow so close to God that we don’t have to do this again and again?”
“Not really,” answers the man. “I’m a sinner. It’s what I do. You’re the Priest--you cleanse me--it’s what you do. Why don’t we both just do our jobs? See you next year.”
The Old Testament system provided atonement but was incapable of changing the heart. Forget about a change of heart: I just need forgiveness. I suspect many Christians see Jesus as a WalMart version the High Priest. We’ve found a Savior who forgives and forgives, and forgives again.
It’s true: in Jesus there are springs of forgiveness without end. But there’s more. If we want more. There’s relationship, empowerment, wisdom, insight, guidance, and strength to break the pattern of sin-and-forgiveness, sin-and-forgiveness. To see the work of Jesus as only an endless offering for sin is to consign him to the Old Testament priesthood, which may have provided atonement but was incapable of pulling us up from our lives of selfishness, foolishness, and the folly of our own way.
But Jesus is of a greater priesthood, capable of altering us at the very core. Hebrews tells us that Jesus wasn’t even an Old Testament priest in the sense of those who worked at the Temple. Hebrews points us to the shadowy figure named Melchidedek, from the book of Genesis:
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Hebrews 7:1-3)
This means Jesus offers something more than forgiveness. He offers right relationship and peace as well. In part, the message of Hebrews is about finding a way to break the sin-and-forgiveness cycle. What good is forgiveness if we remain the kind of people who are deeply broken in the center of our being? Who needs a priest who fixes up the outside of a person without repairing the inside?
Many believers have come to expect nothing but forgiveness from Jesus. All the while he stands ready to make us a new creation. He is the kind of priest who wants to work from the inside out. He’s the best kind of Savior, then kind who can transform us from habitual sinners into sons and daughters of the Most High.
The Old Testament prophets tried again and again to warn the people of Israel not to trust in religious formulas or systems. They pointed to a personal God who wanted children of his own.
- I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; (Ezekiel 36:26)
- “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
- Wait! There are too many examples to cite. You can trust me on this.
Over and over the prophets urged the people of Israel not to turn their relationship with God into a transaction. They cried out on God’s behalf, “I want relationship, not ritual.”
The powerful inclination of men, however, is to reduce the offer of new birth, new creation, new life and new relationship into nothing more than, “you do your job, and I’ll do mine.” How many of us do the same with Jesus? It’s the difference between getting what we want out of him, or whether he gets what he wants from us--a loving relationship built to last forever.
If I can find my way out of WalMart, I’ll choose the relationship. How about you?