Freedom from Sin?
I need to take another step back and deal with something that came to my attention recently as I mentioned in the last post. Corresponding via email with another believer who had helped teach me Greek; I was made aware of for the first time of the phrase “intentional sin.”
For many years now I have had a habit of and learned to pay particular attention to my teachers of Greek and Hebrew. This was something that made me step back and realize that I don’t know the Old Testament well. But I press on anyway. I studied the passages that were relevant to the subject of sin. It was a shock what I read in the Old Testament and what follows is my journey and study of this particular topic. I share this with you as things I have learned, and also my personal experiences and thoughts. It saddened me beyond words that I was guilty of this type of sin. You see for many years I had never thought about or much less studied sin in the Old Testament. But by God’s grace I also through the scriptures found encouragement, first how this type of sin is as an affront to God, and second, that all was not lost.
Thank God the Father through Jesus Messiah, Savior, our Lord; the coming King.
The Levitical system that God gave to Israel did not have a remedy for all sins committed by the Hebrews. While the sacrificial system was primarily established by God for the purpose of atonement and forgiveness of sins (Leviticus 1:1 – 4; 4:20, 26, 31; 2 Chronicles 29:23, 24), not every sin could be atoned for and forgiven by an animal sacrifice. Sin offerings were prescribed for “unintentional” sin; we see this in chapter 4 (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27) where the sins which are dealt with are those which, for some reason, were not immediately apparent, but which, in the course of time, came to the person’s attention. The sin offering and associated confession was to be made immediately after the knowledge of sin was present. The sin offering was a sacrifice for those sins which were “unintentional”. Think on that for just a moment, and think about the ramifications, since Jesus as Messiah is said to be the fulfillment of that very same sacrificial system.
The Law of Moses – No Atonement or Forgiveness of Intentional Sins
Since the Levitical sacrificial system didn’t provide atonement for some sins, but did for others, which is which? What sins could someone commit for which they could not turn to the sacrificial system to atone for them, to provide them with God’s forgiveness? The Torah (the first 5 books of the bible) is very clear – intentional sins cannot be atoned for by the Mosaic system. The master text for this is the following verse from Numbers,
But the person who does anything presumptuously [literally in Hebrew, “with a high hand”], whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach [literally “is blaspheming”] on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him.
Numbers 15:30, 31
The expression “does anything presumptuously” means that someone would do something with deliberate defiance in spite of what the LORD said. This sin is described literally in Hebrew as acting “with a high hand.” It is as if the sinner was about to attack God, or at least lifting his hand against God. The implication of the expression is that it was done in full knowledge of the Law of God. The phrase “brings reproach” is literally in Hebrew, “is blaspheming.” The verb is in a form that indicates intensive action and active voice; it means “to blaspheme,” “to revile.” We see this word used in the in other passages either directly or indirectly (Numbers 14:40 – 44; Deuteronomy 1:43; 17:12; Psalm 19:13; Hebrews 10:26) to describe this category of sins as “high handed”, or “great”. These are literal translations of the Hebrew words and ideas behind them. The idea is that this is a category of sin for which there is no excuse in God’s eyes. They were premeditated acts. These sins involved denying either the truths of the scriptures or God’s righteousness in pronouncing and enforcing the laws and ordinances He gave to Moses. They were planned, or committed with gross disregard for the holiness of God; committing a sin that you fully knew was a serious sin, but you did it anyway (has anybody done that recently?). All that the sacrificial system atoned for was unintentional, non “high handed” sin. We will explore this more fully, now I’d like to give you a couple of examples as to how the Law of Moses classifies sins.
Murder is an intentional sin and a violation of the 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13). We can have a debate later about whether any killing of a human being is murder or justified in some cases; or the death sentence for certain criminal acts; or even death resulting from action in war. The Law made it all pretty cut and dried for the Hebrews. The killing of a human fell into two basic categories: justified or unjustified. Justified killing was not murder. Justified killing would be, for example, you caught an unarmed thief in your house at night, had no way to make a quick judgment as to the level of danger this thief posed to you and your family, and so you killed him. In the Law of Moses, you were justified in killing because you were assumed to be protecting life (Exodus 22:2).
Killing that same unarmed thief during daylight hours, however, when you could have discerned whether the thief was a dangerous criminal (armed or not), is unjustified. Outside of this there is the idea of justified killing in battle. For example, the Torah prohibits murder, but sanctions killing in legitimate battle (Compare Exodus 20:13, Exodus 34:10 – 14, Deuteronomy 7:7 – 26). The scriptures often praise the exploits of soldiers against enemies in legitimate battle. One of David’s mighty men is credited with killing eight hundred men with the spear (2 Samuel 23:8), and the warrior Abishai is credited with killing three hundred men (2 Samuel 23:18), Of course, David himself is portrayed as a hero for killing Goliath in battle (1 Samuel 17). Therefore, the unjustified killing was an intentional sin and not covered by sacrificial atonement.
Another and common example is adultery. If a married man had sex with a woman who was not his wife, this was an intentional sin. They both knew the Law on this matter, or should have because the prohibition against adultery was common knowledge to the entire Jewish community from the days of Moses. It was not accidental nor was it a mistake. Therefore, this was not covered by the sacrificial system, and atonement could not be made for this sin. That person was to be executed for this sin (Leviticus 20:10). And execution was usually by the community stoning the person(s) to death, and was itself considered justifiable killing. Therefore it was unintentional killing, and it was able to be atoned for using the sacrificial system.
The Curse of the Law
So what happened to those who could not make sacrificial atonement for their sins, because the sins they committed were classified as intentional? They were turned over to the other part of the Levitical system, God’s justice system, or what has been called “the curse of the law.” In other words, they were considered criminals and executed for capital offenses prescribed by the Law of Moses.
This such an important principle to comprehend because it not only will help us understand the Old Testament Hebrew mindset, it will give us an understanding so much of what Paul was talking about in so many of his references to the law in his letters to the various churches. Another text that speaks to this directly is,
And if a person sins unintentionally, then he shall bring a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally, when he sins unintentionally before the LORD, to make atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. You shall have one law for him who sins unintentionally, for him who is native-born among the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwells among them. But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him.
Numbers 15:27 – 30
If an individual sinned by mistake, he was to offer a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. The priest will make atonement before God for the person who by sinning inadvertently becomes or is made aware of it. The priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. Notice it didn’t matter whether he is a citizen of Israel or a foreigner living with them. You are to have one law for whoever it is that does something wrong, by mistake. But, an individual who does something wrong intentionally, whether a citizen or a foreigner, is blaspheming the Lord God Almighty. That person was to be cut off (executed) from his people, because he had contempt for the word of God.
This is a great example of what is called the curse of the law. If you committed a capital offense, you were put to death. Now do you know why so many prefer not to teach this? This statement, and the principle it so clearly and unambiguously spells out. How do we live today, sin abounds, and most of those sins are intentional. This put the Hebrews and the believing Gentiles into a pretty awful predicament. Was there any way out of this mess? We look to the Messiah and his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension and current session in the third heaven for the answer to their and our predicament.
Did Jesus satisfy all the requirements of the sacrificial system? We’ve all heard that from the pulpit, and probably everyone would agree with that statement as well. But, exactly which sacrificial system are they referring to? That Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, once and for all, and an authorized permanent substitute for all those prescribed animal deaths that were used to atone for sin within the Old Testament sacrificial system, as found in Leviticus, is absolutely accurate. Remember animal sacrifices were done prior to the Law of Moses.
However, what do we do about the clear-cut reality that God plainly said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit here, “Now that now that you know what is right and wrong in my eyes, to intentionally do wrong, to sin against Me, is to blaspheme against Me; and for that you will be cut-off, put to physical death, and for those sins there will be no atonement.” This is a much more difficult issue when we actually examine the sacrificial system, than when we are blissfully ignorant of it and just assume some things that aren’t so; that is, when we look at the actual words of the scriptures, in context, and not just accept a greatly distilled and unquestioned doctrine that fits a predetermined religious agenda. Bear with me. I know some of you are getting uncomfortable with this, and you’re probably wrong so don’t stop reading just yet.
Religious Judaism’s Unsuccessful Solution
The Jews knew they had a big problem. The Torah simply does not provide a way for an Israelite to reconcile with God, once that Israelite commits a “high handed”, or “great” sin. So, over the course of time, the writers of the Jewish traditions took over.
You can read of all kinds of remedies for this seemingly insolvable problem. An example is the Talmud for instance. The great sages and rabbis made sweeping pronouncements that ranged from saying that the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, was what covered the intentional sins; even saying that doing good deeds and/or showing heartfelt repentance covered intentional sins. Some said that being sorry enough or studying Scripture enough or doing a great act of repentance or a great good deed could even turn that intentional sin into a deed that had merit in God’s eyes. Of course, none of this is in the scriptures. This just highlights what a serious matter intentional sin is, and how the Hebrew religious authorities would go to such great length to conjure up these tortured procedures on how to rid themselves of this rejection by God due to their commission of an intentional sin. After all, who wants to commit one of these highhanded sins, and then go through life knowing that your fate is inescapable? These were and are traditions of men not the word of God.
In the book of Exodus in particular we see laws prescribing immediate death for adulterers, homosexuals, perverts, murderers, and idolaters. There were other laws that even prescribed death for gross negligence. Some laws dealt with property, and therefore, usually involved reparations when a wrong was done. Someone discovered to be a thief was not jailed; instead they had to make reparations to the person they stole from. And, these reparations always involved giving back well more than the amount they took. There were laws involving accidental injuries to people or animals, and the remedy for these was also normally reparation. If you could not or would not make any of the required reparations, your life was turned over to that person who had been harmed or suffered loss, more or less as a slave, until you worked off that debt to him. These sorts of issues, their remedies, and punishments, are all covered in the Law of Moses.
So a good way for us to understand the justice system God set up for Israel is to think of it as consisting of two primary components: the Law, and the sacrificial system. One foundational principle underlying God’s justice system is quite similar to our American legal system whereby we declare some crimes less serious than others, and so we classify the offenses accordingly and we have different processes of how we deal with the less serious versus the more serious. We generally classify the less serious crimes as misdemeanors, the more serious as felonies.
To make an analogy, admittedly imperfect but close enough to make the point, the sacrificial system atoned for misdemeanors but not for felonies (please don’t take that too literally). God, in His justice system, defined a misdemeanor as committing an unintentional sin and a felony as committing an intentional sin. Today we as believers in the Messiah want to classify our sins according to big ones and little ones, bad ones and not-so-bad ones. A little one is cheating on your taxes, a big one is robbing a bank, and a bigger one is premeditated murder. God begins by showing us in the Law of Moses classifying sins as unintentional or deliberate. This is a universal principal.
The sacrificial system was not an escalating system of penalty fees or fines in the form of more valuable or less valuable animals, the choice of which depended on the severity of your offense. The sacrificial system was there to maintain your relationship with God, and to repair it if it got broken as a result of your sin. It was there to benefit to the sinner far more than to appease God. It was about obedience and reconciliation within His system of justice so that you could have your relationship with Him restored.
Again let’s simplify this, the sacrificial system represented the blessings part of the Law, and the curses of the Law represented the punishment part of the Law. If an Israelite sinned unintentionally, he could always turn to the sacrificial system that is laid out in detail in Leviticus, and be reconciled with God. Is that not exactly what we believers in Jesus Christ as our High Priest rely on? When we sin we turn to the sacrifice and current ministry of Jesus as our way out.
However, if someone sinned intentionally, they could not go to the sacrificial system and gain reconciliation with God. Instead they were to be dealt with under the curse of the Law. Instead of being under the blessing and grace of the sacrificial system, they were put under the punishment (the curse) of the Law. Let me state that again: the sacrificial system was based entirely on grace. It was the animal that lost its life rather than the person who committed the sin. The curse of the Law, however, was different. And when a sin was of the type that required a punishment under the law, although the Jews usually did not lose their physical lives (although sometimes they did), they did lose their relationship with God, and there was really no defined method to regain it. This was a terrifying possibility that every Hebrew faced every day of his entire life. I mean did an Israelite honestly believe he could go his entire life and never once intentionally break one of God’s laws? Never once have a bad day and deliberately sin?
The sad reality is that those Hebrews’ sins were almost always unintended. And they worked like crazy to never sin. How about us? We’re almost the exact opposite. The “church” doctrine and tradition has led us to the point that we hardly ever consider as sin to be as bad as it really is. The common view today is that if we didn’t mean it, or didn’t even recognize it, there’s nothing to it. And yet it was precisely this kind of sin, the unintended sin, that the sacrificial system was designed to deal with. It was the unintentional sins for which millions, perhaps billions, of God’s animals were put to death to atone for things men did.
Almost all of the sins that we modern believers currently think of as the everyday variety of sin actually fall into the category of deliberate and intentional. We mean to do it, even though later we might regret it. We know that it’s wrong, but we do it anyway. We know it’s an offense to God, but we choose to consider the consequences later. I can say this because I’ve been guilty of this category of sin. When we have sin to confess to God it is usually, by the scriptural definition, an intentional sin that we are confessing. And the Levitical sacrificial system did not cover this type of sin. Since the sacrificial system of the Old Testament only covered sins that weren’t intended, and if Jesus fulfilled only that system, where does that leave us when most of the time we sin deliberately?
The Biblical Solution to Intentional Sin
The apostle Paul saw Jesus the Messiah as fulfilling far more than the Levitical system, with all its definitions of what it could and could not atone for,
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed…
Romans 3:23 – 25
Notice that God “passed over the sins that were previously committed.” What is Paul saying here? First, the word “propitiation” in Greek is literally “mercy seat” or “means of expiation”. The Greek word used here is only twice in the New Testament, and both times (See also Hebrews 9:5) is referring to the lid to the ark of the covenant we see for the first time in the book of Exodus. When we realize that it is referring directly to the most important furnishing in the most important location of the tabernacle (and later in the Temple), which is central to the Levitical system and its sacrifices; then we see how thoroughly tied together the Levitical sacrifices and Jesus Christ or Lord is. Yet even that is not fully representative of what the Messiah fulfilled by His death. Remember, God “passed over” sins that were committed previously. In this we see the Levitical system and another aspect the passing over of sins previously committed. There is no distinction here about unintentional and intentional. Both were dealt with by the Law of Moses.
Later Paul goes on to say,
…knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.
Here Paul points out that it is our “body of sin” – our entire body (or “flesh”) that is related to sin. And that body must be done away with to live in freedom. To not be released from that “body of sin” meant physical death. Paul was probably remembering the famous discourse in John 8,
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free?’” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”
It is laughable that the Jews would have said that they were not in bondage. At that time they were in bondage to the Roman government who conquered them; they were in bondage to a religious system that had been corrupted by man-made tradition and ineffective, and finally they were slaves to their own sin. Especially intentional sin. A key phrase in the verses we just read was “slave(s) to sin”. That phrase, or others very similar (See also Romans 6:16, 17, 19, 20; 7:14, 25; 2 Peter 2:19 and the associated context), harkens back to the idea that once a Hebrew committed an intentional sin, and there was no hope for atonement for it. Commit an intentional sin, and indeed, you are its slave forever in the old covenant. There is no escape from an intentional sin under the Levitical system. This is closer to the meaning it had to Paul, because by the Hebrew thinking of that day, it was intentional sins that were the problem because these hung over your head forever. You were not a slave to unintentional sins, but rather to intentional sins, because the sacrificial system as it existed from Moses’ day forward was fully capable of dealing with the unintentional sins that Hebrews committed.
Notice the first portion of the passage earlier in Romans 3 we just read. It says that because not one person has ever gone his lifetime without sinning (See Ecclesiastes 7:20), that by God’s grace there is now a method by which ALL those sins can be atoned for. To Paul it was obvious that Messiah did something more than what the Levitical sacrificial system was capable of doing; and what Messiah did was to atone for the intentional sins in our lives as well as the unintentional.
The prophets foretold the coming of a redeemer who would save the people from their sins, intentional and unintentional; we do not see a distinction in their prophetic words either. The believing Jews saw that a remedy for their predicament was on the way to be provided by the LORD Himself in the person of Messiah. (See all the earlier series on the prophetic scriptures on the Messiah’s first advent for more information on this.) His arrival was heralded by angels with the specific message of the salvation from sins,
And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.
Again, the angel didn’t specify which sins the people would be saved from. We see the burden every Israelite carried and now we see the answer to that burden – the Messiah. The Israelites were wrong in failing to understand that the promised “seed” was coming to save men from their sins.
Remember one careless or rash moment basically carried not only a physical death sentence, but something worse than death – eternity without God. Commit a sin that the sacrificial system was not built to atone for and beyond the criminal punishment you might receive from the Law, you were now at war with God forever as an enemy. Since the only way, in God’s justice system, to atone and be forgiven was an animal sacrifice within the context of the sacrificial system protocols, but what you did was not covered by that system you were toast – literally.
This of course, was the world that Paul and all of the Jews in Christ’s day lived in. This was the world the Hebrews of the Old Testament, beginning with Moses, lived in. Paul, as a highly trained Pharisee, understood the realities of God’s justice system to a degree that the common people didn’t. It was his profession to contemplate this difficult reality, day and night. Imagine the mental energy necessary to try to control your will so thoroughly as to never in your lifetime commit a deliberate sin; the effort must have been exhausting. But the failure to avoid such sin was so terrible that not to work yourself to exhaustion to avoid it was unthinkable. The common people understood their situation, but they had lives to live, mouths to feed, and most didn’t go to bed at night and then wake up in the morning, and re-examine their position with God. For Paul, as with all the other Pharisees, however, it was the center of all their thoughts.
You see when Paul and other Pharisees went around strong-arming fellow Jews in the gospels, it wasn’t only followers of Jesus who they were accusing of crimes and arresting. It was everyday traditional Jews. Because primarily what Paul’s job was, or at least he seemed to take the greatest delight in, was to look for Jews who had committed an intentional sin, because that person was going to be dealt with harshly (Acts 9:1, 2). That person would now be under the curse of the Law, as opposed to sins covered by the sacrificial system. That person was now out of fellowship with God and subject to punishment by men. This was the system Judaism operated under Old and New Testament times. Paul repented and believed the gospel and subsequently wrote as we saw earlier.
With the preceding as a perspective, is it no wonder that Paul came to use such harsh words when describing the Law in comparison to the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and current session of Messiah? I believe that what made Messiah’s blood so precious to Paul and the other apostles and disciples was that it did cover sins that were intentional. You see, even though Jesus Christ is often described as our High Priest, He is not the type of High Priest that Aaron represented in the Law of Moses; He is more than the High Priesthood started by Aaron. The scriptures tells us that the Messiah was “after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4; See also Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17), who was both king and high priest. The Messiah in His Davidic king’s priestly role is that of Melchizedek, who was both “king of Salem” (i.e., Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:18 – 20). Like Melchizedek, the coming Davidic King was to be a royal priest, distinct from the Aaronic line. The analogy here in this Psalm focuses on the king’s priestly role.
Even though Jesus provided the once and for all sacrifice that had formerly been the purpose of the Levitical system; His life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension and current session was more than what that system could ever provide. He also provided what the ancient Passover provided, and that is the key. Remember in our Romans 3 text, the phrase that God “passed over” the sins previously committed.
The Passover Sacrifice
The Passover sacrifice was not really part of the Law or the general sacrificial system; it actually came before it (Exodus 12:1 – 13). The feasts generally functioned somewhat separately, and had different purposes than the Laws of do’s and don’ts. The Passover sacrifice was not about atoning for sins. The Passover sacrifice was originally established as a means of being protected from temporal death. The Lambs’ blood was smeared on doorposts in Egypt so that God’s wrath, His hand of death, would not come to the homes of His people and kill the firstborn sons. When the Israelites celebrated Passover, it was for them a remembrance, a memorial holiday, to recall God protecting them from death and freeing them from slavery Egypt; it was not about atonement for sins. Egypt is a type of the sinful life of a human being. Leaving it and not going back to being a slave again.
Of course it had much deeper significance that they couldn’t comprehend it was a foreshadowing of Messiah’s death on the cross. But the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb had nothing to do with the sacrificial system whose job it was to make peace with God by means of atonement. However, we see later in the context (verse 15) if someone didn’t celebrate God’s deliverance from the plague of death against the firstborn would be “cut off from Israel.” The Hebrew verb here is in a form that is a common formula in the Law of Moses for divine punishment. Here, in sequence to the idea that someone might eat bread made with yeast, the result would be literally “cut off.” Not a good outcome for that person in the worst way possible.
A translation of the Hebrew verb with a nuance of possibility, not certainty, and could be rendered “may be cut off.” There is the real danger of being killed by God, for while the punishment might include excommunication from the community, the greater danger was in the possibility of divine intervention to root out the evildoer. In Leviticus 20:3, 5-6, God speaks of himself as cutting off a person from among the Israelites. This is most probably a divine punishment for disobedience that is most likely temporal, physical death. The rabbis mentioned premature death and childlessness as possible judgments in these instances, and many scholars recognize that the one who removed from the religious community of Israel cannot be a beneficiary of the covenantal blessings. i.e. no relationship with God and no way to atone for sin. So if the Passover dealt with divine punishment leading to death, and a violator of this part of the covenant was guilty, we have an intentional sin that leads to death by divine punishment.
It was the Passover sacrifice of Jesus that was to protect us from judgment resulting in temporal death. Paul again instructs us in the relationship of Jesus being our Passover sacrifice,
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.
1 Corinthians 5:7
Notice here in the greater context of verse 7, Paul is arguing for a man’s removal from the assembly (due to sexual immorality with his father’s wife) with the analogy to leaven and the Passover. In verse 7 we see “leaven” (an analogy to personal sin) being thrown out so that “lump” (of “dough” representing the congregation) would be “new.” In Jewish life it was customary to throw away all the leaven (yeast) in the house when the family prepared for the Passover celebration (Exodus 12:15; 13:6–7). They did this so the bread they made for Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread that followed would be completely free of leaven. There is great symbolism in the act of throwing out leaven. This is what the Corinthians needed to do as an assembly so they could worship God acceptably.
The mention of the removal of leaven before the Passover led Paul to develop his analogy further. The final Passover Lamb, the Messiah had already died. Therefore it was all the more important that the believers clean out the remaining leaven immediately. In verse 8, Paul is probably thinking of the feast of Unleavened Bread began the day after Passover. The Jews regarded both Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread as one festival (cf. Exodus 23:15; 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:6). As believers our Pascal Lamb has died, just as He had for the Corinthians; it was necessary that the Corinthian’s keep celebrating the feast and worshiping God free of leaven that symbolically represented sin. The old leaven probably refers to the sins that marked the Corinthians before their conversion. Malice and wickedness probably stand for all sins of motive and action. Sincerity and truth are the proper motive and action with which we should worship God. This verse constitutes a summary appeal to deal with personal sin in the community of the believing ones.
Paul employs the traditional image of Messiah as the sacrificial lamb in his counsel (verse 7), using the Passover lamb as a type grounds Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian assembly to commit itself to its status as “new dough,” “unleavened” (verse 7a), whereupon the cleansing of immorality (verses 1ff.) must follow (verse 8). Here Paul presupposes an acquaintance with Jewish Passover customs and with the Passover typology. We see this story played out over the course of 1 and 2 Corinthians. We know from the record that Paul directed that this person (the one who was committing sexual immorality with his step-mother) was to be thrown out. Later in 2 Corinthians we learn that he repented and was to be welcomed back into fellowship (this is debated by scholars as to whether this person is in view or someone else. I believe at this time that it is the same man.). Although don’t know from the text of 2 Corinthians that his sins were forgiven and his fellowship with the Lord was repaired. We can however deduce that his sins must have been forgiven by Jesus as High Priest, otherwise Paul would not have asked the Corinthians to welcome him back into fellowship in 2 Corinthians 2:5 – 17.
The writer of the book of Hebrews also had something to say about this sacrifice. The author of Hebrews reflects on the history of the Passover sacrifice when he traces it back to Moses’ faith (Hebrews 11:28). Moses continued to demonstrate confidence in the blood that God provided, so should we. He avoided and we avoid God’s temporal judgment by doing so if we purge out the sin in our lives.
The Lamb of God
Relating this to our predicament of intentional sin, John the Baptist said that Jesus was the Lamb that “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!…Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 36) The title “Lamb of God” presented Jesus as the Lamb that God would provide as a substitute sacrifice for humankind’s sin (Isaiah 53:7; compare to Genesis 4:4; 8:20; 22:8, 13, 14; Exodus 12:3 – 17; Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 1:19). John the Baptist did not make a distinction here about willful and unintentional sin.
Peter also spoke of this (1 Peter 1:16 – 23). As the death of the Passover lamb liberated the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, so the death of Jesus Christ frees us from the bondage of sin (Compare to Exodus 12:5). In speaking of redemption Peter always emphasized our freedom from a previously sinful lifestyle to live a changed life here and now.
When Jesus our Lord died on the cross there were at least 2 things relevant to our discussion that were accomplished that affects us as believers and our relationship to God. First, He paid the price with His blood for our sins, past, present, and future; intentional and unintentional. In this way, He atoned for our sins, intentional and unintentional, in doing this he “redeemed” us; i.e. freed us from the curse of the law,
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”),…
We are set free from the “curse of the law” since the death that the Messiah died was a punishment for blasphemy (a capital criminal offense according to the Law of Moses) according to the curse of the law. We are set free according to Paul by,
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
Paul used “law” here and was not referring to the Mosaic Law but the Law of Christ. The second “law” in this verse refers to the law of sin and resulting death for those who persist in it (See Romans 7:21). These laws refer to the certainty and regularity that characterize the operations of the Spirit and sin. The Spirit’s work that comes to us because of our faith in Jesus Christ leads to fullness of life through freedom from sin. Conversely personal sin, if unchecked leads to premature physical death of the believer.
Paul speaks of “the curse of the law” in another of his letters (Galatians 3:10 – 14, 19, 20; 4:5), meaning a curse decreed by the law. This would cover the aspect of the intentional sin. As Paul lays out his reasoning in the letter of Galatians, he means deliverance from the entire law not just the curse of intentional sin (See verse 4:5). Again, all unintentional sins could be remedied by a proper sacrifice; the sacrificial system atoned for them; this was a great blessing because by God’s grace your sin could be atoned for. But no intentional sins could be covered by the sacrificial system. Let me be clear; I’m not talking about Law of Moses in some vague sense, or some local criminal justice system. I’m talking about the biblical law as found in the word of God.
The Law of Life
Without the Spirit within as a law of life, there would be nothing but condemnation; for we as the new creation have no power within ourselves apart from the Spirit of God. This is why I believe Jesus used the analogy of a vine and abiding in Him to truly live (John 15:1 – 11). Contrast this with a life of perpetual bondage to the flesh which brings temporal physical death for the believer and very likely a massively negative outcome at the Judgment Seat of Messiah. No wonder that Paul cried out for someone to free him from his “body of death” (Romans 7:24). In Romans 7 we see this struggle played out in Paul’s mind.
The solution to the apostle’s dilemma is not escape from temptation but victory over it. The source of Paul’s wretchedness is clear (Romans 7:24). It is not the old nature versus new nature, but the fact that the last hope of mankind, religion, particularly the Law of Moses, has proven to be failure in regard to sin. And the answer is the Spirit of God who gives us the ability to be free from sin. The law of the Spirit shows us that redeemed believers need deliverance. This is part of the new covenant. As to who will free the apostle from his “body of death” we have Paul’s answer,
I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
Romans 7 is very important for several reasons. It corrects the popular idea that our struggle with sin is only against specific sins and habits whereas it is also against our basic human nature. Second, it shows that human nature is not essentially good but evil. Third, it argues that our sanctification does not come by obeying laws, a form of legalism called nomism, but apart from Law of Moses. It also proves that doing right requires more than just determining to do it. We must avail ourselves of the Spirit and choose life versus the flesh and death. All these insights are necessary for us to appreciate what Paul then explains in Romans 8.
Second, as the Passover Lamb, His blood marked us to be passed over from the punishment of physical death which the scriptures describe as, first and foremost, the lack of physical life (i.e. the breath of life – Genesis 2:7). We saw this in an earlier post. I also believe at this time, that He ultimately secures believers from the “second death” (See Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) that is the judgment at the end of the Kingdom for all the unbelieving dead. It is also worthy to note that the Passover will be celebrated in the Kingdom (Ezekiel 45:21).
Messiah’s Superiority over the Law of Moses
Let’s keep going, there is more. We know specifically what had infuriated the Jewish religious authorities about Jesus, even beyond His claim of being Messiah, God’s Son, was during the time of His ministry He was giving divine forgiveness to those who had committed intentional sins (Luke 7:36 – 50; John 8:1 – 11)! Jesus was pronouncing that the person who put their trust in Him could achieve reconciliation with God even after committing an intentional sin. Even the sacrificial system, the holiest most blessed, gracious and powerful part of the entire Hebrew justice system, couldn’t do that!
Paul never says the Law of Moses is obsolete or dead; he only says that compared to the work of Messiah, the Law is as nothing. Now by faith in Messiah, you are subject to the grace of God when you intentionally sin, instead of being subject to the curses of the Law. And being subject to that law would lead to physical death through execution or divine punishment under the old covenant. Now under the new covenant, when you or I intentionally sin, we can be forgiven. This is too wonderful for words. Paul as a Pharisee took it for granted that unintentional sins could be forgiven as they always had, by means of a proper animal sacrifice, since the days of Moses. Surely the Messiah’s sacrifice would take care of that. But more so, Paul never compared the ability of Messiah to forgive against the Law’s failure in being able to do that for intentional sin. The sacrificial system did provide a means of forgiveness but it was limited to the unintentional sin. The Law portion of God’s justice system was not designed to atone or forgive; it was to draw a line between obedience to God and disobedience to God. The Law established moral choices for believers; in doing so it showed us what sin and its penalty is – death. Both systems, both parts of God’s justice system, the law and curses did what they were designed to do, perfectly.
However, even though the Law has no effect, even though now intentional sins can be forgiven, and even thought we have a High Priest who has atoned once for all sin in one sacrifice and is an advocate with the Father for us, we still can be subject to another law. That is the law of the flesh (Romans 7:25; 8:1 – 13; 13:14; Galatians 5:13 – 24; 1 Peter 3:18, 21; 2 Peter 2:10, 18) which leads to physical death. This is too often ignored by believers to their own peril in time and in the future consequences at the resurrection. I thank God, as you should, that our High Priest has atoned for and can and justly forgive all sins intentional and unintentional (1 John 1:9). However, we need to live in the Spirit and not the flesh.
The Warning Not to Apostatize
There is one more passage that we need to look at to confirm our understanding on the punishment of willful sin in the believer. There is one particular sin that if we commit, we will be judged very harshly in time and at the judgment seat.
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Hebrews 10:26 – 31 NKJV
Some interpret the willful sin as continual sin (NIV: “If we deliberately keep on sinning”), but this is reading too much into the Greek present participle used for “to sin.” The author of Hebrews apparently has a particular sin in mind, which becomes evident as we look at the context. Willful sin in the context of Hebrews is deliberate apostasy, turning away from God (See Hebrews 2:1; 3:12; 6:4 – 8). If an apostate rejects Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, there is nothing else that can protect him or her from God’s judgment (Compare to Hebrews 6:6). The judgment in view will take place at the judgment seat of Christ, not the great white throne. It is the judgment of believers (Compare to 2 Corinthians 5:10), not of unbelievers (See Revelation 20:11 – 15). It will result in loss of reward, loss of the believer’s inheritance of the Kingdom, not loss of salvation. This same fire (judgment) is that which will test believer’s works.
The imagery of “fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” is vividly suggestive of the prospect awaiting the person who turns away from God’s gracious provision through the Messiah. The apostate is regarded as the adversary of God. The description of judgment as a fire that devours and utterly destroys recalls the actual experience of the followers of Korah who were consumed by fire because they had shown contempt for God (Numbers 16:35; 26:10). The consequence of apostasy is terrifying, irrevocable judgment which is not only the terrible prospect of temporal death, but of dis-inheritance at the resurrection in the Kingdom.
The writer of Hebrews had exhorted his readers previously to hold fast to their confession (Hebrews 3:6; 4:14) and has warned them about the dangers of not pressing on in their faith (Hebrews 6:1 – 8). He reinforces this concern in the verses just before this warning about the willful sin (Hebrews 10:23 – 25). The readers were on the verge of abandoning their confession of faith in the Messiah and returning to the Mosaic Law and its sacrifices, which is why the writer discussed the inadequacy of the Mosaic sacrifices especially from chapter 8 onward.
The willful sin would be a deliberate abandonment of their confession of the sufficiency of Messiah’s sacrifice for a return to the insufficiency of Jewish sacrifices. The author had written them that the Messiah,
…was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
That “by one offering he has made complete for ever those who are made holy” (Hebrews 10:14), and that once forgiven “there is no longer an offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). The Law offered them nothing since it looked forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus (Hebrews 10:1 – 10). Should they turn back to the Law, Messiah’s perfect and eternal sacrifice would be sufficient to cover even that great and willful sin from a salvation standpoint, but they would still face a severe divine judgment in time and at the judgment seat of Messiah. The author had just referred to an approaching “Day” (Hebrews 10:25) implying that there will be an accounting, which we know as the judgment seat of Messiah taught in so many other places in the New Testament (See Romans 14:10 – 12; 1 Corinthians 3:11 – 15; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
The background for understanding this passage is very likely our earlier passage, Numbers 15:30 – 31. There we see that for certain serious (or presumptuous) sins no sacrifices were stipulated, therefore those who committed those sins were “cut off” from their people (put to death) as we have seen before. The author is saying that if the readers of Hebrews abandon the only sufficient sacrifice for their sins, they too will be judged severely.
Because the author uses strong language (“fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries”) and speaks of a punishment worse than death (verse 30), many conclude he is threatening them with eternal punishment. But because they are believers who cannot lose their salvation and because he has in view the judgment seat of Messiah, this cannot be. The exact judgment is not specified, only its severity. It is hard to imagine a judgment worse than death, but human experience does testify that there are occasions when death is preferred than to endure severe suffering (Just ask Jonah! Jonah 4:3). The author of Hebrews is comparing this judgment to the death penalty for the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30 – 31, which was the severest penalty dictated at that time. This penalty is temporal physical death. But in light of New Testament revelation about the judgment seat of Messiah, we know that a more severe judgment would be a negative assessment (excluded from reigning with the Messiah, being in the outer darkness, and other unspecified discipline to the unfaithful believer) at the judgment seat because there the eternal implications of our lack of faithfulness will be known.
The possibility of a negative assessment at the judgment seat of Messiah is a “fearful expectation of judgment” (Compare 2 Corinthian 5:9 – 11) for those who have not done good. The “fiery indignation” is literally in Greek, “zeal of fire” or “fury of fire” and refers to the zeal of God’s judgment toward sin. Believers can experience the same zeal of judgment toward their sin as God’s enemies experience toward theirs, though the results are different. This is why I believe that Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians,
If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
1 Corinthians 3:15
In the end, these readers who would be judged are still “His people” (verse 30; a quote from Deuteronomy 32:35 – 36). They will not be condemned to the lake of fire, but will fall “into the hands of the living God” (verse 31). Though at first glance fire may conjure up thoughts of hell, fire was actually used often in the Old Testament to judge or threaten temporal punishment on God’s own people. Sometimes it is the fire of God’s wrath that disciplines His people (Numbers 11:1 – 3; Isaiah 9:19; 10:17; 29:6; 42:25; Jeremiah 11:16; 15:14; 17:4; Lamentations 2:3 – 4; 4:11; Ezekiel 22:20 – 22; Amos 2:5; Obadiah 18; Psalm 78:21; 80:16). Sometimes it refers to a cleansing or purifying trial or judgment (Psalm 66:12; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:2; John 15:6; 1 Corinthians 3:13 – 15; 1 Peter 1:7).
I believe at this time that this text is speaking of temporal judgment of the believer in time (the sin that leads to death) and a negative result at the judgment seat of Messiah. Here in this passage, the believer who sins willfully (Again note that the author includes himself as a possibility by using “we.”) has in store “judgment,” and “fiery indignation which devours the adversaries.” The willful sin in Hebrews is turning back to Judaism which would be tantamount to giving one’s approval to the re-crucifixion of Jesus Messiah.
Believers who committed apostasy (denouncing your faith, worshiping other “deities”, etc.) under the Old Covenant usually brought a temporal death sentence to be carried out by other believers (Compare to Deuteronomy 17:2 – 7; 13:8), or even other nations against Israel. This same sin under the New Covenant means that the believer will lose his or her eternal reward and face an unspecified disinheritance (At this time I have not found a definitive scripture that specifies the judgment and punishment of the believer for this sin – its only references in the OT are Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24; The only reference to this passage in the NT is when Jesus quotes the Isaiah passage in Mark 9:42 – 47) in the Kingdom. Not only this terrible fate, but God often begins to punish that kind of believer in this life with severe divine discipline.
We will see more on the consequences of living in the flesh and sins effects in upcoming posts where we will look at what living in sin will get a believer. When I say a very negative outcome at the judgment seat of Messiah, it’s left unspecified. I don’t want to find out what that is, do you?
Let’s continue our journey in the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Appearing of our Great God and Savior.