The church has a long and colorful history of shooting itself in the foot. I’m not talking about cringe-worthy mistakes. Installing shag carpet in the sanctuary in the 1960’s—now that was a mistake. Letting families purchase or rent their own private pews—that was plain dumb. We may shake our heads at these blunders, but we can let them pass. It’s not like they un-churched the church.
The experiment seemed like a cakewalk. “Watch this video,” the researcher said. “You’ll see two teams, one wearing white and one black. They’ll throw a ball back and forth. Count how many times the ball is passed by the team in white.”
It's been baptized by my sweat. The soles of my shoes have shaped and smoothed its contours. It's eavesdropped on my conversations with God and men. Through darkness and light, I've sped along its vagabond ways, ducking drooping limbs and jumping tree roots.
The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. Little James would spit up his breakfast all over his church clothes as they strapped him in the car seat. Lindsey would hog the bathroom and delay Garrett’s shower. Tom and Cindy would hit snooze one too many times.
I can experience almost every aspect of church from the comfort of my own bed. I can prop up my pillow, open my laptop, and enter my very own cyber sanctuary. The music of beautiful hymns can reverberate through my computer. I can read the Bible myself or listen to an audio recording of a trained professional narrate the Scriptures for me. Preachers from across the spectrum of Christianity can squeeze their pulpits within my computer screen.
One of these days, when the people gathered around the casket will be my own family and friends, I hope they bring their singing voices with them. Because there’ll be music at my funeral. Lots of it.
I’ve had a handful of unusual teachers in my life. A shrimp of a man who’d been excommunicated from the Amish community for owning a stereo—he taught me how to shingle a roof. A wheelchair-bound country music singer and songwriter who penned one of George Strait’s hits—he taught me the fine art of woodwork. An ex-con with a string of DWI’s—he taught me the ins and outs of the work I did in the oilfield.
This is the story of how a small, country church astounded the experts on church growth by becoming a megachurch overnight. Without even trying.
When I taught in Siberia several years ago, I returned home with a box full of Russian dolls to give as Christmas presents. These famous nesting dolls come in various sizes and colors; they depict everyone from politicians to biblical figures. My favorite was the Virgin Mary. Inside her was another smaller Mary, and inside her another, and still many more. I liked the combination of elaborate colors on this particular doll, but even more I liked the symbolism inherent in the nesting design.
Let’s sit side-by-side in the pew and observe a pastor for a few minutes. Listen not only to his words but eyeball him. See how he communicates non-verbally, by his actions. He’s standing in the pulpit. He’s folding his hands in prayer. Notice his face, too. He’s smiling as he greets us. He’s earnest as he proclaims the Scriptures. His face compliments his words.
The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. By the time they piled in the car, broke the speed limit, and pushed open the sanctuary doors, they were anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. Every. Single. Sunday.
On my mother's Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I've expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma's cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I'm about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience. The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.
Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living
Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.
Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk
Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:
Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)
We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)
Therefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.
In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.
The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.
If this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon.
You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com. I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!
I grew up over-singing ''Just As I Am'' and watching folks get drenched from head to toe in their baptisms. There was something of a rhythm and rhyme to our Southern Baptist services; it certainly wasn't a charismatic free-for-all. The hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call all fell into place. But it had little akin to what I was to discover in my late teens when I began my pilgrimage into a liturgical church. There, I encountered psalm chanting, creedal confessions, vested clergy, an altar with real wine (!) atop it, worshipers making the sign of the cross, the rare but occasional smoke of incense, and plenty of other practices that sent my non-traditional sensitivities into shock. Some might suppose that, awed by the reverence imbuing the service, wooed by its sacred antiquity, it was love at first sight. But, no, to be honest, I didn't like it, not one little bit.
Twenty five years later, having written a Eucharistic hymn that is sung in the liturgy, presided as celebrant and deacon at various altars in the Lutheran Church, and contributed regularly to a journal devoted to the traditional divine service, I guess you could safely say that my first impressions of traditional worship were not my lasting ones. Like an arranged marriage, it took me years to get to know this heretofore unknown liturgical bride, to delve into her past, learn her eccentricities, and eventually fall in love with her. Now, a quarter century after our initial meeting, I can't imagine life without her.
What Good is Tradition?
Devotees of various faiths, Christian and otherwise, have their distinctive traditions and their reasons for perpetuating them. Some like the way these practices are transhistorical, providing an unbroken ritual link with prior generations of the faithful. Others appreciate how traditions tend to concretize doctrine, embodying religious teachings in religious rites, so that the eyes and ears and other senses participate fully in what a faith teaches, rescuing it from becoming a bloodless religion of the mind. Still others embrace tradition as the communal expression of the faith, the participation of all in a shared rite, thereby bonding them, and avoiding the tyranny of individualism or clerical whim. And there are some who simply enjoy the artistry of religious rites, how they lift the common to new heights of aesthetic beauty. My own gradual appreciation of Christian rites involved all of these. Ultimately, however, I fell in love with traditions—and specifically, traditional worship—for a single, overarching reason: its components, to varying degrees, are all in the service of the Gospel.
Tradition in the Service of the Gospel
What you'll encounter in a traditional worship service is a framework of readings, creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers that pulsate with the language of Scripture, with Christ Jesus at the heart of it all. By the repetition of these, with new elements circulating every week, truths seep into the hearts and minds of worshipers, steeping them in vivifying words. Every element of worship flows toward, into, and from the altar, where Jesus sits as Lamb, Priest, King, and Man, all rolled into one, giving his blood and body into his people and thereby literally embodying them with God. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus came to save not only the soul, but also the body, the body participates fully in this worship. Knees bow before the regal Lord; hands trace the sign of the saving cross upon themselves; mouths dine at his feast; eyes soak in the portrayal of his Passion in crucifix, icons, stained-glass windows; and noses spell the aromatic incense wafting prayers up toward God's throne. Moreover, just as the world operates according to a calendar, so the church follows a calendar of her own, with seasons and festivals that punctuate the year, each in one way or another preaching the mystery of Christ crucified and resurrected for us. Though some of the elements of this worship are mandated by Christ--the preaching of his Word, baptism, his Supper--others are not, but are part of the heritage of prior generations, who bequeathed to us rites and ceremonies which glorify God, beautify worship, and work in concert with the Gospel. All is claimed for Jesus—time, art, movement, architecture, music—so that in everything he may be glorified, and his people receive him and his gifts for their salvation.
Interest in the Traditional Liturgy Among Baptists
Though my own participation in liturgical worship happened after I left the church of my upbringing, I was surprised and delighted to read that in the Baptist church there has recently been a groundswell of interest, especially among young believers, in such worship. In a CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans, writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions– Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.” Whether this is merely a passing fad or a change of more substance and longevity remains to be seen. Needless to say, I hope it is the latter. If so, I pray that their spiritual odyssey may leave them not deeper into tradition but that tradition may leave them deeper into Christ. For if tradition is not in the service of the Gospel, it is fool's gold, worthless and void. But if it is in Christ's service, it is gold worthy of becoming a receptacle for heaven's blessings.
The Road More Traveled By
The poet Robert Frost famously spoke of taking "the road less traveled by" when he came to where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Perhaps in some aspects of life, that is sage advice. But when I came to where two roads diverged in the church, I took the road more traveled by, smoothed by the feet of the faithful for centuries, tried and tested by time, a path free of the pitfalls of modernity and the quicksands of fads, which leads always to the God crucified and risen for us. And that has made all the difference.
If you are interested in learning more about the traditional hymnody of the church, check out my newly published booklet, Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. Here is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. Sadly, not everything that is advertised these days as "Christian music" is very Christian at all. This booklet discusses five criteria for choosing quality, theologically sound hymns and songs, and thus provides the reader with clarity in filtering out what is worthy of being sung by the church. To purchase your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at email@example.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!
Singing is part of the lifeblood of the church. It always has been. In the Old Testament, believers joined voices to sing the Psalms before the Lord everywhere from the shores of the Red Sea to His temple in Jerusalem. So also in the early church, Paul encourages the Christians to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). These hymns are, first and foremost, the Word of God put to music, and secondly, a confession of thanksgiving and praise back to the Giver of all good gifts. Singing has certainly been a major part of the life of the Lutheran church. The Reformer himself, Martin Luther, wrote a number of hymns, as did countless others after him. These sacred songs embody the confession of the Gospel as the free grace of God in Christ. They teach the faithful, encourage the weak, give hope to the grieving.
Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing was published years ago, but has been updated to reflect the Lutheran Service Book and now includes a Foreword by the well-known hymn writer, Steve Starke. In this forty page booklet, I introduce and discuss five criteria that I believe are an essential part of what makes a hymn worthy of being on the lips of the Christian church. These criteria are:
- A Lutheran hymn aims not to create the right atmosphere or mood for worship, but serves as a vehicle for the Spirit-filled Word of God.
- A Lutheran hymn is not entertainment but proclamation.
- A Lutheran hymn is shaped by the theology of the cross.
- A Lutheran hymn is not bound merely to paraphrase the biblical text; rather, it interprets the Scriptures in reference to Christ.
- A Lutheran hymn is bound to no culture save the culture of the church catholic.
In the Foreword, Stephen Starke comments:
Chad Bird’s Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing offers clear criteria in defending Lutheran hymns as well as showing the reader why such hymns remain important now and for the future. He writes in a clear, understandable manner. I believe the booklet’s content will be a blessing to all those who seek to understand the great importance of why Lutherans sing what they sing when they gather for worship.
To read part of the opening chapter, check out this blog post. To purchase your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!
“I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home….” So begins an old country song. Fed up with her husband perched on a bar stool every evening, drinking away his paycheck, then stumbling home three sheets to the wind, this resourceful wife decides to transform their home into a bar. So she hires an alcoholic to assist with the redecoration. They take out the dining room table to make room for the bar. She hangs a neon sign that points the way to the bathroom. Her husband and his buddies can cash their paychecks at the house, and while they’re sleeping off the booze the next morning she’ll deposit the money in the bank Her whole strategy is summed in the chorus, "I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home, so you’ll feel more at ease here and you won’t have to roam..." If she erases the boundaries between home and bar, her husband will feel comfortable, his friends will feel welcome, and she’ll have money in the bank. She will make some sacrifices, but since she’ll regain her husband, it’ll all be worth it.
To Decorate or to Destroy?
But will it be worth it? And will she really regain her husband? The truth is that she hasn’t really made the bar and home equal; the bar wears the pants in that family now. The pub culture, which her husband loves, in which he feels comfortable, has much more control over his thinking, his actions, and his heart, than does the culture of his home. She sacrifices the intimacy of their household in a failed attempt to win back her husband. And, yes, she’ll have him there, but in a space that does nothing more than perpetuate the very lifestyle that is wrecking her home and marriage. Her intentions may be golden, but she’s doing nothing more than enabling his beer-guzzling, family-avoiding lifestyle. She hasn’t so much hired a wino to decorate their home as to destroy their home—to destroy any chance it might be a place where that man is transformed back into the husband he needs to be.
I’m Gonna Hire a Theological Wino to Decorate Our Church
The wife in this old country song bears a strong resemblance to lady church in many parts of America. She is motivated by the desire to connect with people who don’t feel at ease sitting in a pew, surrounded by stained glass, the cross of Jesus sitting atop the altar. They’re not comfortable with organ music, sermons preached from pulpits, songs sung from hymnals. Where are they at ease? In a movie theatre, or a sports stadium, or a bar. They are comfortable jamming to a band full of drums and steel guitars, listening to comedians and other entertainers, and hearing soloists or groups sing to them during concerts. They can kick back with a cup of Starbucks in their hands, wearing their favorite blue jeans, reclining in stadium seats with a big screen in front of them. So lady church hires the equivalent of a theological wino to decorate her church home, so these people will feel more at ease.
Worship in a Movie Theatre
For instance, Regal Entertainment Group offers churches the option of renting one of their theatres for worship services. In their ad, they boast that “clients have even said that holding their services in a theatre was a no-brainer for them because they wanted to reach the unchurched and the theatre was in a familiar, culturally relevant place.” Besides the perks of “ample parking, spacious lobbies, plenty of bathrooms” there is the “perfect view of the screen from a comfortable seat (cup holders included!).” And, of course, they add that “there’s no more powerful way to share your message.”
Yes, but what powerful message is really being shared? What message is the church communicating that chooses a movie theatre for its worship space? Or what message, for instance, is Joel Osteen’s congregation communicating when it chooses a former sports stadium for its gathering space? It’s the same type of message that the frustrated wife in our country song is communicating. Only in the case of lady church, it is this: the church does not have a message that is radically different from that of the world. It is not so radically different as to require a radically different space in which to communicate it. It is a comfortable, entertaining, non-life-altering message. The Gospel is as American as apple pie, Chevrolet, and Regal Cinemas.
Only it’s not. The Gospel is a radical message. It is as contrary to the ways and thoughts of the world as a home is to a bar, as a temple is to a theatre. And because of that, the church where this Gospel is preached dare not ape the architecture of the world. If she does, if she transforms the church into a theatre of entertainment, then she will teach the world that the Gospel is about titillation, feeling good, kicking back and being comfortable.
Holy Worship of a Holy God in a Holy Place
As the Old Testament tabernacle and temple were, so the New Testament church is: a holy place where the holy God dwells to meet with His holy people. I want to feel uncomfortable in church. I want my family and friends and fellow worshipers not to feel at ease, but to feel in awe when they enter the sanctuary of God. I want them to exclaim, as did Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” (Gen 28:17). I don’t want them to say, “How cool is this place! This is none other than the theatre where I watched ‘Annabelle’ last week, and here’s the cup holder where I put my Dr. Pepper while I ate popcorn.”
The church is a place of radical transformation. God meets with His people in this place to speak a law to them that reveals their selfishness, the bad man in all of them, the death that lurks within them. And through that law He kills. He puts them to the death of repentance in order that He might resurrect them through the good news of Jesus Christ. In Him they are not made comfortable and at ease, but are changed. They are made alive, truly alive, in the Son of God who loves them, who gave up His life for their own, who burst forth from the grace triumphant over death. That resurrection proclamation is transformative. It makes living saints out of dead sinners. It gives hope and healing to the wounded and bleeding.
Yes, of course, mission congregations often gather in spaces that are less than ideal. But I pray that even then they choose as neutral a space as possible for their temporary sanctuary, and transform that room or building on Sunday morning into as church-like a setting as possible. Why? Because the architecture, the furnishings, and the decorations of the church are not peripheral to this message. They too preach Christ. Stained glass and icons preach in color and symbol the good news of Jesus. Crosses and crucifixes focus the viewer on the heart of the church’s message of Christ crucified for you. The altar and communion rail beckon the worshiper to the feast of Jesus’ forgiving flesh and vivifying blood. Incense proclaims to our sense of smell the pleasing aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice and the rising smoke visually portrays our prayers that rise to heaven’s throne of grace. Pulpits and altars root the believers in the divine Word that comes down from heaven to feed our souls with words of truth. All together, architecture, sacred furnishings, and holy décor proclaim the Christ who radically transforms us into the children of God, citizens not of this world but a divine kingdom, worshipers who experience heaven on earth every Sunday morning.
You like to drink beer? Fine, enjoy a pint at the pub. You like to watch movies? Me too, so let’s go to the theatre. But when we’re meeting God face-to-face, leave the beer and the popcorn outside, for that place of divine encounter is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven, the church of Jesus Christ.
There will come a day, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, when the man in the coffin will be me. They say the dead don’t care, but I’m not dead yet, so as long as I’m still alive, I’d like to have some say in what goes on at my funeral. And, truth be told, I think the dead do care. Not that they will be privy to the details of what happens at their own funerals, but they still care about the world, about their family, about the church. The saints in heaven continue to pray for those who are still on their earthly pilgrimage, so how could they not care about them?
Because I do care now, and will care even after I’m with the Lord, here are some things I hope and pray are not said at my funeral. I care about those who will be there, about what they will hear. I want the truth to be spoken, the truth about sin, the truth about death, and, above all, the truth about the love of God in Jesus Christ.
So, please don’t say…
1. He was a good man. Don’t turn my funeral into a celebration of my moral resume. For one thing, I don’t have one. I’m guilty of far more immoral acts than moral ones. Secondly, even if I were the male equivalent of Mother Teresa, don’t eulogize me. Talk about the goodness of the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. Talk about our good Father who’s made us all His children in baptism. Talk about the good Husband that Christ is to His bride, the church. Don’t say, “He was a good man,” but “our good God loved this sinful man.”
2. Chad...Chad...Chad. I don’t want to be the focus of my own funeral. I was not the center of the liturgy on Sunday mornings, so why should it be any different during my funeral liturgy? If anyone’s name comes up over and over, let it be the name that is above every name—Jesus. He is the one who has conquered death. He is the one in whose arms I will have died. He is the one, the only one, who gives hope to the bereaved. Let me decrease that Christ may increase.
3. God now has another angel. Heaven is not going to de-humanize me. In fact, once I am resurrected on the last day, I will be more human than ever before, for my human soul and human body will finally be in a glorified state that’s free of sin. People don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever. God has enough angels already. All He wants is more of His children in the place Jesus has prepared for them.
4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in "The Tragic Death of the Funeral") do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins. The only person’s life to celebrate at a funeral is the Savior conceived of the virgin Mary, who became our sin on the cursed tree that we might become His righteousness in the blessed font, who buried sin and death in the empty tomb He left behind on Easter morning.
5. Chad would not want us to weep. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Those tears betoken a God who’s fully human, who experienced the sadness and grief we all do at the death of those we love. To cry is not to deny that our friend or family member is with the Lord, but to acknowledge that in this vale of tears there is still death, still loss, still suffering. I do want those who mourn my death to weep, not for my sake, but for their own, for it is an integral part of the healing process. But while they weep, let them remember that in the new heavens and new earth, God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain,” (Revelation 21:4).
6. What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad. What’s in that coffin is the body that was fearfully and wonderfully made when our Father wove me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). What’s in that coffin is the body that Jesus baptized into His own body to make me part of Him. What’s in that coffin is the body that ate the saving body of Jesus, and drank His forgiving blood in the Supper, that I might consume the medicine of immortality. And what’s in that coffin is the body that, when the last trumpet shall sound, will burst from my grave as a body glorified and ready to be reunited with my soul. My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me. And one day I’ll get it back, alive, restored, perfected to be like the resurrected body of Jesus.
Of course, there’s always more that could be added to this list—and perhaps you’d like to add more in the comments below—but I believe these get the point across. I want the beginning of my funeral to be focused on Jesus, as well as the middle, as well as the end, as well as every point in between. I care about those who will attend. Let them hear the good news, especially in the context of this sobering reminder of mortality, that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, for He is the resurrection and the life.
**Here is a short YouTube video in which I talk about death, so-called "natural death," the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ.
If you sit in the pew on Sunday morning, part of you also stands in the pulpit. Whether you realize it or not, you have a hand in shaping every sermon that your pastor preaches. That’s because the word of God that your shepherd is expounding is not a one-size-fits-all message; he specifically tailored this sermon to fit the life situations of the saints whom he serves. He has you in his mind, and on his heart, when he preaches.
A Blessing and a Challenge
This is a blessing, but it’s also a tremendous challenge. It’s a blessing because who wants a sermon that’s like a Hallmark card, written vaguely enough to apply to just about any situation? Paul wrote very different letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus for a reason: each congregation had unique struggles which required different applications of the divine word to their situation. It’s no different today.
But this blessed, precise preaching is a weekly challenge. Your pastor, above all, wants his proclamation to remain true to the word of God. But he also wants it to remain fresh, creative, understandable, and applicable to his flock. When it comes to facing and overcoming this challenge, you can either assist your pastor or make it even more difficult for him. The part of you that stands in the pulpit with him can either be a help or a hindrance.
Here are ten suggestions on how you can be helpful, how you can make your pastor an even better preacher.
1. Spend time with your pastor outside of church. This can be as simple as enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee together during the week. Pastors cannot really get to know you if they know only the Sunday-morning you. Welcome his visits to your home. Include him and his family in your family’s life. The better he knows you outside of church, the better he will preach to you inside of church.
2. Be open with him about your personal struggles. If you’re sick and want your doctor to help you, you can’t sit there on the table, fully-dressed, smiling, and telling him you feel like a million bucks. He needs to know where you hurt and how you hurt if he’s going to help you. The more he knows about your sickness, the better he’ll be at prescribing the right medicine. So it is with your pastor. The more you tell him about your struggles, your sins, your addictions, your regrets—all the ills from which you suffer—the better physician of your soul he will be. This may take place in a more structured format such as private confession and absolution, or it may be in a less liturgical setting. Wherever it happens, this deeper knowledge of his flock will in turn deepen the pastor’s preaching, for the better he knows what’s going on inside his hearers, the better he will be inside the pulpit as he applies the healing balm of the Gospel.
3. Give your pastor honest feedback about his sermons. Very often the only substantive feedback a pastor gets about his sermons is from his wife. As helpful as that may be, he needs to hear from you, too. And a word to you pastors: pray for humility and thick skin so that you will receive this honest feedback—be it positive or negative—with gratitude. Hear me well: I’m not advocating that parishioners critique sermons like a movie critic rates the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Rather, you should freely communicate with your pastor if anything about his sermons troubles you, seems unclear, or just plain doesn’t square with your understanding of the word of God. To remain silent about preaching that could be improved, clarified, or corrected, only gives voice to apathy. At the same time, express to him how thankful you are for his bold adherence to pure doctrine, and for placing before you, week after week, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for you. Like any Christian, pastors too need vocal encouragement to remain steadfast and faithful in their vocation.
4. Ask your pastor questions about the sermon. This dovetails with the point made above concerning feedback. Some biblical texts are harder to understand than others. And if you think these biblical knots are hard to untie, try preparing a sermon on them! It can be a formidable task. So if you listen to a sermon on one of these passages, or any text for that matter, where certain issues still remain difficult for you to understand, then don’t be afraid to ask your pastor about them. Chances are he has many insights into that passage of Scripture that he chose not to include in the sermon. Your post-homily conversation will give him a chance to explain the biblical story more fully, and you to understand it more clearly. And your questions will reveal to him ways in which he can provide even greater clarity to his hearers about this passage of Scripture in his ongoing proclamation of it.
5. Be a faithful student in the Bible Class your pastor teaches. I cannot overemphasize this point. To put it quite simply: the deeper knowledge you have of the Bible, the deeper understanding you will have of biblical preaching. And the deeper understanding you have of both the Bible and biblical preaching will enable your pastor to be a better preacher for you. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a high school teacher who wants to introduce his students to the beauties and intricacies of Shakespeare, to discover that many in the class only want to read the CliffsNotes. Unfortunately, a parallel situation often exists in congregations. The pastor wishes to lead his hearers more deeply into the Scriptures, but many of them only want to skim the surface. Immerse yourself in the word of God with your pastor, ask him questions, listen to the discussions, ponder how all the biblical stories fit together in Christ. What you learn from your pastor in Bible class, as well as what he learns from his interaction with you and other students of the word, will have a direct and positive impact on his preaching.
6. Encourage your pastor to study God’s word with other pastors. The best pulpits are crowded pulpits. Surrounding your pastor are patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, college and seminary professors, fellow saints and sinners—everyone whom Christ has used to shape your shepherd’s preaching. Especially helpful to your pastor are his fellow proclaimers. Like him, they wrestle weekly with the word, know the angst of the office, and strive to preach faithfully in their own parishes. These men lean on and learn from each other. If your pastor regularly studies the Scriptures with other pastors, encourage him to continue to do so. Indeed, encourage your fellow members to respect that time he has with his brothers in the ministry. What they learn from him, and what he learns from them, will enrich the preaching that you and your fellow Christians hear.
7. Protect the time your pastor needs for sermon preparation. One of the earliest recorded problems faced by the church was that the apostles were so overburdened that they were in danger of neglecting the real duties of their office (Acts 6:1ff). It wasn’t right, they said, for them to “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” The duties of the office of the ministry are weighty enough without your pastor also being asked to make sure the church lawn gets mowed, the budget prepared, pews dusted, and a thousand other responsibilities that someone else can take care of. Protect the time he needs to be fully engaged in the real duties of his office, which includes study of the Scriptures on which he will preaching. The more time he has to prepare a homily, the better his proclamation to you will be.
8. Gift your pastor with helpful, trustworthy preaching resources. There is a wealth of material available for pastors who are looking for fresh and faithful ways to preach. There are journals and books, seminars and conferences, as well as online resources. The only problem is that there’s a price tag attached to most of these. And the ministry not being the most lucrative calling there is, sometimes that cost is prohibitive. Every pastor has a birthday, an ordination anniversary day, and he too sets up a Christmas tree. Why not ask him if there’s a preaching resource he’d like as a gift? Not only will he profit from that gift, so will you as you see it bear fruit in the pulpit.
9. Be “all there” when you’re in the pew. Imagine what your reaction would be if you placed a costly gift into the lap of your child, only to have him reach for his phone to text a friend, or yawn then fall asleep, or turn to a friend to begin a whispered conversation, all the while ignoring the gift you had worked so hard to give him. Every sermon your pastor preaches is his gift to you; indeed, it is the Lord’s gift to you, His saving word wrapped in your pastor’s words. He places that gift in your lap every Sunday. Receive it with attentiveness, thankfulness, faithfulness. Make eye contact with your pastor as he preaches. What you communicate nonverbally says volumes about what you think of his preaching. And, believe me, he notices every yawn, every whispered conversation, every head down not-so-secretly texting or Facebooking or tweeting or whatever else you might be doing that amounts to a despising of the divine word you are ignoring. You took the time to be in church; when you’re there, be all there.
10. Pray for your pastor. It’s common for pastors to spend a few moments in prayer before they enter the pulpit. Perhaps they pray something like Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight.” Echo that prayer with your own. Ask the Lord to bless your pastor’s words, to give you repentance and faith to hear them aright. And continue to pray even as he preaches. Translate his words of law into prayers of repentance. Respond to his words of grace with prayers of thanksgiving. Preaching is not a monologue; it is a conversation, partly spoken aloud, partly prayed silently, between you, your pastor, and Jesus Christ. Before, during, after your pastor preaches, endeavor to pray for him and yourself and all who are present, that the words from your pastor's mouth and the meditations of every heart present, may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord of the church.
There are, no doubt, other ways besides these ten suggestions by which you can help your pastor become an even better preacher. And, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to write about those ideas in the comment section of my blog. I offer these, however, as some ways in which you can help the man whom God has called to serve you in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ.
If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!
A confessional church is a singing church. As she sings, she makes her good confession, a confession both in word and music. As the sainted Martin Franzmann once said, “Theology is doxology. Theology must sing” (Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: Sermons by Martin Franzmann [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1994], p. 92). Theology cannot remain mute words safely bedded down between the covers of a book; it must leap off the printed page, exit the mouth, and fill the air with holy sound. Theology must be given a voice. The lips, not the pen, are the best instruments of theological expression. Although doctrinal books, commentaries, journals, and essays serve well as mediums of confession, they all play second fiddle to that which is articulated within the liturgy. The dogmatics of Francis Pieper must salute the hymns of Paul Gerhardt. All of which is to say that the hearth and home of theology is in the Divine Service. All true theology is restless until it finds its rest in liturgy, sermons, and hymnody. There the rubber meets the road. In that holy context the bride of Christ is doing what she does best: hearing from and speaking to her heavenly groom. And the words she speaks are God-words, nouns and verbs which cradle the divine presence. The words the Spirit first planted in her ears bear fruit through her lips as she confesses, chants, and sings. I have heard seminarians say that they learned as much, or more, theology in the daily chapel services as in the classroom or study. The same could be said for any layman who confesses the creeds, prays the liturgy, sings the hymns, or listens to the sermons in his congregation. As he does so, he is swimming in a lake of theology. So it is and so it should be. The Augsburg Confession, Article VII, says the one holy Christian church “is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” The church is thereby defined liturgically, as God’s children gathered around Gospel-preaching and the holy sacraments of the divine service. Here theology is on home turf.
In a psalm recounting how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, we read, “Then they believed His words; they sang His praise” (106:12; NKJ; emphasis added). They believed, therefore they sang (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:13). Faith and hymnody, belief and confession, go hand in glove. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks and sings. This, however, is a double-edged sword. Hymns can be beautiful confessions of truth, but they can also be ugly expressions of falsehood. The words uttered by the mouth are windows to the heart; they reveal the orthodoxy or heterodoxy which resides therein. So if you wish to know the good, the bad, or the ugly confession of an individual or congregation, you might well begin by asking him or them to sing a dozen of their favorite hymns. The pastor’s quia subscription to the Lutheran confessions and the congregation’s formal membership in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod mean little if the hymn of the day is “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” It doesn’t take a theological giant to see that what they have really decided to follow is something other than the path of orthodoxy.
Here it is helpful to remember that the primary meaning of orthodoxy is “right praise,” from the Greek orthos (right) and doxa (praise or glory). Only by extension does it mean “right doctrine.” The two, however, enjoy a mother-daughter relationship, for from doctrine’s womb the child of praise is born. The ancient church used the following aphorism to say the same thing: Lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, the rule of prayer [constitutes] the rule of believing. That which the church speaks and sings in her liturgy is indicative and constitutive of what she confesses to be true—good or bad. Put your ear to a church’s mouth—not your nose in her books—and there she will tell you what she truly believes, not just what she claims to believe. It is no coincidence, therefore, that virtually all communions within Christendom have their own distinctive hymnody. Their songs mirror their theology...
So begins a booklet I wrote several years ago, entitled, Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing, published by the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Press. In this small book, I examine the place and purpose of hymnody within the divine service, and explain five criteria for Lutherans hymns. I am in the process of preparing Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing for publication, since it has been out of print for several years. I will keep you updated on my progress. And, as always, I thank all of you who have, in any way, encouraged me to begin writing anew, and to keep it up.
If you've ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, however, your head began to spin. All this stuff about sacrifices, priests, blood, fat, entrails makes it sound like a ritualistic butcher's guide. But it's not. Believe it or not, Leviticus is packed with the Good News of a God who loves His people, and who provides them with the means of grace whereby they can receive Him and His gifts. Leviticus, far from being an esoteric relic from Israel's past, is a Gospel book of the church. It teaches of God's holiness, His love, His sacraments, His worship. It is a book we desperately need to recover. But, yes, it is hard to understand, especially why there is all this focus on sacrifice. Why all these sacrifices? Why all these details about flesh and blood and fat? What's the difference between all these offerings? And, finally, what do they teach us about Christ's sacrifice and the sacraments of the church? To answer these questions, I wrote this Catechism on Sacrifice several years ago. It consists of questions and answers to aid you in your study of Leviticus, as well an any part of the OT that discusses the divine service in Israel.
Read it through. Save it for your next Bible Study. Forward it to your pastor. Use it as you see fit. I offer it as a brief resource for the church.
A CATECHISM ON SACRIFICE
What is sacrifice?
In the liturgy of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordained means of grace by which God gave blessings to His people through the things of creation. The sacrifice belonged to God. He graciously gave it to His people so that they, by faith, might receive the divine gifts communicated therein. Some sacrifices were also the means whereby Israel gave thanks to God for His gifts to them.
When did sacrifice begin?
Sacrifice began after mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 3). “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21). Although the killing of these animals to provide coverings for Adam and Eve is not specifically called a sacrifice, it did require the death of animals. Sinners were covered only by the death of another who was killed in their place. The first explicit reference to sacrifice is in Genesis 4, where Cain “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground” and Abel “on his part brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:3-4).
What kinds of things were sacrificed?
One can divide the various kinds of sacrifices into two main categories: bloody and unbloody. Bloody sacrifices were the offerings of animals that were ritually slaughtered. This ritual slaughter ordinarily took place near an altar, upon which a portion of the animal’s blood would be sprinkled or poured out or smeared. Not any and every animal could be sacrificed, but only those ordained for slaughter by the Word of God (see question #3). These animals – which were always domesticated animals – included the following:
Bovine: bulls, cows, heifers, calves, and oxen.
Sheep/Goats: he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, lambs
Birds: turtledoves and pigeons
Unbloody sacrifices were offerings from the agricultural produce of the people of God. These offering included the following: wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine. The unbloody sacrifices were ordinarily offered in conjunction with the bloody sacrifices.
Why could only certain animals be sacrificed?
There were three groupings of animals in the OT: unclean, clean, and clean plus “sacrificeable”.
- Unclean animals were to be avoided totally. They were not to be sacrificed, eaten, domesticated, or their carcasses touched. These animals are listed in Leviticus 11.
- Clean animals could be domesticated and eaten.
- Clean plus “sacrificeable” animals could not only be domesticated and eaten; they were also ordained by God as sacrificial victims.
Various reasons have been put forward to explain these three classifications. Some of the more common theories are:
- ARBITRARY: The lists, though given by God, are arbitrary. The classes of animals, and the individual species placed therein, are listed as such by God, but there is no definite and ascertainable reason(s) for why some animals are clean and others unclean.
- PAGAN CONNECTION: The animals deemed unclean represented deities in pagan cultures or were used in pagan sacrifice. To avoid confusion and possible syncretism, these animals were to be avoided by the Israelites.
- ANTI-LIFE: The animals classified as unclean inhabited locations that were inimical to life, or they were predators or carcass eaters. Because of the symbolism of death attached to them, they were to be avoided.
- HYGIENIC: The animals were unclean which were common carriers of disease.
- ALLEGORICAL: Positive and negative traits of animals were allegorically applied to people. Animals whose ways do not exemplify proper conduct were unclean, whereas animals whose ways corresponded to the proper conduct of man were clean. For example, a cud-chewing animal was clean because the clean and holy man should ruminate on the word of God.
- SEPARATION OF ISRAEL: Just as God chose Israel from all the nations to be a holy people to Him, so He chose certain animals from all the beasts of the earth to be clean animals. The unclean animals thus represented the Gentiles whose ways, if adopted, would have defiled the people of God.
The last of these theories has OT and NT support to recommend it. We may first take note of Leviticus 20:24-24, which closely connects Israel’s separation from her pagan neighbors with Israel’s separation of unclean from clean animals:
22 'You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 'Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 'Hence I have said to you, "You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has separated [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] you from the peoples. 25 'You are therefore to make a distinction [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.
Secondly, when the Lord gives St. Peter the vision of unclean animals and commands him to kill and eat them, the primary message is that Peter is to receive Cornelius and the Gentiles into the church (Acts 10:1-48). The Gentiles (formerly regarded as unclean) are not to be regarded as unclean or common for “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:15).
Only domesticated animals which were both clean and “sacrificeable” were to be offered up on the altar. They alone were ordained by God to be in the holy space and to be placed upon the holy altar. Like the priests, they were separated from all other animals by God for this holy purpose and this holy place. Thus the three categories of animals closely correspond to the three groups of people in the world: Gentiles, Israelites, and Israelite priests.
- Gentiles = Unclean animals
- Israelites = Clean animals not used for sacrifice
- Priests = Smaller group of clean animals used for sacrifice
What were the primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy?
The primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy were the whole burnt offering (olah), the sin offering (chattath), the guilt offering (asham), the peace offering (shellamim), and the meal offering (minchah).
What was the whole burnt offering (olah)?
The whole burnt offering was the foundational sacrifice of Israel (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13). Every morning and every evening, a whole burnt offering of a one-year-old lamb was sacrificed at the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 29:38-42). This was the continual burnt offering. Similar whole burnt offerings were also sacrificed at other times. What distinguished this sacrifice is indicated by the name: the whole burnt offering. All the parts of the animal which were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were wholly burnt upon the altar. Its smoke “went up” (olah) to God from the altar.
What was the sin offering (chattath)?
The sin offering was sacrificed by individuals or the whole congregation when they broke the law of God (Leviticus 4-5:13; 6:24-30). The type of animal offered (bull, he-goat, she-goat, lamb, dove or pigeon) depended upon the social rank of the individual. The blood of the victim was smeared on the horns of the main altar and poured out at its base. If it was offered for a priest or for the whole congregation, some blood was also taken into the Holy Place to be sprinkled on the veil and smeared on the horns of the altar of incense. The flesh of the animal was cooked and eaten by the priests (if offered for a layman’s sin) or burned outside the camp (if offered for a priest or for the whole congregation).
What was the guilt offering (asham)?
The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, though this sacrifice was offered for those sins in which reparation could be made to the offended party (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10). A ram was the designated victim for the guilt offering. In addition, if applicable, property was to be restored, plus 20% of its value, to the offended party. The blood was poured out on the main altar and the cooked flesh of the victim was eaten by the priests in the court of the tabernacle or temple.
What was the peace offering (shellamim)?
The peace offering was the sacrifice in which the worshiper received back a portion of the sacrificial meat to be cooked and eaten in a ritual meal (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36). A male or female animal from the flock or herd was sacrificed, its blood was poured onto the main altar, its breast and right leg were given to the priest and his family (as part of his income), and the rest of the animal was consumed in a communal meal. The Israelite(s) thus consumed the very animal who died for his atonement. It was a preview of the Lord’s Supper, in which we eat the very body of the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross. Peace offerings were sacrificed to give thanks to God (praise), to fulfill a vow (votive), or as free-will offerings.
What was the meal offering (minchah)?
The meal offering was a bloodless sacrifice. It consisted of wheat or barley and was ordinarily accompanied by olive oil, incense, and wine. It was part of every morning and evening whole burnt offering (Exodus 29:40-41).
Why was blood so significant?
In the sacrificial liturgy, blood was of vast more importance than any other part of the animal. For example, no part of the animal was ever taken into the Holy Place, much less into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, no part of the animal – with the sole exception of the blood – was ever taken any closer to the inner sanctum than the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. In certain sacrifices, however, the blood was taken into the Holy Place and even into the Holy of Holies.
Leviticus 17:10-11 explains the importance of blood in the sacrificial liturgy:
10 'And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.11 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.'
This passage has several noteworthy features.
- The life [literally “the soul”] of the flesh is in the blood. The very life of the animal is located precisely in its blood. To have the blood is to have the life. To be touched by the blood is to be touched by the life. Life is not an abstraction; it is a visible, tangible fluid. Life is blood and blood is life. Where there is no blood, there is no life.
- I have given it to you. Blood is a divine gift from the Lord and Giver of life. This is His institution. He has given it to His Church that they might have the life that is located in the blood. Thus the blood not only has life; it conveys life for the Lord has given it for that very purpose.
- On the altar. God gives His Church the life of the blood on the altar. The altar is not just a place of death but of life for here the life-giving blood is placed. The life-blood is drained from the victim and placed on the altar. Because the altar is most holy (Exodus 29:37), the blood, when it touches the altar, becomes most holy. Therefore, by the Word of God, the blood of the sacrifice is living and holy and bestows life and holiness. It is life in the animal; it becomes holy on the altar; and it is life-giving and holy-giving to the Church.
- To make atonement for your souls. The life-blood of the victim atones for sinner. This is its purpose: it removes sin, it removes death, it removes unholiness. This happens not just in the killing of the victim, but in the placing of the victim’s blood upon the altar. No blood is atoning blood unless it touches the holy things of God. It is sprinkled, poured out, or smeared on God’s altar, God’s priest, or God’s tabernacle. It is then atoning blood for it has become holy blood by contact with God’s holy thing. Atoning blood is therefore holy blood, life-giving blood. It is given for the removal of sin and the bestowal of holiness.
Why was fat so significant?
In addition to the blood of the sacrificial victim, the fat also belonged exclusively to God. “All fat is the Lord’s. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood,” (Leviticus 3:16-17). The fat to be removed were the layers of fat beneath the surface of the animal’s skin and around its organs – which can be removed – as opposed to the fat which is inextricably part of the muscle. No explicit reason is given for the God’s exclusive use of the fat. Presumably, however, the fat was considered to be the best part of the animal and was therefore reserved for God. The Hebrew word for fat (cheleb) is often used metaphorically to denote “the best”. For example, “the cheleb of the land” (Genesis 45:18) and the “cheleb of the wheat” (Deuteronomy 32:14) refers to the best of the land and the best of the wheat. In the Messianic banquet, the Lord promises to make a feast of fats on His holy mountain (Isaiah 25:6ff).
Who performed the sacrifices?
Leviticus 1:3-5 describes “who does what” in the liturgy of sacrifice:
3 'If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. 5 And he shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
Thus, the Israelite who brought the animal for sacrifice would kill it near the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. The sinner for whom this animal’s blood would be shed – he was the slayer. The killing, however, was God’s institution and gift for by it the sinner was accepted before the Lord (Leviticus 1:3). After the victim was killed, the priests assumed responsibility for the liturgical actions involving the blood (i.e., sprinkling the blood on the altar).
The body of the victim (e.g., in the whole burnt offering) was then skinned and cut into its various pieces by the Israelite who brought the sacrifice. After the skinning and quartering were completed, the priests would place the sacrificial flesh and fat on the altar to be wholly consumed by the fire of Yahweh in His altar.
6 'He shall then skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then Aaron's sons, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the suet over the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. 9 Its entrails, however, and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:6-9)
There were thus specific responsibilities assigned both to the layman and the priest. Any contact with the altar, however, was reserved exclusively for the priest.
Where were they performed?
Sacrifices were performed near an altar. The victim was killed near the altar (not on it or over it [except in the case of birds]) and its blood was placed on the altar or smeared on the horns of the altar. After the institution of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20), almost every sacrifice was performed at the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple (for an exception, see Numbers 19:1-22). When an Israelite brought a bovine for sacrifice, it would be killed on the east side of the altar, in the forecourt (Leviticus 1:5; 4:4,15). The slaughter of a sheep or goat took place on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11; 4:24,29,33). Doves and pigeons were killed over the altar (as exceptional cases) by the removal of the bird’s head, after which its blood was drained on the side of the altar (Leviticus 1:15).
How were the animals sacrificed?
The OT sacrificial liturgy does not explicitly state how the animal was to be killed (except birds, Leviticus 1:15). The verb used for the slaughter (shachat), however, does connote the slitting of the throat (cf. 2 Kings 10:7). This particular manner of slaughter would help in the collection of blood from the animal for placement upon the altar. The slitting of the throat is also supported by rabbinic tradition.
Why did the Israelite place his hand upon the head of the animal?
The man who brought a sacrificial animal placed his hand upon the head of the animal before he killed it.
And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. (Leviticus 1:4)
A similar action was performed by the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 3:2,8,13; 4:4,15,24,29,33)
Various explanations for this rite have been given: (1) sin is transferred to the animal; (2) the man is identified with the sacrifice; (3) the man declares his purpose to sacrifice this animal; (4) and that the man owns this animal.
To understand the meaning of the laying on of hand(s), it is necessary to consider the following:
- The verbs used for the “laying on” (samak) of the hand implies pressure. The hand is not merely placed on the head; the Israelite leans on the head of the victim, applying the pressure of his body onto the animal. The implication is that he is placing himself onto and into this animal.
- The laying on of hands is done so that the sacrifice “may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). The sacrifice is “for him”; it will die in his place as the ram did for Isaac: “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son,” (Genesis 22:13). There is an identification between the man and the animal for the animal is killed in the stead of the sinner.
- This killing takes places so that the animal might make “atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). His sin is covered by the blood of the one who dies in his place.
- The laying of hands (at times) took place in conjunction with the confession of sins. These two actions took place together on the Day of Atonement: “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness,” (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 5:5). By means of the laying on of hands and verbal confession, the sins were transferred onto the animal. He thus became not only the bearer of the sins, but also the substitute for the sinner.
The four explanations (listed above) for the laying on of hands are thus not mutually exclusive. The owner of the animal (4) lays his hand on the head of the appointed sacrifice (3), leans on the animal to place himself onto and into this substitutionary victim (2), and confesses his sins to transfer them onto the sacrifice (1).
Did the Israelite confess his sin(s) over the animal?
As noted above, the Israelite did confess his sins in conjunction with some sacrifices. Confession was done, for example, in connection with the guilt offering:
So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin. (Leviticus 5:5-6)
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed over the scapegoat “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21). The likelihood is great that confession of sins was also a vital part of the ritual of other sacrifices.
Were the sacrifices for God or for man?
Various pagan cults in the ancient world offered sacrifices as food to their gods and goddesses. This reason for sacrifice is explicitly rejected by God:
[The Lord says,] "I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me," (Psalm 50:8-15).
God had no need of the sacrifices of Israel. Rather, Israel needed these sacrifices. God gave the sacrificial liturgy to Israel after giving them the Law so that they might have a divinely ordained means by which they could be cleansed of their transgressions of the Law. The sacrifices were thus not for God but for man. The Lord gave His Church the tabernacle, the altar, and the sacrificial animals so that through these means He might dwell among His people, hear their prayers, grant them forgiveness, and be their good and gracious Father.
What benefits were received from the sacrifices?
Through the sacrifices, as through means, God gave the Israelites gifts such as the following:
(1) Forgiveness of sins
Leviticus 4:20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”
(2) Blessing and Righteousness
Psalm 24:5, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
Leviticus 12:7, “Then [the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.”
Leviticus 1:3, “He shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.”
Above all else, however, the Lord gave the sacrifices as the chief means by which He directed His people to look for the coming sacrifice of the Messiah. Every bull, every goat, every lamb, every dove and pigeon was a preview of the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 8-11).
Is it correct to think of the OT sacrifices as sacraments?
Yes. The OT sacrifices – especially the bloody sacrifices – were not just plain flesh and plain blood, but flesh and blood included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. To these physical things, the Lord joined His Word of forgiveness and cleansing. The Lutheran Confessions speak of “covenant-signs and signs of grace or sacraments, such as circumcision, the many kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and holy Baptism,” (Formula of Concord, SD VII 50). The flesh and blood of these animal sacrifices were prefigurements of the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As such, they conveyed to the believers the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which would be acquired by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.
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