But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Good Friday – 2023

The Old Testament priesthood – comprised of the descendants of Aaron the Levite, the brother of Moses – offered regular and special annual sacrifices, to atone for the sins of the people of Israel, according to the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law. But, as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains,

“The law called certain sacrifices atoning sacrifices on account of what they signified or foreshadowed, not because they merited forgiveness of sins in God’s eyes… In point of fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, the death of Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches when it says, ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’”

Again, the Apology teaches that

“The Levitical sacrifices of atonement were so called only in order to point to a future expiation. By some sort of analogy, therefore, they were satisfactions, since they purchased a righteousness of the law, and thereby prevented those persons who sinned from being excluded from the community. But they had to come to an end after the revelation of the gospel.”

The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was indeed the true and only sacrifice that really counted, to atone for the sins of humanity.

It was toward this true sacrifice of Christ that all the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed. And it was this true sacrifice of Christ which was pictured and illustrated by the sacrifices of animals without blemish that the priests of Israel offered – to give shape to the messianic faith of the genuine believers in ancient Israel.

The Levitical priesthood was itself also a picture and a foreshadowing of the final and ultimate priesthood of Christ, who sacrificed himself on the altar of the cross, once and for all time, for the sins of the world.

The need for such a sacrifice arose from two important truths: the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of man. If God were not holy, sin and evil would not offend or anger him. But if God were not holy, God would not be God.

And mankind is indeed sinful. In fact, we are so sinful that our sin blinds us to the reality of our sinfulness. It is God’s objective, external law, and the righteous demands that his law makes on us, that compel us to admit that we are as sinful as we really are.

Our sin pollutes our inner life, and alienates us even from our own values and goals. Our sin disrupts the harmony of our human relationships, and alienates us from other people.

And, our sin is in active rebellion against the goodness and love of the God who made us, and alienates us from him and from his fellowship. A reconciliation is needed. And for reconciliation to occur, God must be propitiated, and his anger must be assuaged.

But who can do this? Well, as we’ve already noted, Jesus can do this. But the next question is why Jesus was able to do this.

If the death of bulls and goats could not truly appease God, could the death of a mere man do so? A mere man, if he was a man with no sin of his own, could perhaps atone for the sins of one other man like himself.

But how can the sacrifice of one human being be of infinite value, for the forgiveness of all sins: past, present, and future? How can the sacrifice of one human being – even a sinless human being – have an infinite reach that includes all people, so as to be able to make God’s justification and acceptance available to all people?

That can happen if the man Christ Jesus, who died on the cross for all other men, is actually more than a man. That can happen if the human Savior, who died in the place of all other humans, was also a divine Savior.

In a sermon that St. Peter preached to the residents of Jerusalem – as the Book of Acts records it – we are told that

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – the God of our fathers – glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you; and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”

We believe, therefore, that the sacrifice which was offered to God for all human sin, was a sacrifice that was also offered by God: by God who is the Holy and Righteous One, and who is the Author of Life.

God did it all. He truly is our Savior in every sense of the word. We are not our own Savior in any sense of the word.

God the Son, in human flesh, offered himself to God the Father in heaven. And just as the flames of immolation in the Old Testament carried those animal sacrifices up before God, so too did the Holy Spirit carry up Christ’s sacrifice.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains this Trinitarian dimension to the sacrifice of Calvary, and explains what God himself was willing to do for our salvation:

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance since a death has occurred that redeems them…”

This is what we believe with all our hearts. We believe in the deity of Christ with all our hearts, because if it was not God himself who saved us on the cross – in both the giving and the receiving – we are not saved.

And with all our hearts we believe that the divine Lord Jesus is indeed also the divine Savior, who didn’t just decree a philosophical salvation for us, but who on the cross accomplished for us a real flesh-and-blood salvation from what would have been a real eternal separation from God.

The human mind cannot wrap itself around this great mystery. Human reason cannot fully grasp the mystery of the incarnation, let alone the death of God according to his flesh.

But we don’t need to understand it fully, before we are willing to believe it. And as we believe it, all the benefits of what the triune God has done for us flow in, and give us peace and hope.

Our broken relationship with God is healed and restored. And we on the inside are healed, and are made to be new creatures in Christ.

We do firmly believe this. Believing this is what makes us Christians. But did the faithful people of the Old Testament era also believe this?

Did they at some level grasp that the future messianic sacrifice that would save them from sin and death, would be a sacrifice both from God and to God? If they were paying close attention to the signs and signals that God gave them, they would have grasped this.

In the Old Testament, the specific term “Angel of the Lord” was used to identify the Second Person of the Holy Trinity during his various special visitations to the people of God, at different times and places. These occasional appearances were previews of the coming incarnation, and of the earthly ministry of Jesus.

This special “Angel” or messenger of God was differentiated from the created angels. He was described both as God’s agent, and also as God himself, who assumed a temporary visible form, in order to communicate with one of the patriarchs or with some other individual.

One of his visitations in particular – to Samson’s father Manoah before Samson was born – is noteworthy. We read in the book of Judges:

“Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Please let us detain you and prepare a young goat for you.’ And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me, I will not eat of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.’ (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.)”

“And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?’ And the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?’ So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to the one who works wonders, and Manoah and his wife were watching.”

“And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar. Now Manoah and his wife were watching, and they fell on their faces to the ground.”

The “wonderful” unspoken name of the Angel of the Lord was, of course, Yahweh, or Jehovah. And notice what he did when Manoah offered the sacrifice.

He joined himself to the sacrifice and became a part of it, thus showing Manoah – and all the people of Israel who would later read this account – what would be happening in the final sacrifice of the Messiah, toward which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed.

Manoah and people like him, with the deep and sober faith that was instilled in them by words and actions such as these, looked forward in faith to the sacrifice of God’s Son that we commemorate this evening.

They knew it was coming, and they trusted in the promises that were already attached to it, for them. They lived and died many centuries before this sacrifice occurred. But the image and message of this coming sacrifice were already vivid and personal realities for them.

May the image and message of the sacrifice that has now occurred, and that saves us, be vivid also for us: as we ponder the passion of Jesus, meditate on the suffering of Jesus, and put our trust in the promises of Jesus. St. Peter speaks to us in his First Epistle:

“Christ…committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 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. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Amen.