Leading Question: “How could a sinner like Aaron become high priest?”
Themes: At least three strands of interest can be traced from the story of Aaron’s participation in the Sinai rebellion, followed by his exaltation to the position of high priest:
- Aaron’s sin at Sinai and his restoration
- From earthly mediators to Jesus as mediator to no mediator at all
- The priesthood of all the believers
1. Aaron’s fall and restoration. Exo 32:1-6: Lev 9, 21; Number 6:22-27; 17. Exodus 32 is very critical of Aaron’s part in the Sinai rebellion; yet Aaron survived that disaster and became high priest. What does this story tell us about God’s grace and God’s justice?
2. Jesus the better mediator. Heb 4:14-15. The book of Hebrews celebrates the role of Jesus as our mediator in heaven. Hebrews 8:6 declares that Jesus “has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises” (NRSV). In Numbers 6:22-27, the people are separated from God by several layers: God spoke to Moses, who then spoke to Aaron and his sons, who then spoke to the people. Why did there have to be so many levels between God and humanity? How did the ministry of Jesus change all that so that there is only one mediator?
3. No mediator at all. John 16:25-27. For those whose experience is tuned primarily to the objective (substitutionary) atonement, John 16:25-27 is a startling passage. It declares that the time will come when Jesus will not pray to the Father on our behalf, because we will know that the Father himself loves us. When that picture snaps clear in our minds and hearts, then that sobering statement from the pen of Ellen White that we are to “stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator (GC 425) can be transformed from a threat into a promise. As long as we need a mediator we have one. But in John 16, Jesus promises us a time when we won’t have a mediator because we won’t need one. And that is a promise, not a threat. See chapter 22 from the author’s Beyond Common Ground for a discussion on how Adventists can benefit from both perspectives on the atonement: the objective, where Jesus presents us to the Father; and the subjective, where Jesus presents the Father to us. That chapter is appended at the end of this lesson.
4. When everyone is a priest. 1 Peter 2:9. Both in the epistles and in the Gospels God’s kingdom is presented in egalitarian terms. We have no priesthood that stands between us and God. We are all on level ground at the cross. “A royal priesthood” is the phrase used in 1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV); and in the Gospels, Jesus’ response to the request of James and John to be top people in Jesus’ kingdom received a pointed reply: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for may” (Matthew 20:25-28, author’s personal translation). How should this concept shape life in the church today? What would change if we really followed the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament?
Alden Thompson, “A Work in Progress: Cross and Atonement,” Chapter 22 fromBeyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (Pacific Press, 2009), 240-245
The Bible says: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2:1-2.
The Bible says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:21.
The Bible says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 8:1.
The Bible says: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9.
She says: “God’s people are tempted and tried because they cannot see the spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice to God in all who manage important interests, and many act as though Jesus were buried in Joseph’s new tomb, and a great stone rolled before the door. I wish to proclaim with voice and pen, Jesus has risen! he has risen!” Ellen White, Special Testimonies A, p. 29, August 10, 1890.
They say: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a ‘great man,’ but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The ‘Gospels’ come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1961), 23.3.
This will be another brief chapter. But it might be the most important one in the book. Because the discussion is “a work in progress,” however, I am intentionally brief.
The chapter is crucial because Adventists differ in their understanding of what the cross means. But we can’t just dump the cross or even avoid it. Without the cross there would be no resurrection; without the cross there could be no crown. If we live in hope, it is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So why did Jesus have to die? The question is crucial but yields two dramatically different, but complementary answers. And those who are gripped by one answer are easily alarmed by those who are gripped by the other. And it works both ways. Most Christians find both answers meaningful and will no doubt be puzzled by the intensity of the debate engendered by those who are intense. But this is another case where we do not choose our battles. So we have to take all sides seriously.
What are the answers? Both declare that Jesus died to save us, but then the difference emerges. One answer points the cross heavenward and sees the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that satisfies the demands of divine justice: sin requires death. This view can be called the “objective” atonement, indicating that Jesus’ death satisfies some kind of “objective” demand apart from the experience of the believer. It can be the demands of the law; it can also be seen as satisfying divine wrath. Thus the words “substitution” and/or “satisfaction” are also linked with this view. Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by Paul’s writings, especially Romans and Galatians.
The other answer points the cross earthward and sees the death of Jesus as a powerful revelation of God and his love for fallen creatures. This view is called the “subjective” atonement because it focuses on human experience. Thus it is part of Jesus’ answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by John’s Gospel, especially John 14-17.
But then the battle begins. Those who are gripped by the “objective” atonement are inclined to argue that the other view is weak on the doctrines of sin and salvation. Without a real “sacrifice” pointed heavenward, they argue, the sin problem hasn’t really been solved.
On the other side, those who are gripped by the “subjective” atonement argue that the other view gives the impression that God demands a pound of flesh before he will save humankind. The more extreme rhetoric is likely to call the substitutionary atonement an immature view which should be outgrown.
Outside of Adventism and from Christian history both views bring along unwanted baggage. The subjective view has been called the “moral influence” theory because the cross is sometimes seen as “only” influencing the moral nature of humankind. As sometimes held by the more liberal Protestant churches, the subjective atonement can indeed undervalue the power of sin and the need for salvation.
The objective view also carries baggage. As held by Christians outside of Adventism, the objective atonement can be linked with a narrow view of salvation that excludes those who do not explicitly accept the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus the good heathen, the good Buddhist, the good Muslim cannot be part of God’s kingdom. The strong language, especially among Calvinists, can also be problematic. The phrase “penal substitution,” for example, tends to trigger the “pound-of-flesh” objection noted above. The rhetoric of “satisfying” divine wrath has a similar effect.
In Adventism, two developments that can be documented in the experience and writings of Ellen White are worth noting. First, in her later writings, she stepped back from her earlier emphasis on satisfying the “wrath of an offended deity,” speaking rather of satisfying the “demands of the law.” Second, chapter 70 in The Desire of Ages has bequeathed to Adventism the conviction that the ignorant but honest heathen can be saved. A commentary on the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, that Desire of Ages chapter speaks persuasively of “heathen…who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish” DA 638 (1898).
Drawing on the previous two chapters in this book, I would like to note a couple of crucial points, affirming, first of all, that the subjective or revelatory view of the cross, the one presented in John 14-17, is thoroughly biblical and is very much appreciated by many Adventists. But my second point is that this perspective is often viewed with alarm or at best treated as a kind of second-class citizen in Adventism. The Johannine or subjective atonement perspective has not been part of the Questions on Doctrinedebate. That discussion is mostly between the perfectionist theology of Peter and the substitutionary theology of Paul, to borrow the labels I suggested in chapter 19.
I believe it is time to address the atonement issue honestly and in good faith. My own experience has been immeasurably enriched by my discovery of Jesus as presented in John 14-17. As I have frequently noted, however, I did not “discover” that wonderful news until I was in my second year at seminary. For all kinds of reason, discovering that Jesus was God on earth and continues to be God in the present may always be a late discovery in a Christian’s life. But it is central to Scripture and crucial for Adventist theology.
If the two sides are going to work together, however, we must recognize that not all the Bible writers give the same emphasis. If both sides can recognize the other’s position as being fully Christian and fully Adventist, it would greatly enhance the work of the church. But the demeaning rhetoric will have to stop. It is not appropriate, in my view, to characterize the Johannine perspective as a non-Christian deviation that is destructive of the Gospel. Nor is it appropriate to describe the Pauline perspective view of an immature theology in which God is seen to be demanding a pound of flesh.
But changing our views of the “other side” cannot simply happen by flipping a switch. Our impressions of the “other side” are often deeply rooted and inflamed by inappropriate rhetoric from the “other side.”
I do, however, have two suggestions that I have found helpful personally. If others, on both sides, would be willing to explore them with me, I suspect we could make good progress. I will spell them out rather pointedly.
1. Memorizing Bible passages that the “other side” finds meaningful. Here it is crucial to try and hear Scripture from the other person’s perspective, not simply to underscore our own. That does not happen easily or immediately. In my case I elected to memorize Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. In that connection I should mention that a general “truth” or “rule” about memorization that I had already found applicable elsewhere proved to be true here, too. In brief, because it takes me a long time to memorize a passage of Scripture, about the 97th time through I begin to see truths that I hadn’t seen before and to be blessed by them.
And that has certainly been the case with the “substitutionary” passages in Scripture that I have set out to memorize. My understanding of the cross has been deepened and enriched. I no longer feel that I have to “re-interpret” every passage of Scripture to meet my “favorite” perspective. I can let Paul be Paul, James be James, Peter be Peter. And I think that means that I can also let God be God.
Now, when I go to The Desire of Ages and read the chapter “It Is Finished” (Chapter 78, DA 758-64 ). for example, I can honestly admit that it is almost entirely “substitutionary” in its view of the cross. I am grateful that I don’t have to re-interpret it or avoid it. I am grateful that I can be blessed instead of troubled. My solution won’t work for everyone; indeed, probably no one else will be blessed in just the same way I have been. But by sharing our various perspectives honestly with each other, we can walk together toward the kingdom.
In this connection I note the observation of a colleague, one for whom Paul’s theology is especially precious, a colleague who has helped nurture my appreciation for substitutionary theology. He observed that the trajectory of my experience appeared to be quite different from his. His deepening appreciation for the things of God began with a keen awareness of human sinfulness, his own sinfulness; now he is gaining a deepening appreciation the goodness of God.
By contrast, he observed, my experience seems to have started with a deep appreciation for the goodness of God and I am now gaining a deeper understanding of human sinfulness. I think he is right. Our experiences will never be exactly alike. But it has been an enriching experience for us both as we have joined our minds and hearts together in the search for the good things of God.
2. Recognizing that God did not demand a sacrifice for his benefit, but gave a sacrifice for our benefit. In my case, discovering that Jesus was God in the flesh banished forever the haunting specter of a reluctant deity. If God himself took human flesh and came to earth to save me, he really must want me in his kingdom after all! God wasn’t just letting Jesus sneak me in the side door as some kind of concession. No! My salvation was no concession. God came to earth because he really wanted me in his kingdom.
I decided that one of the mental pictures suggested by certain biblical passages had led me astray. In particular the picture of Jesus pleading his blood to the father had given me the impression that Jesus was my friend, but that the Father still needed to be convinced. Admittedly, protection from a holy deity can be a terrifying necessity. In his early years, for example, Martin Luther was just as frightened of the Son as he was of the Father. For him, the only safe approach to God was through the gentle virgin Mary!
In that connection John 16:26-27 has played a crucial role in my thinking. Not only has that passage enabled me to transform from a threat into a promise that scary Adventist line that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC 425, 1888, 1911), it has also helped me see that as long as I need a mediator I have one. If the passage is truly a promise, then God is not about the pull the rug out from under us. He cares for our needs.
That same verse may also be helpful in addressing what I consider to be an erroneous impression that it is God who demands a sacrifice. Is it not possible that the “need” for an atoning sacrifice is driven by perceptions engendered by our twisted minds? As I see it, the belief in a “pound-of-flesh God” is the deadly result of sin. As the effects of sin and guilt gnawed away at the human mind, the “gods” became more and more demanding, more and more violent. The end result of that kind of thinking was the conviction that the gods demanded every first-born among humans. God recognized that devastating logic and commanded Israel to provide an animal substitute (Exodus 13:11-16). “Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem,” says Scripture. That same psychology is reflected in Micah 6:6-8. Moving up the ladder of potential gifts, the prophet ends with, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The prophet’s response implies that God is demanding no such thing. Indeed, the Good News Bible makes the “no” explicit at the beginning of the climactic verse 8. But the story of Jesus, indeed the death of Jesus, brings to an end, once and for all, any human thought of earning God’s favor through a sacrifice. Jesus really did pay it all.
With such an approach, one could speak of a “psychological” and “governmental” necessity of the death of Christ. Such language would have distinct advantages over the “absolute” necessity implied by more extreme forms of Calvinist theology. Such an approach would also put to an end any thought that God was “demanding a pound of flesh,” but it would recognize that God gave a “pound of flesh,” so to speak, because diseased human minds thought it was the only way to find peace. We do not serve a vindictive or vengeful God. But we do serve a God who is willing to pay whatever price our twisted minds might demand. And that’s what we see on the cross.
So let’s put our heads and hearts together, seek God’s presence and study his Word so that gift of God can be the kind of good news he intends it to be. By God’s grace, whether we find John or Paul more helpful, we can all rejoice when any of God’s children discovers that God has made it possible for them to be in his kingdom. That should be wonderful news for us all.