Saturday, April 15, 2006

Passover and Forgiveness

On Good Friday our church celebrated a Passover meal. God’s people have been celebrating this meal ever since their release from Egyptian bondage. It was instituted, as the Lord told Moses in Exodus 12:14, to be a memorial, an everlasting ordinance to recall to mind the night when the Lord delivered His people from the house of slavery.

At any time after the Babylonian exile, however, there would have been an added dimension to this celebration. In recalling to mind God’s great deliverance in the past, the Passover would also have pointed forward to a time when God would do that again. Whether faithful Jews were observing the Passover in Babylon, or later when they were in their own land yet occupied by the Greeks or Romans, the event which the meal celebrated functioned as a guarantee of future deliverance. It was a way of proclaiming, in faith and hope, the final exodus, when the covenant would be renewed and the shekinah glory would return to the temple, as the prophets foretold. Thus, Passover had a powerful eschatological dimension, as the exodus motif symbolically embodied a cluster of expectations. At the centre of these expectations was the idea of forgiveness



The Promise of Forgiveness

The final exodus, the prophets announced, would occur when God forgave Israel of her sins. God’s glory had left the temple and God’s people had to leave their land as punishment for her many sins; conversely, God’s glory would return to His temple and God’s people would again occupy their land, when God forgave Israel of her sins. We read about this in Ezekiel 36. First the Lord made clear that the reason His people were scattered over the earth was because they had defiled the land by rejecting God’s law (36:17-19). But the Lord goes on to promise restoration when He extends forgiveness to His people:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you….
Thus says the Lord God: ‘On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. (Ezekiel 36:24-29 & 33 & 36)

Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the Lord, have spoken it, and I will do it.


Jeremiah prophesied similarly:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people…. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)


At the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, these wonderful promises of forgiveness were still prophetic. Later, during the first century, God had still not forgiven Israel. They had returned to the promised land, but they hadn’t been empowered to rebuild the ruined places; the Lord was not dwelling with His people - the temple, though functioning, still awaited God’s presence. Above all, God’s people had not taken that Exodus out of slavery, this time not Egyptian slavery but bondage at the hands of the Romans. So the Passover, whenever it was celebrated, anticipated this final exodus. It functioned like a prayer for God to forgive, and therefore to restore, His chosen people. Forgiveness, after all, wasn’t seen as an attitude God had towards His people, but was something He did - something that would be felt in release, renewal and victory.


Passover and the New Covenant


Against this backdrop we are in a position to understand Jesus’ own application of the Passover symbolism. Before eating the Passover meal, Jesus says to his disciples, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16).

It is not surprising that Jesus had such a fervent desire to eat this particular Passover since His entire public career had been moving towards this event. Throughout His ministry, Jesus said a number of things and appropriated many symbols which suggested He believed Himself to be initiating the long-awaited return from spiritual exile, though in a totally unexpected way. He gathered a community around Himself who, by living out His teachings, could be the restored people of God, the true light on a hill that would succeed where the physical temple had failed. Even something so small as promising to give rest, would have resonated with return-from-exile implications. Finally, when Jesus applied the Passover bread and wine to His own work, his intentions cannot be mistaken: now is the time when forgiveness of sins, and therefore restoration, is going to take place; now is the time for the final exodus when God’s people will be released from their enemies. Let’s just read the account from Mark 14:22-24.

"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body.' Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, 'This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.'"


Jesus disciples, like any first century Jew, would have known what the ‘new covenant’ meant. We were just reading about it a minute ago from Jeremiah. The themes of restoration and forgiveness, which signified the eschatological Exodus, would occur at the time Israel’s God made a new covenant, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt…”

The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus’ words had indicated that the hope of Israel would now come true, in and through his own death. N.T. Wright elaborates on this in his book The Challenge of Jesus.
"His death, he seems to be saying, must be seen within the context of the larger story of yhwh’s redemption of Israel; more specifically, it would be the central and climactic moment towards which that story had been moving. Those who shared the meal with him were the people of the renewed covenant, the people who received ‘the forgiveness of sins’, that is, the end of exile. Grouped around him, they constituted the true eschatological Israel."


By giving His disciples the bread and wine of the new covenant, Jesus is saying, “This is it. The time has finally arrived. Israel’s sins are now going to be forgiven.”

Of course, if the sins of God’s people are now being forgiven corporately, then equally, every one of God’s people are being individually forgiven. And it’s important to think of it in that personal way. If there were only one of us in the whole earth, Jesus would still have endured the cross to purchase redemption. That’s how much Jesus loved us, how much He wanted to forgive us.


The Cross: Jesus own Exile and Exodus

When Jesus died on the cross, He endured the ultimate exile. As Jesus went through this exile – even to the point of God’s presence departing from Him just as it departed from the temple and land – He was completing the whole cycle on Israel’s behalf. Jesus endured exile, Exodus and finally, through His resurrection, He entered the promised land. Because Jesus has been through exile, taken the Exodus journey, and now shows the way into the promised land, when we identify with His death – which we do every time we take the bread and wine - we are pulled along to the other side of the exodus cycle, and brought into the promised land of new creation.

Forgiveness Equals New Creation

The promised land is, of course, God’s kingdom - the new creation that has already been inaugurated. But equally, on the individual level, the promised land is the new creation in each of us personally as we are transformed through the spirit. Both are only possible because of the forgiveness of sins, purchased through Jesus’ blood. This exodus out of sin and death into new creation is something that has already begun, both in the world at large as God’s spirit works through the church, and in ourselves individually as the Spirit transforms our hearts. In both these levels, we have the gaurentee that the work of new creation will continue until sin and death are completely swallowed up. In N.T. Wright’s third lecture on the subject of evil, 'Evil and the Crucified God' , he says

… the personal meaning of the cross becomes very clear. There will be a time when I – even I, sinner that I am! – will be totally sinless, when God has completed the work of grace within me. But I already enjoy, in anticipation of that future fact, forgiveness in the present and the new life of the Spirit that is made available precisely when Jesus has been ‘glorified’ by being ‘lifted up’ on the cross (John 7.39; 20.22). And, as we should expect granted the tight sacramental link between eucharist and cross, the eucharist embodies and expresses the first (forgiveness) and strengthens and enables the second (the life of the Spirit). The personal message of Good Friday, expressed in so many hymns and prayers which draw on the tradition of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) and its New Testament outworking, comes down to this: ‘see all your sins on Jesus laid’; ‘the son of God loved me and gave himself for me’; or, in the words which Jesus spoke at the Supper but which God spoke on Good Friday itself, ‘This is my body, given for you’. When we apply this, as individuals, to today’s and tomorrow’s sins, the result is not that we are given license to sin because it’s all been dealt with anyway, but rather that we are summoned by the most powerful love in the world to live by the pattern of death and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness, in daily Christian living, in sure hope of eventual victory.



Living out the truth of God’s forgiveness is sometimes hard. We may be reluctant to admit we need forgiveness is to admit to doing something wrong. Or, on the other hand, we may be so conscious of great wrong doing that we think nothing can forgive us. Also, sometimes we want to punish others, or even ourselves, by not living in the truth of God’s forgiveness. As Doug Wilson says, “We too often project our lack of forgiveness onto Him. We assume that He is as bitter, or as unyielding, or as difficult to entreat, as we can sometimes be. But He is not like this at all. He forgives.” If Jesus wanted to forgive us that much that He endured the worst death imaginable, then it is not a small sin if we refuse to forgive ourselves and others. Douglas Wilson, referring to Jesus’ words when he broke bread and gave wine, says

…this cup is called the cup of the new [covenant]. This is a reference to the glorious new covenant promised by Jeremiah, and what is involved in that new covenant? Here are the words of promise: "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more."

God the Father will remember no more. Jesus Christ will remember no more. The Holy Spirit will remember no more. What does our triune God not remember? The answer is our sins, and our iniquities. Now iniquities sounds pretty serious, but there it is, right in the Bible. God forgets them. You are here, worshipping Him in faith, and this means that He is unconcerned with your past sins. He does not care about your previous iniquities. They do not enter into His calculations on how to deal with you.

You have, at this Table, the greatest privilege that a sinful creature could ever have. In just a few moments, a cup will be offered to you. And what is that cup? It is the cup of the new covenant, and this means it is the cup of God’s forgetfulness. And you are invited, summoned, commanded, to drink it.

Receive this in faith. You are being offered God’s forgetfulness, and only the death of His Son could make such an impossible thing possible. So swallow God’s kindness. Swallow His grace. Swallow His forgetfulness. (Click HERE for the full article)

Since new creation is the proof that we have been forgiven, Jesus’ resurrection (His own new creation) proves that forgiveness of sins has arrived. Resurrection completes, or rather it activates, the victory of the cross, proving that forgiveness has become a fact. That is why Paul emphasizes the importance of resurrection by saying that if Christ did not rise, you are still dead in your sins.

The sequence from Passover to Good Friday to Easter Sunday is not merely an historical sequence, because the one day leads to the next, but also a spiritual sequence, since the forgiveness purchased on Good Friday necessitates the new creation brought to birth on Easter Sunday. Quoting again from Wright’s third lecture on evil, he says,
…at the same moment as we say ‘resurrection’, and for the same reason (as, again, Paul saw in 1 Corinthians 15), we must say ‘forgiveness of sins’. The two are, in fact, the same thing. To be released from sin is to be released from death; and, since Jesus died in a representative capacity for Israel and hence for the whole human race and hence for the whole cosmos (that is how the chain of representation works), his death under the weight of sin results immediately in release for all those held captive by its guilt and power. This is where all the old hymns come into their own, but now with renewed force and deeper meaning. Forgiveness of sins in turn – just as in Isaiah 54 and 55 – means new creation, since the anti-creation force of sin had been dealt with. And new creation begins with the word of forgiveness heard by the individual sinner…


So forgiveness means new creation, for the world at large and for each of us individually. That is what Passover, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are all about. Since God has, in Christ, forgiven the whole world, our task is now to bring new creation to the whole world. Living out the truth of new creation is a way to implement the victory of the cross. Living out the truth of new creation is a way of affirming that we have been forgiven, that Jesus’ blood has purchased the promised land for us. Living out the truth of new creation proclaims to the world and the dark powers that Jesus did not stay in the tomb, but that He went through the exodus and came out the other side into the promised land. Living out the truth of new creation is a way to express our gratefulness for Jesus’ wonderful gift – the gift of His life which He offered freely to sinners who deserved to die and remain in Egypt.
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