Those who read me regularly probably get the impression that I’m reacting against my evangelical background. When I was in the evangelical movement, there was a part of me that got bored with reading the Bible. The evangelicals I knew made almost everything in the Bible about the substitutionary atonement or justification by grace through faith. If there was an sacrifice on an altar or an animal got killed in a covenant ceremony, watch out! The evangelicals would make it a type of Christ’s death on the cross. I just got tired of the same predictable evangelical interpretations, explanations, and understandings. I became fascinated with Jewish and historical-critical readings because they offered me something new, or at least they exposed me to views I had not heard before.
Today, I’m going to be an evangelical. In Ezekiel 43, Ezekiel continues his discussion of the new temple, and, in vv 13-27, he describes the altar. For Ezekiel, before the altar can be used, it must be purged through the sacrifice of a goat as a sin offering.
Why? What did the altar do wrong? Well, nothing specifically, I suppose. But this is not the first time that an inanimate object needed to be purged. Check out Leviticus 16:16: “And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness.” The tabernacle needed to be purged every year because of the sins of the people. When the Israelites sinned or became ritually impure, they defiled the sanctuary. God did not want to dwell amidst moral or ritual filth, so the Israelites needed to cleanse the sanctuary of defilement so that God would continue to dwell in their midst.
The reason that Ezekiel 43’s description of the altar stands out to me is that it demonstrates the importance of blood atonement. There are many within Judaism, Islam, and maybe even mainline Christianity who act as if blood is not necessary for God to forgive sins. They assume that all one has to do to be forgiven is repent: be sorry for your sins, and start serving God. But, in Ezekiel 43, the restored Israelites could not simply build an altar and start worshipping God. They had to take care of their past. The altar needed to be cleansed of the effects of their past sins, and that cleansing was to occur through blood. Without this purification ceremony, God would not accept their worship on the altar. Only after blood atonement would God receive their attempts to please him.
As a Christian, I believe that people must accept the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf in order to be acceptable before God. Non-Christians can do good things and try to engage in worship, but those things do not lead to their acceptance by God, since they are still sinners. Their altars must be cleansed before God will be pleased with their worship and good deeds.
There is one passage that seems (on first sight) to militate against what I just said. In Acts 10, an angel tells the Gentile centurion, Cornelius: “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (v 4). This was before Cornelius heard the Gospel and was saved. God seemed to accept Cornelius’ prayers and good deeds, even when he was not a Christian! What do I do with this? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I believe that God honors those who seek him. Cornelius’ deeds by themselves were not enough to save him, since he still needed to hear the Gospel and become cleansed through faith (Acts 15:9). But God recognized that Cornelius was a sincere seeker of truth and righteousness, so he gave him more light, the light of the Gospel.
While I’m on the topic of the cleansed altar, I want to address a popular argument among Jews who don’t believe in Jesus. Hebrews 9:22 says that there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. Jewish counter-missionaries have argued that the author of Hebrews is simply wrong, since the Torah presents a non-blood sacrifice that can remove sin. Leviticus 5:11-13 says, after all, that a very poor Israelite can offer some flour as his sin offering. But my response is that the poor Israelite is offering his flour on an altar that has been cleansed through blood. Otherwise, his flour would not be acceptable. So, in a sense, even the poor Israelites’ sins are removed through the shedding of blood.