Grace, Backward and Forward
It’s easy to think of grace as something that fell to earth at the cross – a new concept for the new covenant, not available to anyone who lived before Christ. But there’s plenty in the Old Testament that makes no sense apart from grace. If we have an unchanging God, then grace – his offer of redemption toward us who deserve only condemnation – is as eternal as any other part of His character.
The book of Leviticus records the system of animal sacrifice in the temple, a practice commanded by God that continued even past the death of Jesus. And yet multiple times, in the Old Testament and the New, God said through the Bible’s authors that the people’s sacrifices did not please Him, that they could not take away sin:
- “‘The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.'” – Isaiah 1:11
- “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” – Hebrews 10:11
What? If all this is so, then before the cross, where was the true covering for sin?
The ancient Hebrews lived under the law, but grace was just behind the veil. By His grace God declared the temple sacrifices acceptable and sufficient – if the hearts of those making the offerings were right. Their obedience had to be sincere, their repentance authentic. That is all grace demands for us to enter into it. It’s all we can bring. The blood sacrifices in the temple and the Passover feast were acts of obedience that pointed forward in anticipation to God’s ultimate manifestation of grace.
A word about blood, because some might conclude that God and His followers have a ghoulish obsession with gore: Blood is bound up with life itself. In the body, it sustains life. Out of the body, it equates with death. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death; therefore the spilling of blood to the point of death equates to the “payment” of those wages.
Unlike the temple sacrifices, the blood of Jesus didn’t have to be declared acceptable payment, like paper money substituting for silver or gold. By Jesus’ sacrifice God extended grace in a new and perfect way – the sinless One’s truly powerful blood, in place of the sinner’s blood. Since the cross, the exchange is now His blood for ours – no longer the blood of ordinary animals standing in for the blood of the Lamb of God.
We look backward now to the cross through communion, a kind of streamlined Passover meal. But we no longer need a substitute; the bread and wine are only tokens, symbols. The real, truly powerful sacrifice has been made, the completed expression of God’s grace.
What’s unchanged is what grace asks of us: sincere obedience, true repentance. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If we invoke the name of Jesus with hearts that aren’t right in this way, it’s no better than the sacrifices offered in vain by rebellious Israel. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Because in the long run, what we do will reveal what’s in our hearts.
(All verses are from the New International Version of the Bible.)