Bridge over Troubled Waters: God’s Scapegoat
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29
His Legacy Lingers!
How amazing that someone who lived so long ago would continue to have the kind of impact and influence that Jesus has to this day.
Who would have thought that someone who lived so long ago would still shape the thinking of modern people?
Most great men of history fade away with history, seldom to be remembered. But not this man; to this day we feel his impact.
Which brings me to the ‘why’ question: Why does he continue to stand out to this day? Why didn’t he quietly pass into the annals of history with the rest of the other great ones? What is it about him?
The answer that I suggest lies in his death, which seems bizarre at first glance, but only makes sense upon further reflection.
I realize that this may be difficult to believe since most people’s deaths have no lasting impact, certainly not for generations to come. We certainly will remember our own death when it comes, and most likely remember the death of our parents, and perhaps even grandparents; but for most of us that is where this runs its course.
But not so with Christ’s death. His death is remembered the world over and commemorated often and reflected on frequently.
In fact, here is the kicker: If it wouldn’t have been for his death, he too would have passed into the annals of history with barely a footnote.
It was his death that makes his memory and legacy so vivid the world over.
When we speak of his death, it was not in the manner in which he died (for many have died in the manner in which he did) but for the reasons, purposes and, most importantly, the accomplishments achieved in his death, that make his death so unique and lie at the core of why he is remembered the world over.
His death directly addressed humanity’s biggest problem in life; namely, this profound sense of ‘lostness’, doom and despair that hangs over people; this bent toward evil, given the right circumstances, and the hopelessness that permeates so much of life.
All of it and so much more, finding its roots in the sinfulness of humanity as Paul says in Romans: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:23
Most, of course, don’t realize this and don’t even see it anymore.
In fact, if that is the only life you have ever known you can get used to it pretty quickly and think that is just how life is and that all this is normal.
In this ‘new normal’, humanity is in a continued state of separation from God and actually at enmity with God.
His death directly addresses this reality. John is very clear in making this link when he wrote, “He was manifested to take away our sin.”
I Jn. 3:5
Jesus, our Vicar
His death was much more than just an act of injustice and certainly not defeat nor failure. His death brought about concrete accomplishments and tangible benefits, including this idea of substitution.
That’s right, substitution. Just like you would go back to the store and exchange a broken thing with one that is not broken. Substitution.
On a cosmic level, his death served the purpose of substitution. There is a plethora of scriptural references that point to this:
“By the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Heb. 2:9
“Christ was sacrificed once, to take away the sins of many people.”
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” I Peter 2:24
“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” I Peter 3:18
All these hint at this same idea; namely that Jesus acted as a substitute for us and suffered what should have been the consequences of our sins.
“Man could atone for his sin personally only if he could suffer eternally the penalty that sin incurred. Man, of course, could never do this, so in his love and compassion, God stepped into a hopeless situation and provided a Vicar in Jesus Christ who did provide an eternal satisfaction for sin.” Charles Ryrie
While the language is a little archaic, I love the word “vicar” to describe this cosmic substitution.
What a quaint little term ‘vicar’ is. It conjures up images of a quaint Anglican vicar having afternoon tea with one of his elderly female parishioners, doesn’t it?
Hate to burst that bubble, but a vicar is far from a dithering British priest; a vicar is actually someone who steps in for someone else, someone who in essence becomes a substitute:
“A vicar (/ˈvɪkər/; Latin: vicarius) is a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting "in the person of" or agent for a superior (compare "vicarious" in the sense of "at second hand")” Wikipedia
I find it rather fascinating that a vicar acts as “an agent for a superior”; that the lesser stands in the gap for the greater. When I first saw that I wanted to take it out, since when is Jesus the lesser and we the greater?
But, on second thought, it makes sense – as uncomfortable as this makes me – because no one is going to send their superior to stand in, fill in or be a substitute. It is always going to be the servant who takes the place of the master.
Which makes this so remarkable. Jesus, our vicar and substitute, not only takes our place and thus his death is our death, but he does so as our servant.
I know we cringe at how counterintuitive this is, since we should be his servants doing his bidding; but when it comes to being our substitute he actually becomes our servant and, as a servant of man, carries our sin away.
Just like Peter, we want to stop Jesus from washing our feet; but in his role as vicar, we must let him be the servant-substitute.
Does the Scripture not tell us: “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” Phil. 2:7, 8
So in that role of vicar or substitution, he acts as our servant. Has greater love ever been seen than this?
When it comes to substitution, we need to realize that it literally means substitution! You need to see this literally. He substituted for us; he took our place. One was exchanged for the other.
This idea of substitution is mentioned over 20 times in the New Testament, and every single time it’s about two objects side by side where the one is substituted for the other.
Let me give you a couple of quick examples from the Scriptures of this:
“When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.” Matt. 2:22
This means, Archelaus literally took over the throne from his father. That is substitution!
Another example is the bizarre story of Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth so as to pay a temple tax (“Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matt. 17:27) where the money is used in exchange of a debt owed. That is substitution.
So this idea of one thing literally exchanged for another is applied to Christ’s death. His death covered fully our penalty (it’s the coin that pays it in full). His death was in place of our own death (it’s Archelaus taking the place of Herod).
This is precisely what Jesus meant when he said: “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mk 10:45.
At the cross we exchanged places. We were on that cross, and we were guilty with sin; we were to pay the penalty for our own sin and what does he do but say to us: “Let me give my life as a ransom for many.”
This means one in place of the other, literally, completely and in its entirety.
In this matter, there can be no subtle alternatives, no other variations nor any other interpretations. Nothing can distort the image of the substitute.
Our Day in Court!
There are those who would suggest subtle adjustments to this; those who would say to us that his death was on behalf of us or was for our sake and benefit.
While all that may be true, it does not go far enough to capture what actually took place.
So let’s introduce a different scene. You are in a courtroom. You are charged with crimes against God. Your sins have brought great accusations against you and it is your day in court. What happens next?
There are those who suggest an alternative idea of Jesus as our legal council who represented us in a court of law and managed to exonerate us by his brilliant arguments. Jesus the superhero, the super lawyer!
What’s the problem with that, you say? Isn’t that what it was? I was accused and guilty of sin; I needed a lawyer and He became that. How is that a problem? He gets me off – isn’t that all that matters?
The problem is that he, at best, only represents you and speaks on behalf of you in God’s court; he never steps into your shoes. He remains the lawyer, and you remain the criminal who got away with it. Even though, through his brilliant arguments, he gets you off, he remains the lawyer and you the exonerated criminal.
Let me suggest an alternative image to one I just painted, one closer to the truth.
You are still in court and it is still your day. You are still as guilty as sin of the charges. You know you are a sinner; you know that you have violated God’s laws.
As you brace for the well-deserved sentence, Jesus enters the courtroom and says to the judge that he will take the place of the accused. He is not there to represent you nor to argue your case, but to be your substitute.
It’s not a prisoner box nor a debtor’s prison, but a cross. He tells you to get off the cross so that he can take your place on it.
When he dies, the debt is paid in full. Not his debt, not anyone’s debt but your debt. Paid in full. By Him because he took your place.
In many ways, in fact in every way, he becomes your scapegoat! He gets blamed, he takes the heat, he becomes the fall guy, and he is led to judgment guilty, while you walk away exonerated. He becomes your scapegoat.
You have heard of this idea of the scapegoat? In fact, some of you might have even found yourself in the shoes of a scapegoat. You got blamed for something you didn’t do or you took the heat, covering up for someone else. Some of you know what I am talking about; you have been there.
The interesting thing about the concept of the scapegoat is that it finds its origin in ancient Hebrew history.
The scapegoat finds its origin in this idea of an innocent goat over which the sins of the ancient Israelites were confessed and thus transferred.
This substitute was then released into the desert, presumably to die there as guilty as sin.
Let me read to you the story of the scapegoat from Lev. 16
“From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
Aaron is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.” Lev. 16:5, 8-10, 20-22
While in the early years of this practice the animal would simply be released into a remote place never to be seen or heard of again, there was enough fear of the possibility of that goat wandering back that in later years the beast was taken not only into a remote desert but led up a mountain and thrown off the edge to its death:
“The man in whose charge the goat was sent out, while setting him free, was instructed to push the unhappy beast down the slope of the mountain side, which was so steep as to insure the death of the goat, whose bones were broken by the fall." (Twenty-one Years' Work in the Holy Land).
A Vigorous Confession!
This scapegoat became the only hope the people had that their misdeeds and sins would be carried away, and that, in some great cosmic way, the reset button would be pushed on their Day of Atonement. They could start over again with a clean slate.
This is why the language structure is such, that great passion and vigor was used in confessing the sins over the poor scapegoat.
“Aaron is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.” Lev. 16:21
Hands were laid vigorously on the poor animal: “It was done with one’s whole force; as it were, to lay one’s whole weight upon the substitute.” Alfred Edersheim
There was nothing shy about this. With great passion, and with his whole weight and force, the priest would confess and transfer all their sins upon this animal. It was then led away to its death, to the shouts of jubilation from those who knew that this animal somehow carried away their sin once and for all.
Of course, throughout it all, there was a sense that this was happening in light of a Lamb of God that would one day come to accomplish in reality what these animals symbolically were achieving.
From Symbolism to Fact!
Fast forward to a day about 2000 years ago when Jesus appears in his public role for the first time and a great prophet of the day, John the Baptist, shouts out these infamous words: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jn. 1:29
He could have said ‘forgives the sin of the world’ or ‘atones for the sin of the world’, but instead says ‘takes away the sin of the world’. In that moment, the connection between symbolism or foreshadowing and reality was made.
Jesus is, in actuality, the Lamb of God who would take away or carry away into the desert of his own death the sin of the world including yours and mine.
And when Jesus died on the cross, it moved from mere symbolism of hope to the reality of fact.
I love the clarity the Letter to the Hebrews brings to this:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.
First Jesus said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Heb. 10:1, 8-10
We have been made holy. Our sins have been taken away. He has taken our guilt and we stand before God, his angels, the devil and his demons, exonerated and declared innocent of all charges.
“Jesus appeared so that he might take away our sins.” I Jn. 3:5
Confess Your Sins!
On this Palm Sunday, everything about this day points to that. The fact that he rode on a lowly colt points to the lowly vicar; the fact that he was determined to make his way to the Cross was the journey of the scapegoat to his own death. The shouts of the Hosanna’s, which literally mean ‘save us’, adds to the drama of the moment.
Yet none of that is realized until you confess or speak your sins over the head of the scapegoat, my friend. While the offer is for all, it is an offer that needs to be taken up by you!
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I Jn. 1:9
Not halfheartedly, not casually nor as an afterthought but as though your life depends on it, which it does! Doing it in the spirit of Edersheim: “It was done with one’s whole force; as it were, to lay one’s whole weight upon the substitute.”
Lay the whole weight of your sin upon the substitute, Jesus Christ!
Your life, your eternity, your destiny depends on this! Make him your Lamb of God, who takes away your sins into the sea of God’s forgetfulness, to be remembered no more.
So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then.
Does anybody know who said that? Caleb. That’s right, 85 year old Caleb! Makes you wonder if the old man found the fountain of youth!
Even though ours is a youth obsessed culture with most of the attention on the young, the reality is that we are in the midst of an incredible senior surge that will only strengthen as us boomers are added into the mix!
Do you realize that during much of human history only 1 out of 10 lived older than 65. Today its more than 8 out of 10 zoom past that milestone (that’s why they are called zoomers – lol – they keep zooming and zipping along breaking through 80, 90 and increasingly 100).
In 1900, 4% of us were over 65. Today its 14%, by 2020 the number will surge past 17% and by 2040 when the last of the boomers retire it will be a whopping 25%.
600 million people in the world were over 65 years in 2000 and just recently we passed a huge milestone where we now have more seniors then youth.
This is the fastest growing segment of the population, increasing twice as fast as the general population.
Yet you would never guess it if you were to go to most of our churches!
Most churches cater to the young and restless. Everything about the modern church seems to be for those much younger than seniors from the style of music, the length of time left standing, the types of sermons presented (if you can call them sermon anymore) and all the way to resource allocation incl. how the kinds of pastors and workers we hire.
Please don’t get me wrong. We love our youth; we wouldn’t want a church without them; we love their energy, their zest for life and their commitment to the Lord!
But what about the seniors?
I want to say to us that the elderly matter! Every human being regardless of age has in them the divine spark, were created for a reason and have meaning & purpose in life!
So what lies at the basis of why seniors matter in our church?
At the heart of this is the Christian view of aging - or better put, a biblical view of living life; a view of life that focuses on our identity and lies at the heart of how to get the most out of life regardless of age and condition.
A biblical philosophy of living that centers around three key questions:
Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
WHO AM I?
This is the question all of us ask: Who am I? Of course, this is more than name, sin number and vocation!
Two things need to be kept in mind:
1. WHO AM I: My shared identify
This is what you share in terms of your identity with all of us.
No matter who you are, no matter how old or young, you have this going for you:
• you are God’s special creation set up apart from anything else in the natural world (“God created man in his own image, male and female He created them” Gen. 1:27) . Doesn’t matter if you lying in a nursing home bed or are running a marathon. You are a special creation.
• we are created to be part of God’s family (“you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” Eph 2:19). You are part of God’s family as much as any other believer
• we have a unique and special purpose in this world (“ For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Eph 2:10). We are not taking up time only but have purpose and meaning – which brings me to the second thing to be kept in mind:
2. WHO AM I: My unique identity
If in fact I have been chosen for a unique purpose in life, then I also have a unique identity that no one else has. Just like my fingerprint and DNA are unique to me so is who I am in this world!
What that is only I can figure out! In fact, the purpose of life is to glorify God by figuring that out!
It says in the Scriptures that “God gave some to be…..” (Eph 4:11) and then lists a number of roles; elsewhere gifts or special abilities are listed that you and I need to discover about ourselves
All of it filtered through the unique set of our experiences, inclinations, character traits, temperaments, inherited bends and opportunities in life.
Which means that even if we all shared the same gifts (which we don’t) all of us would have a different divine destiny because we are all so different!
These unique contributions are to be for the glory of God (that he might show you off) and for the benefit of humanity (that others might greatly benefit by who you are –so much so that if you were gone they would miss you like crazy)!
BTW, none of this has to do with vocation or career! This is not about your career or being in the workforce!
You don’t have to be in the workforce to be productive - all you have to be is active in your strengths with the energy level that you have!
You can be retired and make a difference!
That brings me to the second big question of life: Why Am I Here?
WHY AM I HERE?
How many seniors have asked this question: Why am I still here? What hasn’t God taken me yet? I am just in the way and a burden to others an so I’d rather not be here.
The worldview would say those are valid questions and in some countries has led to age-based euthanasia – the killing of the elderly who are seen as having no purpose.
I want to tell you that as long as you have breath you have purpose in life! Even when near death, one of the greatest purposes in life is to die well; to show the young how to pass away with faith, dignity and hope!
But this is not about dying well. This is about living well, well into your senior years!
I love what Win & Charles Arn said:
“Because God has given me love, I am motivated to respond. Because God has endowed me with certain unique gifts and talents, I feel compelled to use them in His service. Because I belong to God, I am called to be obedient to Him and do what He commands. I am called to serve and to be a good steward of my time, talents and resources during my entire life” Catch the Age Wave
Here me when I say that: “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (Ro. 12:1).
So dear senior, you have a calling on your life as much as our children, youth and those in the prime of life do!
Nothing has changed with God’s purposes for you just because you are older. If anything, the years should have provided you with additional insight and wisdom on how to remain effective even as you get older.
So isn’t age a factor here? Doesn’t retirement mean that someone else does it and God has no longer a purpose for me? I can’t believe that God has placed you on earth to serve him for just 65 years and then spend the rest of your life in a rocking chair? I just can’t see that that is God’s purpose!
Now I know you are not going to have the energy of the youth! I don’t have the energy of the youth either but I can tell you that I feel as though I am only now coming into the years of greatest effectiveness.
As I have honed my skills, deepened my wisdom, added on abilities and made all kinds of experiences, I find that I am entering into my decades of destiny where its coming together for the purposes that God has for my life!
Some of you may have heard of the name Dr. Donald McGavran. He was a great church growth expert and he saw his most productive days well into his retirement. This is what he said:
“We don’t retire as Christians. God never excludes us from His call to reach the world just because our hair is gray – or even if we have serious disabilities that limit the extend of our physical activity”
“Our life doesn’t end when we retire. Our life goes on. We no longer have to work to earn enough money to live on: but we can do all kinds of good things that God wants done….there are so many people we can love! There so much change in the world that we can bring about if only we will recognize that this is our task. This is the reason that we have all the experience that we have had. This is the reason we were born!”
So why am I here? To bring glory to God in every way I can and to serve wherever I can as long as I have breath in me!
So, not only Who Am I and Why Am I Here but also:
3. WHERE AM I GOING?
Pic of mountain climber
And this question of Where Am I Going is key to a biblical philosophy of life since it suggests that far from old age being our curtain call, it is actually the stepping-stone into the next life!
I realize that it doesn’t always work that way – that sometimes the young die – but the natural rhythm of life is that it’s the old who die and that death ushers in the next reality and in many ways brings to close the rehearsal for what we are really meant to be!
In many ways life is like climbing a mountain – the higher we go, the tougher it gets but the better the view!
The older we get, the harder it gets but the more clearly we see that beyond this peak lies an entire eternity of peaks to climb in a mountain range that nothing in this life comes close to!
Sometimes when you are the bottom of the mountain just getting started, you don’t have the advantage of seeing what is just beyond the hill that you are climbing!
As you continue to climb well, going higher and higher up the mountain of time, not only do you gain a perspective of life beyond that few of us have, but you also inspire the rest of us to keep climbing ourselves.
And so we want to say to you: Please finish well; you are what we look up to! We need you to be our heroes; to show us how to age well and how to prepare for the next life in a way that inspires us to do the same.
This is not about dying, nor preparing for death. This is about continuing to live life well even as you get older!
I love Paul’s words in Phil. 1:22-25
“ For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith”
We know you have heaven on your mind and we know that for you its gain but if you go on living well it means fruitful labor. We know that you are torn between the two but by being here on earth it will be for the progress and joy of the faith for the rest of us!
The rest of us – the young and not so young – we know that the Scriptures make it clear that we are to honor you! We are instructed to “not rebuke an older man harshly” (I Tim 5) and to be “submissive to those who are older” (I Pet 5) but we also know that seniors are to “be temperate, worthy of respect, self controlled, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance”
So while we respect you, honor and love you and want you to have a special place in our church we also need for you to provide us with a great example of a life dedicated to the Lord!
And that brings me a couple of living breathing examples of this!
Zophar was one of Job’s friends. Job, older himself, was looking for guidance among his friends and who better than someone his age or older. In fact, Job, looking to his wiser, older friend said: ”Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:14).
Yet, as the story unfolds Zophar is among those who though older do not proof themselves to be wiser. He ends up being the more impetuous and dogmatic of the friends.
It is in fact a far younger man who steps up t the plate much later on – a man by the name of Elihu said:
“I am young in years, and you are old; that is why I was fearful, not daring to tell you what I know. I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right.” (Job 32:6-9)
What that points to is that while the elderly are to be respected for the many years of life lived there is no automatic guarantee for wisdom.
In fact, Elihu is right in that it’s the Spirit of God in us from whom our wisdom comes. An older person who has allowed the Spirit to become dimmed, while still respected, will be very limited in terms of dispensing wisdom!
The point is that combining years of experience with an active, growing relationship with God in our senior years will bring about life-giving wisdom that young and old seek out!
You see it clearly in the life of older people like Joshua. I know that we don’t think of Joshua as an older man. After all, he was the young man that followed old Moses but all young men someday become old men.
So in the years when his head was grey, it says “When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the Lord said to him, ‘You are old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over” (Josh 13:1)
Now you would think that this would be the end of Joshua’s work and that he would fade off into retirement. But far from it! If you read on into the chapter you would find that God gives him clear instructions on how to continue the work of dividing up the land!
His best years were indeed his older years!
And Joshua was not the only one. Another one was Caleb who in his old age still had a hankering to lay claim to his spiritual inheritance.
Look at what he said in Josh 14:10-12:
“Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”
That’s the kind of people you do great exploits with! Those are the kinds of seniors I want to hang out with! Give me the Joshua’s and Caleb’s of our times and we will build churches together and see the kingdom advance!
I want to signal to our seniors in the loudest possible way that you absolutely matter to our church! We not only make room for you nor do we only tolerate you but we welcome you, we celebrate who you are and what you bring to us!
Please inspire us with your service for the Lord!
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