Thursday, 31 March 2016

Thinking about Passover

Passover decoration - garden tomb - not yet open!
What do you think of when you see the words, ‘scarlet’, ‘cedar wood’ and ‘hyssop’?
As a Hebrew, especially one living in Bible times, you would immediately have thought of cleansing or freedom. These three things were used in combination with the sacrifice of a spotless red heifer, a pigeon or dove, or a lamb, in the ritual of the red heifer, (which provided water for cleansing a person after touching a dead human body,) or the ritual for cleansing of a leper after his healing from leprosy or other skin diseases, cleansing for a house with mould or rot, or the ritual of the Passover, in which the death of the first born in Egypt and the exodus of the Israelites was remembered.

We have come so far away from the notion of animal sacrifice since Jesus’ self-sacrifice for our sin, so that for two thousand years animal sacrifice has only been practiced in pagan ceremonies and now, in modern times, because of the influence of 'animal rights', has come to be thought of as cruel. Up until the first century AD it was seen as completely normal and necessary and in some cultures today, it still is. Man needed a propitiation (covering) for his sin, or in the case of pagan nations, needed an appeasement or bribe for the gods. Animal sacrifice was the accepted norm. It is only today that people think of the Old Testament sacrifices as something barbaric. It only shows how far our thinking has come from the world view of people at that time.  Ironically, many, who will have nothing to do with Jesus, who see these ceremonies as barbaric and inhumane, forget that the only reason the Temple sacrificial system ended, was because of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself for our sin, two thousand years ago on the cross.
It is amazing how each of the above mentioned rituals foreshadowed the sacrifice of God Himself. In each one, there was the sacrifice of an innocent animal, a heifer, a dove and a lamb. Each creature symbolises God in one of His aspects; the suffering servant; the pure Holy Spirit; the spotless lamb.  I’m not going to bother to go into the details of each sacrifice – anyone can look it up for themselves in Leviticus and Numbers. But in the sacrifice of Jesus, provided for our cleansing and redemption, we see blood, flowing water, a complete sacrifice, hyssop (in John's gospel) and even scarlet thread, in the scarlet robe which the Roman soldiers dressed Him up in after flogging Him. He was crucified upright (just as the Passover lamb was roasted).

The ritual of the red heifer is seen as something so mysterious today, that modern orthodox rabbis themselves cannot explain it - they only know that it refers to the Messiah in some way. But how, they cannot explain. The red heifer was vital to Temple worship because only a ritually clean individual could approach the altar. This included the priests. A ritually unclean priest or Levite could not fulfil his duties.  If he had come into contact with a dead body, he would be unable to present sacrifices of any kind in the Temple. This casts a new light on the parable of the Good Samaritan of course. Both the priest and the Levite in the story would have been afraid that the man left for dead on the road going down to Jericho really was dead, and they were afraid to jeopardise their ritual cleanness in God's eyes. The motivation sounds so good. But what they were afraid to do, a Samaritan (already 'unclean' to the listeners) did - and provided a demonstration of the kind of compassion expected to come from one who loves and serves God.
I think Jesus must have been longing for his hearers to start searching for real holiness - the kind which is only imparted through knowing and having an intimate connection with the Holy One, the Messiah, himself. I can imagine a Levite or priest saying the following:

Priest: But if that had been me, and I had gone over to help the poor wretch - of course, I would have wanted to - if he had been dead - (and the vultures were already gathering, for goodness' sake!) - I couldn't have done my duties in the Temple later on! I would have had to go through the Red Heifer - I'd have been unclean for a week! I don't even know if we have enough red heifer ashes for the water for purification at the moment. For all I know we might have run out. One just can't be too careful. Surely you don't mean one should put serving God on the line for someone - someone who if he wasn't dead yet, probably would be in next to no time - and then all the time and money spent on him would have been wasted, and I'd have been ritually unclean into the bargain! A find mess to get oneself into! What would my superiors have said?"
Jesus: So your superiors' opinions carry more weight than what your Heavenly Father says? 'Love your neighbour as yourself?'
Priest: 'But He commands us to be holy!'
Jesus: Who is holy but the Father?
Priest: Well, no-one - but He makes holy through the ashes of the Red Heifer sprinkled in living water.
Jesus: You are a Kohen of Israel and do not know that only the Holy One and not sacrifices of cows and bulls can make unholy man, holy.
Priest: But then how will He do it? You sound as if you are saying that the sacrificial system is obsolete. That's blasphemy!
Jesus: Believe me man; the day is coming and soon will come when sacrifices, Temple, priesthood and all you have trusted in will go up in smoke!
Priest: But without a sacrifice there is no remission of sins; there is no cleansing from spiritual filth! Without the Temple there is no place to meet the Holy One! Without the High Priest, there is no-one who can mediate between sinful man and a Holy God!
Jesus: Correct. You have spoken the truth.
Priest: Then what is the sacrifice to make man holy? Where is the Temple in which to make the sacrifice? Who shall be the High Priest if there is to be no more high priest?
Jesus: God provided a sacrifice as a substitute for Isaac; God will provide the sacrifice to make man holy. He has prepared a Temple and a High Priest.
Priest: And what will that sacrifice be? Where is the Temple in which to hold it, and who is the High Priest?
Jesus: Truly, truly, I say, you are looking at Him.

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