Many aspects of our readings this week are strange to us. The details of the Tabernacle and the detailed procedures for animal sacrifices do not relate easily to our experience of worship, and the argument in the Letter to the Hebrews bases itself on the image of Christ as our high priest. These approaches may not be the most accessible for us, but they are valuable nonetheless. Seeing how our forebears understood the holiness of God invites us to consider holiness: has our contemporary faith diminished or lost this idea about our lives? And thinking about Christ as our great high priest enriches our understanding about the saving work he does: identifying with us in our sin, suffering with us and for us, presenting our sinful lives unto God, and securing for us the purified life God offers and demands.
Don’t allow what’s strange or different in scripture to deter you. Absorb all you can on this reading, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how it relates to the life we live with God through Jesus Christ.
Old Testament Readings: Exodus 32-40; Leviticus 1-7
This week’s readings in Exodus continue the concern of Israel’s righteousness in covenant with the Lord. The Lord gives the Law as the guidelines for life in covenant, and Israel spectacularly breaks the Law before even receiving it. The episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32) illustrates the people’s inclination toward idolatry and Aaron’s weak complicity with their desire for instant gratification. God renews the broken covenant (ch.34), but it is clear that idolatry will remain a threat to Israel’s life in God rule.
The remainder of Exodus focuses on the construction of the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting for the Lord and his people. While the details might seem lavish and overly specific, they communicate the concern for suitable accommodation of the One Holy God. The priestly vestments remind us that those who enter this holy space must likewise be holy, consecrated for their essential work: to represent the people’s lives unto the Lord, and to convey the Lord’s blessing to the people. One detail illustrates this idea nicely: inlaid in the priests’ breastpiece are twelve stones, each inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel (39:14; see also 28:29). Thus the priest carries God’s people into the Tabernacle and his encounter with the Lord. The crowning inscription on the head of the priest, “Holy to the Lord,” declares the ideal state of the priest and people before God (39:30).
Starting into Leviticus takes us deeper into this concern for holiness. All of our readings this week concern the different types of offerings God people would make to maintain their ritual and moral holiness. It challenges modern readers to interpret this ancient system of sacrifices and connect them to our current lives of faith as Christians. But hang in there as you read through the various situations and responses. What conditions do they seek to address? What patterns or significance can you discern among the offerings? Try to place yourself in the mind of an ancient worshipper who seeks to maintain a life that pleases God and befits God’s holiness.
The practice of sacrifice bears our study and reflection. To offer a sacrifice is to make a transaction with God. Whether the worshipper offers God a gift in gratitude for blessing, or payment in restitution for wrongdoing, or a valuable possession in acknowledgement of a costly sin, the sacrifice both symbolizes and enacts a transaction with God. We offer unto God; God receives the offering and confers a blessing upon us. Animal sacrifice might seem gratuitous and grisly to us, but in that agrarian culture, it conveyed the seriousness of a valuable offering and costly sacrifice. Furthermore, the offering of animals identifies the worshipper with the sacrifice: the animal life expended on the altar expresses the worshipper’s life devoted unto God. Surely this dynamic of identification made Israel’s offerings more vivid and immediate than our passing the offering plate! In seeking to be holy before God, we devote ourselves to God utterly. The system of offerings described in Leviticus aims to guide the people of Israel in such devotion.
Another idea that undergirds the system of sacrificial offerings is cleanness versus uncleanness. More than mere physical hygiene, this concept describes the state of an individual or community related to its admissibility into God’s presence. Someone unclean, for whatever reason, is not fit to encounter the Lord through worship; an unclean person must depart temporarily from the community in order not to contaminate it. However rigid or unfair this system seems to us, it intends to honor and preserve the relationship of the holy God with a people who remain holy.
New Testament Readings: Philippians 3-4; Hebrews 1-3
In Philippians 3, Paul warns his readers against those who would insist on circumcision (hence, Jewish identity) for Christian living. [Recall the urgency of this concern in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians; it clearly was more than just a local issue.] To make his point, Paul rehearses his considerable Jewish credentials (Phil. 3:4-6), then asserts his utter relinquishing of these benefits: “I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:8-9). This entire passage conveys comprehensive nature of conversion to Christ: the only right relationship with God is the “one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness with God based on faith” (3:9). For Paul, the cross of Christ aptly signifies this costly revaluation of our lives: as Christ emptied himself of heavenly status and glory to become human (see 2:6-8), so we renounce any worldly status or privilege to identify ourselves with God only through Jesus Christ. And our following Jesus shapes our living according to Christ’s own self-emptying pattern.
Philippians 4 contains the beautiful exhortation to “[r]ejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (4:4). This joy comes from the knowledge that “the Lord is near” (4:5) regardless of the circumstances we face. This declaration carries greater power as we remember again Paul’s own challenges, as he writes from prison (4:21-22). Trusting that God’s love is greater than our circumstances offers peace to the believer (see 4:7, 9) and allows us to face any situation with God-given contentment: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13).
The Letter to the Hebrews offers a different voice and style from that we have encountered in Paul. The text identifies neither the author nor the intended readers; the argument, based upon Old Testament imagery and traditions, seems aimed toward a Jewish Christian audience.
Hebrews offers an extended comparison between the faith of Israel, grounded in Jewish scripture and tradition, and that of the Church, based on the superior revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The opening of the letter asserts that “long ago . . . God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The majesty of Christ is “superior to angels” and his name “more excellent than theirs” (1:4), a theme that carries throughout chapter 2. Since Christ surpasses all earthly and angelic powers, the faith of Christ commands greater devotion than any other human religion or spiritual power.
The author uses Christ’s supremacy to exhort the readers not to neglect or drift away from faith (2:1-4). Presumably these “Hebrews” could have fallen out of Christian faith back into their prior Jewish belief. The letter argues against this possibility by claiming that “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (3:3), the great hero of Israel’s history. The author cleverly cites the story of the grumbling of the Israelites at Massah and Meribah (cf. Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 95:7-11). In this passage God chastises the Israelites for turning back toward Egypt, implying that God will not look kindly on the Jewish Christians’ defection from Christ back toward the Law of Moses.
Reading the Letter to the Hebrews requires patience and the long view. The argument develops slowly, using extended comparisons over several chapters. Your perseverance will be rewarded with the rich payoff that comes later in the letter.
Psalms: 26, 27
Psalm 26 offers a portrait of a faithful life that finds its coherence in devotion to the Lord. At first reading it may sound boastful: “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity.” (v.1); “I wash my hands in innocence” (v.6). But the psalm celebrates not an individual’s behavior, but God’s “steadfast love” (v.3) and power to redeem (v.11). Hence the psalm depicts the ideal life, shaped and guided by the awareness of God’s powerful love.
Psalm 27 is a beloved psalm for those who have turned to scripture seeking the assurance of God’s care. The adversaries or enemies who threaten the speaker are a feature of many psalms; their threat is general and unspecified, which allows us to read the psalm for its help against whatever people, forces, or situations threaten us. Our comfort is the assurance in memorable first verse: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Reading this psalm is one way to seek the Lord for this refuge and strength.