The Old Covenant sacrificial system is very poorly understood by Christians, and this leads to a lot of confusion about how God judges us, and how salvation is acquired. Let’s now learn about the difference between what the laws that God gives, and the spiritual principles that those laws are promoting. (Click on each image to enlarge.)
YAHWEH EMPHASIZES THE PRINCIPLE OVER THE LAW
The prophetic books of the Old Testament are filled with speeches from Yahweh in which He is emphasizing the importance of various soul attitudes. In some of these speeches, He makes a particular point of emphasizing how worthless sacrifices are by themselves. Whenever we try to separate one of God’s laws from the principle behind the law, we end up far from pleasing Him. When Yahweh complains about people bringing Him sacrifices in the prophetic books, He’s always addressing a crowd of spiritual rebels—folks who are trying to pacify Him with religious rituals while they internally scorn Him. Yahweh’s response to these situations is always the same: He turns the focus inward, and points out specific soul attitudes that He is angered by. He condemns the elevation of external actions over internal attitudes, and He demands that people repent out of their spiritual rebellion.
In this passage from Hosea 6, Yahweh is addressing the entire Israelite nation: the northern kingdom of Israel (aka Ephraim) and the southern kingdom of Judah. Many of the people who are living in these kingdoms claim to be following Yahweh while they inwardly despise Him. Yahweh now calls these rebels out on their lack of loyalty, which is a soul attitude.
“What am I going to do with you, Ephraim? What am I going to do with you, Judah? Your loyalty is like the morning mist and like the early dew that vanishes. This is why I have used the prophets to cut them down; I have killed them with the words of My mouth. My judgment strikes like lightning.” (Hos. 6:4-5)
Yahweh says that the reason He is sending prophets like Hosea to chew people out is because of the rotten soul attitudes of His people. It’s their lack of devotion to Him. Devotion to God is not an action—it is a soul attitude. The attitude of devotion to God will certainly affect your actions, but if you take the attitude out of the equation, you can’t make up for its absence by going through a bunch of obedient rituals. Physically obeying Yahweh’s sacrificial laws will never make up for the fact that you have turned away from Him on a soul level. Yahweh now reminds people that the internal attitudes are what He really cares about, not the actions.
“For I desire loyalty and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:4-6)
In the Gospel books, we find Jesus throwing this line into the faces of rebellious Jewish pastors who were trying to say that actions were all that matters. And yet it’s never the actions that God cares about—it’s always the attitude.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, we find another fabulous example of Yahweh emphasizing how worthless right actions are when they are paired with wrong attitudes. Notice how He starts His speech by immediately addressing the issue of foul soul attitudes.
Listen, heavens, and pay attention, earth, for Yahweh has spoken: “I have raised children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against Me.” (Isa. 1:2)
Rebellion is a soul attitude, not an action. Once you’re into embracing rebellious soul attitudes, no amount of good deeds is going to get you anywhere with God. Instead of being impressed by your actions, He’ll actually find them utterly repulsive—a point He makes with shocking bluntness in Isaiah 1. But before He starts venting His hatred of the sacrifices people are bringing to Him, Yahweh first clarifies just how rebellious these people are. You see, Yahweh is very clear with His convictions. If you read His speeches from beginning to end (instead of just focusing on a few phrases) you’ll find that Yahweh is very good about clearly stating why He is angry with people.
“They have abandoned Yahweh; they have despised the Holy One of Israel; they have turned their backs on Him.” (Isa. 1:4)
Here Yahweh uses repetition to emphasize just how rebellious these people are—they’re really into hating God. These are not folks who are simply ignorant about who God is. They haven’t accidentally wandered off course. These people know who Yahweh is, and they are intentionally defying Him. But then they have the gall to bring Him sacrifices at His Temple and put on a totally phony act of caring about Him. The modern day parallel is when Christians stand around singing about how much they love God while they are intentionally tuning out His convictions and purposely doing things that they know He hates just to stick it to Him. How does God respond when we try to butter Him up like this? Is it really true that we can trick God into thinking we care about Him by bringing Him hefty offerings or by singing our hearts out during a corporate worship session? Of course we can’t, because God sees our true intentions, and it is our intentions that He judges us by. In Isaiah 1, Yahweh has this to say about all of the religious rituals rebellious humans are going through in His Temple:
“What are all your sacrifices to Me?” asks Yahweh. “I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires this from you— this trampling of My Temple courts? Stop bringing useless offerings. Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons and Sabbaths, and the calling of solemn assemblies—I cannot stand iniquity with a festival. I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to Me; I am tired of putting up with them.” (Isa. 1:11-14)
Even though these people are technically obeying the law by the things they are doing, they are completely blowing off the principle behind the law, and this is why Yahweh is so mad at them. It’s always the attitude, not the action, that matters.
JESUS EMPHASIZES THE PRINCIPLE OVER THE LAW
In the four gospel books, we find Jesus hammering the point that it’s our soul attitudes which God judges us by—not our behaviors. By the time of the New Testament, Jewish preachers were teaching that it was only the law that mattered—even though this was a total contradiction of what Yahweh teaches in the same Scriptures that those preachers were claiming to live by. Through both plain speaking and metaphorical stories, Jesus emphasizes how wrong the Jewish preachers were with their exaltation of works over attitudes. One particularly fine example of this is a parable which Jesus throws out in Luke 18. At first glance, it seems to be a lesson about prayer, but it’s really tackling the issue of Divine judgment. What does God judge us by: our actions or our soul attitudes? To answer this question, Jesus uses the social stereotypes of His day to invent two characters: the ideal do-gooder and the notorious dirt bag. In New Testament Israel, Pharisees were Jewish preachers who actually claimed to be perfect in the eyes of Yahweh. How could they possibly justify such a claim? Because they claimed to be behaviorally perfect. They claimed to be perfectly obeying all of Yahweh’s Old Covenant laws. Were they really? Of course not, but they were dead serious when they said these things, and many Jewish commoners were snowed by their confidence.
So at the top of Israelite society we have the spiritually elite Pharisees: sinless superstars and obvious shoo ins to Heaven. Then, way down at the bottom, we have the grime of society: those hated Jewish tax collectors who went around collecting Roman taxes from their own countrymen. Everyone knew that Jewish tax collectors were up to their necks in financial fraud. It was just too easy to overcharge people and then pocket the extra, hence the tax collectors ended up rich while they drove their fellow Jews into poverty. What scumbags. Surely Yahweh would never accept those lowlifes.
As Jesus starts His parable, He describes a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to the Temple to pray. It’s the super righteous versus the notorious sinner. The modern parallel would be the pastor of a mega church paired with an active child molester. As soon as Jesus’ original audiences heard the titles Pharisee and tax collector, they figured that they knew how the story would end: the Pharisee would be the hero, while the tax collector would be condemned.
“Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people —greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 18:10-14)
As is typical for Jesus, He has totally shocked His audience by the way He played this story out. The Pharisee stands around pompously reminding Yahweh of all of the good works he does—of how well he obeys the law. The tax collector doesn’t even try to go there, because he knows he’s totally failing at all kinds of laws. The only thing in the tax collector’s favor is his soul attitude: the man sincerely wants to be pleasing to Yahweh. His brief cry is meant to communicate humble repentance. He owns that he’s a sinner, and he’s not proud of it—instead, he beats his chest as a way of saying that he is greatly distressed by his own moral depravity. This is a humble man—one doesn’t try to claim righteousness that he knows he doesn’t have. His downcast eyes communicate deep respect for God and submission to Him. It is the tax collector’s right soul attitudes that cause him to be accepted by Yahweh. Meanwhile, the Pharisee is rejected by God because his soul attitudes are foul.
Dependency is a soul attitude which says, “I am a creature who is totally dependent on my Creator, therefore I can do nothing apart from God.” Humility is a byproduct of dependency. Humility says, “Because I can do nothing apart from God, I deserve the glory for nothing.”
Dependency and humility are two soul attitudes which are very pleasing to God, and He teaches all of His followers to acquire them. First comes dependency, and then, as your dependency deepens, humility comes over you naturally.
Now the opposite of dependency is autonomy. The soul attitude of autonomy says, “I am an independent creature who does not need my Creator. I am the captain of my own ship.” Once you go down the road of autonomy, you will naturally develop arrogance, which says, “I deserve the glory for everything I do and everything I am, because I did it all on my own.”
In Jesus’ parable, He accuses the Pharisee of exalting himself. In other words, the Pharisee is arrogantly taking the glory for all of his good works. Rather than humbly acknowledge his dependency on God for all things, the Pharisee acts like he is solely responsible for making himself into a wonderful person. Meanwhile, the tax collector models humility by refusing to take the glory for anything good about himself. Instead, he sees himself as being totally at God’s mercy, and deserving of nothing. Jesus says: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” What Jesus is talking about here is Divine judgment. God is going to punish the Pharisee for his rebellious soul attitudes, but the tax collector will be rewarded for his right soul attitudes.
THE APPLICATION FOR CHRISTIANS
So what’s the takeaway for you in all of this? Well, first you need to realize that Yahweh and Jesus teach the same thing when it comes to Divine judgment. Today many Christians are taught that getting right with God was much harder and more complicated under the Old Covenant than it is today. But no, this is a total lie. Despite what you’re told in church, Jesus did not change the rules for how God judges us. Instead, He drove people back to the principles that Yahweh had been teaching all along: that’s it’s all about soul attitude, not external works. Because no one tells you how messed up the sacrificial system was from day one, you don’t realize how impossible it was for Jews to carry out the many laws that Yahweh gave. Was this a mistake on Yahweh’s part? Was He upset by the fact that priests were being corrupt or that certain Jewish kings were physically locking the doors to the Temple so that no one could use it? Well, Yahweh was certainly displeased with the individual humans who took joy in corrupting the sacrificial system, but it would have been a very simple matter for Yahweh to block their efforts. The real question is: why didn’t He? Yahweh claims to be a Sovereign Ruler who is in total control over this world. This means that nothing happens here that Yahweh doesn’t want to have happen. So why would Yahweh want to corrupt His own sacrificial system and prevent people from obeying the technical requirements of His many sacrificial laws? Because it’s never been about the laws. It’s always been about spiritual principles.
There are a million ways that our Gods can teach us to cultivate the soul attitudes which please Them. During the Old Covenant, the sacrificial system was just one of many attitude shaping tools that Yahweh used. For people who were listening to God, the sacrificial system was a very positive thing, and we find guys like David singing in the Psalms about the joy of sacrificing to God. For people who weren’t listening to God, the sacrificial system turned into just another means of expressing their hatred of God. So you see, it’s all about the attitudes.
Today the sacrificial system has been completely thrown out, along with all of the laws that were related to it: things like dietary laws, tithing, a special priesthood, anointing oil, and the Nazirite laws. Should you find this depressing? No, you should find it freeing. You don’t need the sacrificial system—no one ever has. What you need is the principles it promoted, and God is teaching you those same principles today using many different methods. Meanwhile, what you need to be guarded about is modern Christian leaders who pressure you to hang on to certain aspects of the sacrificial laws. Tithing is a very popular example here, as is the concept of anointing someone with oil. Today Christian leaders have realized that if they promote tithing as still being in effect, they can personally profit from your ignorance. Or if they teach you that God is still into formally anointing people with special scented oils, they can get you to blindly trust in them and give them admiration that they don’t deserve. So you need to be on your guard. No matter how righteous a ritual sounds, take the time to ask God what He thinks before you start participating. Remember that God is never going to get mad at you for not understanding something which He hasn’t taught you. Instead, He will be very pleased with you for seeking His wisdom before just trusting what others teach about Him. God is not just leading your leaders—He is also leading you. So ask, wait, and trust that God can be counted on to clearly communicate when He wants something from you.
Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God
Rethinking Your Christian Rituals
All About Tithing
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them
Anointed: What it Does & Doesn’t Mean
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