Spiritual Debts Written-Off…

In Leviticus 5:7, a poor man “shall bring, as his guilt offering . . . two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.” It seems preferable, however, to translate the first phrase “as his reparation” (cf. 5:6, 15, 25 [6:6]; 19:21) rather than “as his guilt offering,” for birds are never offered as a guilt offering.

The two sacrifices were distinct, the ritual was different. The sacrificial animals were different. The circumstances in which they were offered differed. The function of the reparation offering was not the same as that of the purification offering. In short, different names denote different sacrifices. Insofar as other sacrifices also had to do with the guilt of sin, there is much to be said for calling this “the reparation offering”‘ or the “compensation offering” to bring out its precise function.

The earliest interpretation of the significance of the reparation offering is found in Isaiah 53, where the suffering servant’s death is described. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (v. 5). “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). In these words the idea of substitutionary atonement is clearly set out. The servant suffers instead of us. He bears the penalty of our sins.

In v. 7 it becomes clear that the prophet is thinking in sacrificial terms: the servant is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” The word used here (seh) is less precise than that used for lamb in Leviticus, and may in fact refer to sheep or goats. An allusion to any type of animal sacrifice is therefore possible and may be intended.

Nevertheless v. 10 is more specific: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin . . .” (RSV “when he makes himself an offering for sin”). “An offering for sin” is literally a reparation offering. The death of the suffering servant compensates for the sins of the people and makes many to be accounted righteous.

It may not be necessary, however, to choose between the idea of substitutionary atonement, of the ram dying in the sinner’s place, and of reparation, of the ram somehow compensating God for the loss he has suffered as the result of sin.

In some degree substitution seems to form part of the theology of all the sacrifices: reparation may be the specific component of the reparation offering, just as purification is the distinctive aim of the purification offering.

The reparation offering draws attention to the fact that sin has both a social and a spiritual dimension. It not only affects our relation with our neighbour, it affects our creator. It influences our relationship vertically with God as well as horizontally with our fellow man. Just as we must put ourselves right with men by paying them back for the wrongs we have done them, so we must compensate our heavenly Father for the debts we run up against him.

The reparation offering thus demonstrates that there is another aspect of sin that is not covered by the other sacrifices. It is that of satisfaction or compensation. If the burnt offering brings reconciliation between God and the sacrificial system therefore presents different models or analogies to describe the effects of sin and the way of remedying them. The burnt offering uses a personal picture: of man the guilty sinner who deserves to die for his sin and of the animal dying in his place. God accepts the animal as a ransom for man. The sin offering uses a medical model: sin makes the world so dirty that God can no longer dwell there. The blood of the animal disinfects the sanctuary in order that God may continue to be present with his people. The reparation offering presents a commercial picture of sin. Sin is a debt which man incurs against God. The debt is paid through the offered animal.

The reparation offering is never mentioned in the New Testament, but Isaiah 53 is quoted several times and its ideas underlie many passages describing Christ’s sufferings (v. 1//John 12:38; Romans 10:16; v. 4//Matthew 8:17; vv. 5-6//1 Peter 2:24-25; v. 9//1 Pet. 2:22; v. 12//Luke 22:37). The Gospels underline how Christ was scourged, let false accusations go unanswered at his trial, was crucified with two robbers, and was buried in a rich man’s grave. All these points may be allusions to Isaiah 53. Even when not explicitly alluding to Isaiah 53, the Evangelists obviously saw the fulfilment of that prophecy in Jesus.

It therefore seems legitimate to regard Christ’s death not only as the perfect burnt offering, peace offering, and purification offering, but also as the perfect reparation offering, the sacrifice which metaphorically compensates God for our sin. As with the other sacrifices, it is hard to understand how such a transaction can be applied to God and particularly to relations within the Godhead. We must not suppose that any of these sacrificial analogies or models is an exhaustive description. They are human terms designed to give mere man some insight into the mysteries of our redemption.

Christ’s death, the perfect reparation offering, has therefore made it obsolete, along with the other sacrifices. It is no longer necessary to attempt to compensate God for our failure by bringing a ram or a lamb to he altar. Our spiritual debts have been written off in the sacrifice of Christ.

There is another aspect of the reparation offering that still has a relevance today. The reparation offering focuses on the debt we incur to God by breaking faith with him or with our fellow man. Where sin includes a wrong against a neighbour, the neighbour had to receive restitution plus a fifth at the same time as the sacrifice was brought. Divine forgiveness was contingent on reparation to the neighbour and sacrifice to God. Similarly the New Testament expects us to make amends to our neighbours if we wish to enjoy peace with God.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus announced, ” `Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, `Today salvation has come to this house’ ” (Luke 19:8-9). In both testaments the way of salvation is through sacrifice and through making amends to those we have wronged.



Categories: Theology

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