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Ritual and Understanding In the Old Testament
by Owen Olbricht
“For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:16, 17). Based on the fact that the act of baptism has no innate power or ability to remove sins, some have considered it no more than ceremony or ritual. In seeking to determine the nature of baptism, the question must be asked, “Does either the Old or New Testament require an act involving our relationship with God that is merely purposeless ceremony, sacrament, or ritual?” Does God ever accept an act simply because of the act itself, regardless of what is in one’s heart? Not all acts in response to God involve the same principles. At least five principles govern what is required in order for a person to be acceptable to God or to receive a blessing from God: (1) A blessing may be given based on the person’s faith with no act of human merit. (2) A blessing may be given based on faith requiring blind obedience, that is, action devoid of an understanding of or faith in a blessing. (3) A blessing may be given based on faith plus action which achieves the blessing. (4) A blessing may be given based on faith plus action which cannot in and of itself achieve the benefit. Such an action may have no apparent relationship with the hoped-for blessing, but rather is pursued because of faith in God to provide the benefit. (5) A blessing or fulfillment may be given to others rather than to the one who has faith. Four of these five principles (the exception being blind obedience) are in some way based on having faith in a blessing; however, the understanding and action necessary to please God and to receive the blessing can differ according to God’s requirements. Consider some Bible examples of these: (1) Faith With No Act of Human Merit An incident in the life of Abraham provides an example of a blessing being given based on faith but devoid of action or human merit. God told Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In this case, God required no action on Abraham’s part, but rather accepted him as righteous based on his faith. (2) Blind Obedience An example of blind obedience is found in 2 Kings 13:14-19. Elisha told King Joash to open the window and shoot toward the east. Joash shot. Elisha said, “The Lord’s arrow of victory, even the arrow of victory over Aram; for you shall defeat the Arameans at Aphek until you have destroyed them” (2 Kings 13:17). Elisha then told King Joash to take the arrows and strike the ground. Joash struck the ground three times. Elisha told him, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times” (2 Kings 13:19). Joash’s action is not an example of faith in a blessing from God, but blind obedience. Elisha could have informed Joash of the purpose of his shooting
an arrow and striking the ground; then Joash’s action would have been an act of faith in a blessing from God, and God would have been fulfilling a promise to give him victory when he obeyed. Because he was not informed and for this reason could not understand the blessing he would receive for obeying God, he could not have faith in God to reward his actions. His actions were the result of blind obedience. (3) Faith and Action In Order To Achieve An example of faith that motivates people to act in order to achieve a benefit is that of Noah’s building the ark. Noah could understand a connection between building the ark and saving his family from an impending flood, but he could not have known of his need to build an ark to save his family from the flood without a revelation from God. He had to have faith in God that the flood was coming and be motivated by that faith to build an ark that could carry him, his family, and many other living creatures to safety. His faith moved him to action which achieved the benefit, the saving of himself and others. God did not build the ark or carry the ark to safety. The building of the ark was Noah’s work, and the flood waters floated the ark. (4) Faith and Action Which Cannot Achieve Faith that receives involves a blessing given to the person who has faith in God but realizes that his action has no logical connection with the promised blessing. A good example of this is when the men of Israel marched around the walls of Jericho. Not only did they have faith in God to tear down the walls, but they also had to march as an act of faith without seeing any apparent connection between marching and the desired results. In cases like this, the believer knows his actions cannot achieve the blessing; therefore, he acts upon his faith in God in order to receive what God has promised to achieve for him. When such acts of faith are required, one must understand the promised blessing; otherwise, he can act only in blind obedience. He may not know how God will do it or why he must act as he is required to act, but he must understand what is required of him and what is promised to him before he can act with faith in God to fulfill that promise. If one does not act to receive what is promised, then the act is unrelated to the promise and, therefore, is not an act of faith in the one who has made the promise. (5) Faith Which Benefits Others God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that
the land of Canaan would be given to their descendants (Genesis 12:7; 26:3; 35:12). They had faith in God to fulfill His promise even though others would receive the blessing. “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). In Hebrews are additional examples of faith in benefits which only others would receive: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:20-22). These people had faith in blessings that would not come to themselves but would be given to others.
OLD TESTAMENT EXAMPLES OF FAITH
Hebrews 11 gives examples of Old Testament people who were blessed because of their faith. Regardless of the blessing to be received, these examples include the following elements: (1) a statement or command from God, (2) an understanding of what God said, (3) an unseen element on the part of man, (4) an acceptance by man of God’s Word, and (5) proper action by man if action was required. In no case did faith require action as a matter of blind obedience, that is, action without faith in and understanding of the promise associated with the act. Abel “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, . . .” (Hebrews 11:4). A number of questions have been raised concerning what made Abel’s sacrifice better than Cain’s. Some believe that the problem was the attitude and not the kind of sacrifice. The passage, however, states that the difference was the sacrifice; Abel offered “a better sacrifice” than Cain. Others have pointed out that the law permitted the type of sacrifice Cain offered, a grain offering of the field (Leviticus 2:1-16). This may be true, but were such sacrifices acceptable before the law was given? Animal sacrifices (Cain’s sacrifice being the only exception) were the only offerings recorded before the law was given. Noah, after leaving the ark, “took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). Abraham offered a ram in sacrifice (Gen-
esis 22:13). The statement of Isaac indicates that an animal was the normal sacrifice, for when Abraham saw the place for the sacrifice, Isaac asked him, “. . . where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). Moses told Pharaoh that Israel needed livestock for their sacrifices (Exodus 10:25). Other passages mention sacrifices without saying what was offered (Genesis 31:54; 46:1; Job 1:5). The fact that animal sacrifices were the only type of offerings recorded before the law was given indicates that God had commanded animal sacrifices. By faith in God’s revealed will (note Romans 10:17), Abel offered the sacrifice God required, but Cain offered a sacrifice of his own choosing, a sacrifice that was not an act of obedience to God. Since Abel offered his sacrifice by faith, his offering was not an act of blind obedience. Either it was for the purpose of worshiping God, which is most likely, or it was a sin offering. Noah Noah is an example of action by faith, not blind obedience. Because he was warned by God, he knew why he was building the ark (Genesis 6:1322). He believed what God told him concerning the impending flood and the preservation of his family through the building of an ark. He built the ark for a purpose: to save himself, his family, anyone else who would come aboard, and the living creatures. If he had built the ark because God said to build it, but had done so just to live in it rather than to prepare for a flood, God would have known that he was acting for the wrong purpose and doubtless would not have accepted his action. Abraham Abraham is another example of one who acted by faith and not by blind obedience. Although he did not need to know his destination, since God would tell him the way (Genesis 12:1-4), he had faith that God would fulfill His promise to bless him and make of him a great nation if he went where God told him to go. He understood and believed what God had promised. If God had not told him what He would do if he went out or had just told him to go out, his action would have been blind obedience; since he understood, he acted by faith in the promise of God. If Abraham had gone out in order to become rich and powerful, to get away from relatives, to experience adventure, or for any other reason, he would have gone for the wrong reason. Surely God would not have rewarded such an action, for God, who sees the heart, would have known that Abra-
ham was going for the wrong purpose, without faith in Him to fulfill His promise. Joshua and Israel “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days” (Hebrews 11:30). Israel did not act in blind obedience, but because they knew and believed God’s promise that the walls would fall if they marched around them (Joshua 6:1-5). Had God commanded them to march but not told them what He would do if they marched, their action could have been based only on blind obedience and not on faith in God to tear down the walls. This example shows a contrast between an act to achieve and an act to receive a blessing. If Israel had taken battering rams and knocked down the walls, this would have been an act to achieve a blessing. Rather, they acted by faith, seeing no connection between their act and the desired end result. They marched around the walls in order to receive a blessing, believing that God would tear down the walls. Their faith was in God, not in their own actions. Joshua and Israel did not need to understand why God had chosen marching, shouting, and blowing rams’ horns. However, in order to have faith, they did need to understand that God was promising to tear down the walls. If they had acted without understanding God’s promise or had marched for some other purpose (such as to exercise or to practice marching), they would not have been acting because of faith in God to tear down the walls. God, who knows all hearts, would have known that they were not marching because of their faith in Him. If they had marched, but not to receive what was promised, then their act would not have been related to the promise, and, therefore, could not have been an act of faith in God to fulfill His promise based on their action. Since God tore down the walls because of their faith in Him to do so, it follows that if they had marched without such faith, God would not have torn down the walls. Other examples of faith are found in Hebrews 11, but these are sufficient to show the following: (1) When God required faith in Him to provide a blessing, more than blind obedience was required in order to receive that blessing. (2) Those who had faith in God to act did not always understand the connection between the required action and the blessing, but they did understand what God promised to do if they acted. (3) Sometimes faith required action that would achieve a goal by one’s own work.
(4) Sometimes faith required action in order to receive what God would bring about, instead of action that could itself achieve the result. (5) God required faith that motivated to action based on His promise to fulfill His Word.
HEART AND SACRIFICE
Another important consideration is the attitude of the one offering a sacrifice. God did not command sacrifice as an empty ritual and ceremony, as simply a matter of obedience. Evidently, God expected those who were involved in the offerings and sacrifices to understand their meaning and purpose. Those who did not understand and were not inwardly involved could not make the response God wanted. God did not delight in sacrifice alone, but expected a broken spirit and a contrite heart within the one who was offering the sacrifice:
For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51:16, 17).
INTENT IN SACRIFICES
In the Old Testament the one who brought a sacrifice not only understood the type of sacrifice he was to bring, but he also understood the specific intent or purpose of his sacrifice. Israel had various sacrifices and purposes for their offerings. At least five offerings could be given: (1) the burnt offering (Leviticus 1); (2) the grain offering (Leviticus 2); (3) the peace offering (Leviticus 3); (4) the sin offering (Leviticus 4); and (5) the guilt offering (Leviticus 5). Other offerings were given on specific occasions, including first fruits, childbirth, cleansing from disease, and the consecration of a priest. Each offering was to be a certain kind; each had a specific purpose. The intent of the offering was a necessary part of the offering. The person who sinned unintentionally was to bring an animal “for his sin which he has committed” (Leviticus 4:28). He could bring offerings for other purposes, but in the case of a sin offering he was to sacrifice it for the sin he had committed. Offering a sacrifice just because God had commanded sacrifice would not be enough. The sacrifice was to be for the sin he had committed. The one who offered a sacrifice, but not for the right reason, would be obeying God by offering a sacrifice, but would at the same time be disobeying God by not offering the sacrifice for the right purpose. The intent behind the act was as much a part of faith and obedience as the act itself. A person who does a right act with the wrong intent is just as disobedient as the person who does a wrong act or does not act at all.
Any person with a tender heart would feel inward pain as he put to death an innocent and blameless animal, realizing that it was dying because he had sinned. He would thus be motivated to amend his ways. Many passages teach that God was not pleased with sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, but instead desired sacrifice with the right intention and attitude of heart (Psalm 40:6-8; 51:16, 17; Isaiah 1:10-14; 66:3; Jeremiah 6:19, 20; 7:22, 23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8.) “Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being, . . .” (Psalm 51:6). Sacrifice from a heart with inner truth is what God desired (Proverbs 16:2; 21:2).
In a few cases God required blind obedience, but usually He required faith in Him to fulfill what He had promised. Such faith required not only the right action, but also included an understanding of God’s will, trust in God to do what He had promised, and the right intention and attitude of heart.
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