In our world, sin is seen as behaving badly, or breaking some arbitrary code of morality. But the Bible talks about sin in a different and much deeper way.
Sin in the Old Testament is portrayed in various ways. Psalm 51 alone uses several Hebrew words to describe it: failure, waywardness, rebellion, and evil. Sin is all of those things: it is a failure to live up to our creational vocation to reflect God’s wisdom and rule into to the world; it is a waywardness of life that drifts from the path of righteousness; it is a rebellion against God as King; it is a complicity in the evil of the world around us.
But the Old Testament gives us more than terms and concepts; it is rich with stories and symbols. So it is the key rituals that relate to sin which give us insight into the problem of sin. Yom Kippur was the ‘Day of Atonement’; it is prescribed in Leviticus 16. Passover is the great story of Israel’s rescue from Egypt; it’s story is told in Exodus 12. Through the enacted symbolism of both events, we come to see sin as a ‘stain’ that must be purified, a blame that must be removed, a power to be freed from, and a penalty to be saved from.
The stain of sin is sin in the goat sacrificed on Yom Kippur to purify the worshipper.
‘Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.’Leviticus 16:15-16
This imagery is a picture of the stain of guilt that needs to be cleansed. The sacrificed goat is a picture of purification from the stain of guilt.
There is another goat the Yom Kippur scene, one which is kept alive. The priest lays hands on this goat, transferring the sin of the nation upon it, and then sends it away.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall yput them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and ahe shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” Leviticus 16:20-22
This is a picture of blame. Even if the stain of guilt were removed, there is still the fact of culpability; we are to blame. The living goat represents the bearing of the blame.
Finally, there is the Passover Lamb. The blood of the lamb is placed on the doorposts so that the people of God may be saved from Death. Death is the judgment upon Sin, a judgment that fell upon Egypt that fateful night. In being saved from Death, Israel was also rescued from slavery to Egypt. The blood of the lamb means a rescue from the power of sin which leads to the penalty of death.
‘Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 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 jwill not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” ‘Exodus 12:21-23
The bull represents the purification from the stain of guilt; the goat represents the removal of the blame. The lamb represents the rescue from the power of Sin and penalty of Death.
The New Testament picks up on each of these themes as it tries to help us understand the power of the cross. Paul seems to draw on Passover imagery more than that of the Day of Atonement. In Romans, especially, we see Sin as a power we were enslaved to, which leads to Death as a consequence of this enslavement. Jesus is the one who sets us free from this slavery.
‘When you were slaves of sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What consequences did you get from doing things that you are now ashamed of? The outcome of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God, you have the consequence of a holy life, and the outcome is eternal life.’Romans 6:20-22, CEB
In Hebrews and in the Johannine epistles, Jesus is seen as the one who removes the stain of guilt from us, cleansing us fully.
‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.’Hebrews 1:3-4‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ 1 John 1:7‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’1 John 2:2
And in both Paul’s and Peter’s writings, Jesus bears the blame of our own behavior in His body, thus expiating it from us.
‘For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…’Romans 8:3‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.’1 Peter 2:24
To put it another way, the problem of sin is that it is a contagion and a captivity, which involves our complicity.
As a stain, sin is like a contagion that must be cleansed— as a virus must be eradicated from the body.
As blame, sin involves our complicity and thus blame must be borne.
As a power which leads to the penalty of death, sin is a captivity from which we must be freed.
In His death on the cross, Jesus purifies us from the stain of guilt, removes from us and bears in Himself the blame, and frees us from the power of Sin and Death.
A Good Friday, indeed.
This post was inspired by reading Chapter 4 in Fleming Rutledge’s very excellent book, The Crucifixion. Though Rutledge deals primarily with Sin as a power we were under, it was the way she wove in our complicity in addition to our captivity (terms that come from a quote in her chapter) that provoked my reflection on the nature of the problem of sin. It prompted a recollection of Goldingay’s work on the ‘stain’ of sin in Old Testament texts. My attempt to hold all three concepts together caused my to reflect on whether the sacrifices related to Yom Kippur and Passover might actually address each of these aspects of the problem of sin. Thus what you have read is a musing aloud, and not a final word by any means. I pray it provokes just the sort of prayerful reflection in you.