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Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

As Christians in our modern context, it is difficult for us to envision a time when the gravity of our sins and their subsequent atoning took place by the literal sacrificing of animals on an altar. Although that visceral picture might make us uncomfortable to think about, it was the reality of those who lived in the Old Testament under the Former Covenant. As with many things in the Christian faith, we must know where we have come from to be truly grateful for where we are today. Let us remember the inadequacy of the Former Covenant, in order to embrace the beauty of the New Covenant that Jesus established for for us by His blood.

The book of Hebrews is a New Testament letter that is rich with insight into the meaning of the Cross of Christ. Today, I would like to look at Hebrews 9:12-15, which states:

“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.”

While much of this language may be foreign to you, I believe this passage, and the broader text surrounding it, argues four main reasons why the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to the sacrifice of goats and calves:

  1.  Firstly, while under the previous covenant, the high priest had to first offer a sacrifice for his own sin before making atonement for the sins of others, whereas Jesus, who was in fact sinless, did not have to do so. His flawless obedience to the Father made him the only man in history with the ability to offer sacrifices for all those other than himself. How humbling, that the one man who was innocent, gave of Himself for the guilty. The blood of Jesus is PURE!
  2. Secondly, because of the utterly sinful nature of humanity (including the high priests of old), under the previous covenant these sacrifices would have to be made repeatedly in order to establish continual purification for the people. Jesus, however, being without sin, is able to offer a “once for all” sacrifice that is eternal and lasting. This gives us an entire new perspective on the moment that Jesus declares “it is finished” on the cross right before He gives up His spirit and submits to death. The blood of Jesus is FINAL!
  3. Thirdly, the high priests of old used the blood of animals. Conversely, Jesus gave of His own blood as an act of willingly laying down His own life. While animals are unable to consciously sacrifice themselves (and were simply the chosen vessel) Jesus IS able to sacrifice Himself. The end of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before Him, (He) endured the cross”. The blood of Jesus is PURPOSEFUL!
  4. Finally, while the old purification system had to do mostly with an outward purification of the external, Jesus offers an inward purification of the “conscience.” He is not only able to make us righteous in the way that we relate to those around us, but indeed provides a way to cleanse our innermost being, heart, soul, body, and mind. As the book of Hebrews states, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to Him.” The blood of Jesus is REDEEMING!

In closing, let us never forget the kind of redemption that Jesus has provided for His bride.

The purity, finality,  purposefulness, and redeemable quality of the blood of Jesus makes His blood of utmost superiority to all other blood sacrifices, particularly the blood of goats and bulls, in terms of forgiveness, atonement, and purification. When we realize that the sacrifice – that is, the crucifixion – of Jesus was a purposeful and decisive sacrifice, it will cause us to respond in overwhelming worship. The more we understand the inadequacies of the Former Covenant and our own inability produce a clear conscience, the more precious and valued the sacrifice of Jesus and the New Covenant will be in our own lives. I pray this passage causes you to ponder the beauty of Jesus this week and to worship with a clear conscience and a full heart.

Oh precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow

No other fount I know

Nothing but the blood of Jesus

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

Into the Valley

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24 ESV

The pilgrimage that most imagine when they think about the journey of the spiritual life is the steep and glorious trek up the mountain.  We often picture our soul beginning in a kind of valley of darkness and isolation from God, obstructed by sin and moral confusion.  But then, after God removes the scales from our eyes, we embark on a long ascent up the mountainside that is filled with holy encounters and sanctifying lessons.  Finally, we dream of the day when we reach the peak and our spiritual vision becomes clear and we come to total peace.

Elijah hiding his face from God after he hears His whisper. 1 Kings 19

There is some warrant for this particular image of the spiritual pilgrimage.  There are metaphors and images in scripture that lend us to believe that any spiritual journey moves upward towards the mountaintop.  For example, Isaiah 2:2 says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.” More than this, God Himself meets with individuals on hills and mountains throughout Scripture.  From God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai to Elijah climbing Mt. Carmel to hear God’s whisper in the Old Testament and from Peter, James, and John witnessing the glory of the transfiguration on a mountainside to Jesus Himself retreating to the Mount of Olives to commune with his Father in prayer in the New Testament , a clear pattern of God encountering his people in high places emerges.  

This image of the spiritual life also makes sense on an intuitive level.  As we mature in our faith, we move from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from certain death to abundant life. There seems to be movement from the lesser to the greater, the lower to the higher.

But what of our experience? Does this image of a spiritual climb to the mountaintop hold up when the Christian life is lived out?

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

It seems to me that in the daily rounds of life the journey of the spirit is not one of ascent, but descent.  The Christian journey is fundamentally constituted by a kind of “downward mobility” into a life of service and sacrifice.  Freedom in the spiritual life is not found in doing all we can to climb to the top, but in crawling through the trenches of humility.  Scripture teaches us this principle, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what the Christian life ought to look like; the lowly traits of meekness, humility, persecution, and hunger are all markers of those who have reached spiritual heights, which is why Jesus calls them “blessed” (Matthew 5:1-11).  So does this mean to go up one must go down?  Should we live our lives in the valley in order to reach the peaks?

We have an apparent contradiction at the crossroads of our spiritual pilgrimage; namely that to be truly “blessed,” to reach the heights where Christ reigns and offers life and love, we must descend into the depths of self-forgetfulness and denial.  How is this the case? How can we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves?  How is it better that we move from being free to follow our every desire to becoming a “slave to Christ?” How can burden be a means toward freedom?  The answer to this riddle is the cross. 

The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that I ever bore; it is such a burden as wings are to a bird, or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.”
―Samuel Rutherford

The cross of Jesus Christ is both the sure foundation and the animating force of the Christian life.  The cross represents the real, historical, and cosmic event where the way of death now becomes the way of life.  In this way, the Cross is a model for us, a kind of ultimate signpost that shows us the way towards the divine life.  This signpost does not point us in the direction that we might think, but it always leads us the right destination.

I want to be clear here: The path through the valley does not end in the valley.  We as followers of Christ should not seek out meekness for the sake of meekness, trials for the sake of trials, lowliness for the sake of lowliness. If we view these things as ends in and of themselves we end up with a kind of self-serving asceticism where our actions, however sacrificial, are built on our pride masquerading as humility.  Instead, however, we are called to follow Christ and the path that he walked was one marked by pure self-sacrificial love for God and others.  Paul says in Romans 8:17 that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV).  In other words, if our proper spiritual destination is Christ Himself, if we are truly “heirs with Christ,” then our own self-sacrifice can only lead us to Jesus if it participates in Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, says that “the cross comes before the crown…a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”  Discipleship must take on the shape of the Cross, it must have a “cruciform” character, because this is the way Christ leads us by His example as Calvary. Fortunately, it does not end at the Cross; instead, just like the tomb opened up and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, so we too are promised ascent towards glory and freedom at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, ascent towards the One who called us down the path in the first place.

But there is another strange thing that happens when we descend into the valley.  Not only is it the way towards freedom, but we actually begin to experience freedom while we are there.  Why in a place marked by sacrifice, denial, and humility do we actually feel more alive and more like who we were created to be?  The answer again can be found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 ESV), he isn’t saying that no yoke or burden exists.  No, not at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The yoke and burden of Christ seems that it would be impossible to bear:  betrayed by those closest to him, the victim of  an unjust sentencing, brutally tortured and spit on by those he came to save, and nailed naked to a cross in front of friends, family, and strangers — this hardly sounds like an “easy” yoke or a “light” burden.  So what is Jesus saying? He is claiming that in him and his power, all suffering has been transformed into new life.  This is what Paul had in mind when he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV).  It’s not that death no longer exists–it does.  It’s that death takes on a completely new meaning when it is found in the Son of God and Man, the only one able to give meaning where there is suffering, to provide life where there is none.  

So the valley not only leads towards freedom and glory but it also provides it.  When we pick up the “yoke” of Christ and place it around our necks, it isn’t easy because it is without trials and demands; no, it is easy because Christ Himself, through the power of his Holy Spirit, gives us the vision, the strength, the will, and the joy to carry it forward.

***

In my own spiritual journey, I have always struggled with ambition.  Ambition, pride, and recognition are some of the obstacles that keep me from trekking down through the valley, which I know is the way towards Christ.  I want to reach the mountain peaks, but not without others recognizing my climb.  

Then God gave me a son.  About a week before Eli was born, I wrote on a whiteboard next to my bathroom mirror: “Do you desire the humility of the cross more than the glory of man?”  I wanted to desire the humility of the cross more, but I was afraid I couldn’t act on this desire on my own.  When Eli came, I realized his presence in my life helped me to solve this dilemma.  I have no choice but to change his dirty diapers every two hours, comfort him when he cries, heat up meals for my tired, nursing wife, and make late night pharmacy runs for medicine.  Ambition is not a temptation with a newborn child.  I feel no need to be impressive around him, just present. I don’t need him to recognize my talent, just my love.

God giving me Eli is a means of grace.  God is nudging me along the path; I am being led down into the valley where my Guide is teaching me that life emerges from forgetting myself and serving others.  For me, Eli’s presence in my life helps me to forget myself.  How can I think about my future calling when I know that right now I’m called to be a father?  Of course, Eli is more than a “means of grace” in my life.  He is first and foremost a precious child made in God’s image who will, God willing, embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage one day.  

This season of life reminded me that God is more invested in our spiritual journeys than we are.  He will give you roles and responsibilities, He will place people in your life, He will allow you to walk through difficult seasons in order to give you opportunities to be Christ-like.  He wants us to carry His burden and take on His yoke because when we do, He is there in a special way with us.  It is impossible to be like Christ when we always have ourselves first in our minds and in our hearts.  In thinking that we can achieve the glory of Christ without the Cross of Christ, we complicate our pilgrimage and risk losing our way altogether. So God, in His deep desire for us to reach the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, gifts us with steps along the path; steps of humility, self-denial, and sacrifice.

Our spiritual journeys must always take on a cruciform character.  We must “take up our cross” and carry them into the depths of the valley of humble service because it is in this valley where God strips us of all that weighs us down and we emerge unburdened, ready to climb the peaks.  In the valley, we are given responsibilities, roles, and opportunities to serve that must be fulfilled in faithfulness now, not later.  This gives us the freedom and cultivates the character necessary to move us towards Christ because it is Christ’s character that we are becoming.

For me, at this moment in my life, this was my son. For others, it could be something that at first seems like a set-back. Maybe a neighbor moves in across the street that needs to feel welcomed.  Or maybe there is an opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter. Or maybe your spouse needs you to spend more time helping around the house. Or maybe a difficult co-worker needs a friend to make them less lonely. Whatever it is, Christ is there.  He is calling us down this path because he has already walked it and knows that it is the way towards his love, freedom, and glory. That is the promise of the Cross.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

The Importance of “Why?”

Everyone experiences loss in their life–loss of a loved one, a job, an important possession, or even simply the way life was before a major event. Really, loss is any transition that disorients us, causing us to work towards reorientation and form a “new normal.” This is why grieving is often so difficult–we will never get back to the way things were before, no matter how hard we try.

Why do these painful losses have to happen?  Everyone can agree that our fallenness makes us feel alone and absent from God. When confronted with a loss, we often feel further from His goodness, experiencing anger and indifference because we simply cannot understand how God’s goodness can overcome the present grief. Unlike God, we are inside of time, so we cannot comprehend the vastness of His plan or how any loss could be used for overall good.

The good news is that we do not need to understand. In fact, it is good to admit that brokenness exists and that we can’t understand it. Even in the psalms, the writers going through disorientation express frustration and anger with God—they don’t understand the losses they are going through, and they are questioning. Psalm 22:1 exemplifies this kind of anguished questioning:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

David understands that trying to make sense of or justify any loss on our own will simply not hold ground. In fact, we often cause more harm than good by trying to be optimistic in the face of loss and explaining it away as “God doing everything for a reason.”  Instead, David is honest about his experience and honest about God’s relation to that experience, even if he is limited in his understanding.

Indeed, this idea of questioning God seems wrong to many of us, even though it is a very natural thing during times of grief. “Why me?” “Why did God let this happen?” Even Jesus on the cross, praying David’s words from the psalms, cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In his deepest moment of grief and darkness, Jesus questioned the presence of his Father in his suffering.

However, what we often fail to realize in asking the question “why?” is that the questioning itself is putting God foremost, knowing that He is the only One with the answers. Sorrow itself needs God to validate it. Both complete confidence in God and asking God “why?” are equally Christian ways of handling loss. Both responses admit that God is in control of our lives even though we can’t necessarily understand His reasoning.

We ask “why?” because we do not understand or agree with evil, but we still know that God is in control and is able to redeem the brokenness of this world for His good purposes. This is why David, right after he questions God’s presence in Psalm 22:1-2, affirms God’s character in verses 3-5:

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved…”

Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of simultaneously wrestling with and trusting God in suffering.  Despite his anguish on the cross under the weight of the world’s guilt, Jesus trusted in His good Father and His plan for him and for the world (Matthew 26:39).  God’s overarching plan of redemption and restoration has and will continue to come to fruition, and we must take that into account when we experience loss.  

Optimism is claiming that we know what God has in store for us and we can explain away each instance of loss. Hope, however, is admitting that we hate and question loss—we are angered by it, but we don’t give up our faith in Christ, the One who redeems suffering and overcomes evil. Loss may lead us to a confusion of identity, but if we look to Christ during times of loss and suffering we are reminded of our identity in Him.  This fact will lead us and help us be with others through the dark times of disorientation into reorientation.

 

Autumn Terry, New City Stories Contributor