Our church auditorium is decorated for Christmas and it looks absolute stunning. The inside holiday decor of our church could have been lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. Our maintenance workers keep the buildings spotlessly clean, the woodwork polished, the lights illuminated, and the atmosphere festive yet relaxing. People who come to worship this weekend for any of our Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services will feel as if they are walking into the comfort of someone's living room. Plush chairs, moderate temperatures, and pleasing aesthetics will give the worshipper a sense and feel of the beauty of the holiday season. I don't believe Emmanuel is unique. Church buildings and church worship services throughout the nation will be just as beautiful, just as comfortable, just as pleasing. There is nothing wrong with the emphasis churches put on beautiful church grounds or holiday decorating. I think people who only come to church at Christmas time will enjoy what they see. What I'm not sure about is whether or not they will enjoy what they hear. At Emmanuel this Christmas morning, just like we have done each Sunday morning throughout the past year, we will study a portion of the book of Hebrews. As I walked through our beautiful auditorium to my office to print off the outline which will be passed out to worshippers on Christmas, I couldn't help but reflect on the text from Hebrews 9:13-14 and wonder if the gospel of Jesus Christ might be offensive to some this coming Sunday.
In a message entitled "The Ashes of the Red Heifer: The Greatest Gift You Will Ever Be Given," I will show how the Hebrew people sacrificed, burned, and then used the ashes of a red heifer in the Old Testament. The slaying of this young red heifer--a female cow with red skin which had never given birth or been yoked--is initially prescribed by God in Numbers 19. I will illustrate how the Hebrew priest killed the red heifer outside the gates of the city, drained the blood of the heifer into a basin, dipped his fingers into the blood and then sprinkled the blood toward the Temple. I will then explain how the heifer's carcass would be placed on a special altar and burned, with the ashes of the heifer picked up and kept for use by the entire Hebrew nation. If a Hebrew worshipper became ceremonially unclean by touching a dead body, the ashes of the heifer would be mixed with water and sprinkled on the defiled person. After the sprinkling of the ashes, the unclean person would be deemed "cleansed" by God and allowed back into the Temple courtyard to continue the worship of Yahweh through the regular sacrifices of lambs and goats, pigeons and doves, and in some cases bulls. Hebrew worship was not neat or clean. Hebrew worship involved death and blood. Not just a little blood, a lot of blood. Listen to how Charles Haddon Spurgeon described Hebrew worship:
Everywhere blood was sure to greet your eyes. Blood was the one most prominent thing under the Jewish economy, scarcely a ceremony was observed without it. You could not enter into any part of worship but that you saw traces of the blood-sprinkling. Sometimes there were bowls of blood cast at the foot of the altar. The slaughter of animals was the manner of worship; the effusion of blood was the appointed rite, and the diffusion of that blood on the floor, on the curtains, and on the vestments of the priests was the constant memorial. The place of worship looked so like a meat market, that to visit it must have been far from attractive to the natural taste, and to delight in it, a man had need of a spiritual understanding and a lively faith."
The Apostle Paul wrote, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). There is something in the gospel that causes people to shrink back in embarrassment and shame. What is it? It's definitely not the beauty and aesthetics of our modern worship buildings. Our church buildings often look like 5th Avenue stores. Offense doesn't come from the method of our worship via our video and audio technologies,. We often look more Hollywood than Hollywood. Shame can't come from the church furnishings and decor because our churches are often more stylish and vogue than many of the homes from which the people come. What is it about the gospel that causes people shame?
I propose it is blood sacrifice that causes offense. Specifically, it is the belief that Jesus came to shed His blood. To believe that God planned from the beginning for Jesus to die, shedding His own blood for the remission of our sins, invites ridicule from others. Peter ignored the offense and shame that Christ's death brings and declared at Pentecost that "this Jesus, delivered by the determined plan and foreknowledge of God ... is raised up again, putting an end to the agony of death" (Acts 2:23-24). The Spirit used Peter's message to bring deliverance to 3,000 people from their bondage to sin and death. But when Stephen later took this same gospel message to the religious leaders they stoned him (Acts 7). People in their natural state, even refined religious people, do not wish to hear about the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. We like our religions clean and neat. But the gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ died as our Red Heifer. God commanded the Hebrews in the Old Covenant to kill the red heifer in order to cleanse them of their defilement, but that ordinance was only a picture and foreshadowing of the Son of God whom the Father was sending to be killed for our cleansing (Matthew 1:21). The death Jesus died should have been the death we died--forsaken by God. But Jesus died as our Substitute. "He (Jesus) who knew no sin, became sin for us" (II Corinthians 5:21) says the gospel, that "we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." He died as my Goat, my Lamb, my sacrificial Subtitute. But whereas the blood of bulls and goats in the Old Covenant could not cleanse the sinner's conscience or put an end to death, the blood of Jesus Christ shed at Calvary does this and so much more. That's the theme for this coming Christmas message. "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The book of Hebrews shows both the symmetry and the differences between the age of Law (prior to the cross) and the gospel age (this side of the cross). The worship of the Hebrews in the Old Testament looks nothing like the worship of Christians in the New Testament. Even though some pastors erroneously try to present themselves as the new priesthood and many of our non-profit church institutions portray themselves as new Temples, the manner in which God's people worship Him has radically changed since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message of the early apostles and disciples of Christ was clear "No one is justified by the Law before God, for 'THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.' The Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.' Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE'--in order that in Christ Jesus the blessings of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:12-14). The early Hebrew Christians had been steeped in their 'ancestral traditions' of animal sacrifice (Galatians 1:14). After the resurrection of Christ, God's people were no longer required to offer the sacrifices. Animal sacrifice is over. The Righteous Judge had fulfilled the Law for us in His Son. God did not lay aside the Law of sin and death, but rather He fufilled it in Jesus Christ that "He might be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).
The message of blood sacrifice is the message of Christmas. Jesus came to die. His resurrection from the dead means sinners who trust Him will never experience separation from the goodness and love of God. Sin separates. Christ's sacrifice brings an at-one-moment (atonement) between sinners and God. The Creator is good to sinners, but it is only because of Jesus' death and the sinners' faith in Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the red heifer sacrifice, and it is His blood that cleanses us. It is this message of blood sacrifice which offends so many, but it is the only message that gives hope to the defiled. When you join your family in worship this Christmas weekend, you will not be bringing a lamb to be sacrificed, because God has provided the Lamb. You will not be bringing a red heifer to the altar, for God has given the Red Heifer. You will not be shedding blood with your own hands, for God has shed His blood for us. Turn your eye of faith toward the shed blood of Jesus Christ and believe what He has accomplished for sinners. Our conscience is cleansed because we rest in Christ. The promise of God's goodness for eternity is ours because we approach God through the merits and sacrifice of His Son. We rejoice in the Father's love because He gave us His Son. Jesus Christ has come, Jesus Christ has died, and Jesus Christ has risen from the grave. This is the message of Christmas. It may offend some, but the truth of this message draws from us our worship of God. It may be ridiculed by some, but it is adored by us. It may cause some shame, but we echo the words of the Apostle Paul, "We are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes."