We’re continuing our discussion today about the purpose of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Last time we got to the point where we were recognizing that St. Paul sees the sacrificial system on sort of a two-level dynamic. He teaches that, while animal sacrifices accomplish something for the Israelites on a certain level, they failed to meet a deeper and more important need in the lives of the Israelite people. The blood of bulls and goats, he says, provided Israel with a certain sort of purifying of the flesh, as we read in Hebrews 9:13, but that those sacrifices, as he points out in Hebrews 10:1, could not make those who approach perfect. And we identified the meaning of “perfect” in that particular context of that passage is to have a cleansed conscience; we get that from Hebrews 9:14.
So what’s the Apostle getting at here? We can start to unravel that by thinking about this conscience, which St. Paul says must be cleansed in order for us to achieve perfection. Now, we all know the conscience as an inherent capacity within our souls to divide right from wrong, or, more accurately and to the point, I think, to distinguish godliness from ungodliness. For truly, the conscience is the indelible imprint of our Creator upon us. St. John Chrysostom says that it is an original and fundamental part of our nature, in his commentary on the Romans. The Apostle Paul implies the same thing in Romans 2, when he speaks of Gentiles who, as he says, “although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves, their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15).
We all know what it is to have a troubled conscience. It’s a painful experience. And what generates our discomfort? Well, it results from the fact that while we have an inner knowledge of what godliness is, we lack the vital power—and here I’m speaking of those who are not yet united to Christ—we lack the vital power to consistently act in a godly way. So although we have an inherent awareness of what godliness is, we find ourselves separated by death and sin from the eternal Creator who is godliness. Only by being joined to him can we actually live his godliness, the godliness that our consciences embrace. In other words, we need oneness with him.
To eliminate the painful gulf between what our consciences approve and what our lives are able to manifest, we need the experience that St. Paul so eloquently describes in Ephesians 3. He says:
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened by his might in the spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
When we become one with God, that is, when the God whom our consciences acknowledge becomes the God whom we discover living within us, our consciences are cleansed. They are no longer wounded and soiled by this insurmountable tension between the Christ our conscience endorses and our inability to actually be like him. Instead, living in the spirit, we find that within the depths of our being, we are the christ whom our consciences embrace. This is the ultimate healing that comes to us through the blessed work of our precious Lord Jesus.
It is the transformation that humanity has needed ever since Adam and Eve rejected God in Eden. There, in that moment, our perfectly humble God respected our first parents’ choice to walk away from him. Even though their choice plunged us all into death and sin, he let them go, but he did not, for an instant, give up on our race. Immediately, the God of infinite love went to work to draw the children he cherishes back to him. History is a tale of God’s compassionate, patient, wise, and miraculous work of wooing the hearts of humankind. The Old Testament in particular is a story of God striving patiently over the centuries to bring the people of Israel to a place in which their hearts would be open to the healing of the Incarnation.
What took so long? Well, before God could get his people to embrace the cure that Christ brings, he first had to get them to long for it.
Meditating on the teachings of the epistle to the Hebrews, I’ve come to see that the system of animal sacrifice was an extremely important part of this process of God helping his children to recognize their need for Christ. As I said at the outset, God did not command these sacrifices for his own appeasement; he did not require them in order to eradicate sin. Rather, like everything else God does within the process of salvation, the sacrifices were instituted for the sake of drawing human hearts back into oneness with him.
Let me illustrate what I’m saying by imagining myself a faithful Old Testament Jew, living before the Incarnation. I am a man of conscience. Within my soul there is an inherent conviction about what is godly, but I also have a deep sense of my failure to live up to that. Still, I diligently bring my sin-offerings to the temple. Standing in those awesome courts, I am profoundly moved by the presence of the God who dwells in light within the holy of holies. Yet, as the innocent animals I offer yield up their lifeblood for me, I am reminded that, although God is graciously present among my people, there is a great gulf between him and me, an uncrossable ocean of sin and death.
Year after year, I bring my offerings to him for the expiation of my sins, and yet, for all the bloody sacrifices I have offered in a lifetime, my conscience just grows more aware of my inability to live a righteous life. My sins may have been forgiven, but I still feel that my sins are who I really am. I try harder and harder, fully convicted of what I need to do and be, but despite all that conviction, I fail miserably. The older I get, the more trouble I become over what I see as the ever-widening distance between the holy person my conscience knows I ought to be and the sinner that I am.
As a faithful Jew, I trust that my repentance and obedience is not hopeless and that the God who has ordained this way of sacrifice will be true to it and not hold my sins against me. My dependence upon his mercy grows deeper and deeper, yet in quiet moments of prayer, I cry out: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?” And like the righteous Symeon, I anxiously await the consolation of Israel.
Now, let me note right off: this sort of spiritual lament is not confined to those who lived before the Incarnation, to those living under the law or without the law. No, as an Orthodox Christian I feel this way at times, too. Many of us do. Even as Christians, even as believers, living in the wake of the Incarnation, blessed with the indwelling of the Spirit, we struggle with sins that tempt us to live for ourselves and not let the Spirit live in us. But unlike that pre-Incarnation Israelite, we know that our problem does not lie with some fundamental inability to be who we ought to be. Rather, as those who have been re-created in Christ and filled with the indwelling Spirit, we know that the problem is our failure to be who we are. In the case of the ancient Jew I described, that victory cannot be attained, but in the case of an Orthodox Christian, the victory is already there. It just needs to be lived.
Taking all this in, then, what can we say was the purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices? Certainly they provided the faithful who offered them a surface-level, we might say, objective purification, as St. Paul implies in Hebrews 9:13. Those who with right spirits presented their sacrifices to God could say to themselves, “We acknowledged our sin. We long to be right with God. We have brought him the sacrifices he requires of us. We will trust in his forgiveness, and we will hope in his mercy.” But at the same time, the consciences of those faithful ones remained aware of the insurmountable distance between them and God. When it came to actually healing their inner disease of separation from God, all the sacrifices they offered were just what St. Paul calls them in Hebrews: dead works (Hebrews 9:14).
Thus we can say that while the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was an essential chapter in the healing of humankind, it treated only the symptoms of our disease. That is to say, sacrificing the blood of bulls and goats gave to those who offered it the hope of forgiveness and acceptance. There was the assurance of God’s word that these sins would be overlooked as the faithful came in repentance, bringing their sacrifices. And ultimately, this way of sacrifice moved those Israelites to put their trust in the mercy of the Healer, and their hope in the Consolation, the One who would one day put an end to their illness, cleanse their consciences, and heal the disease of death.
Pondering these things has awakened in me a deep gratitude, a realization that, as an Orthodox Christian, I need to be more thankful for this gift of an ancient, sacramental, and ascetic path that allows me to live the healed life in God. So many Christians never know the fulfillment or the cleansing of their consciences. They may be deeply committed to the principle that they have been freed from death, and from time to time that thought may move them emotionally, yet, because the ancient Eastern path of direct participation in the life of God has been lost to them, they never experience in their hearts the simple but active presence of the indwelling Christ and the disappearance of that gulf between what their consciences long for and what they are. My prayer is that all who call our Jesus “Lord” will come to know the glory of that life.