There has always been debate about the Catholic doctrine of cardinal sins, but slightly less print space has been dedicated to debating the cardinal sins in my parents’ house. Growing up I was barely even aware of the Pope, but what the parents said was law. There were three cardinal sins in our house: not washing the dishes, not cleaning your room, and leaving lights on after you. It was drummed into me the fact that when there was no one in the room, there was no reason to leave the light on. I see this in action now when I ride into the office car park and the lights turn on as you ride in and off as you leave.
A similar principle operated in Second Temple Judaism, a light called the ner hama’aravi burned perpetually in the temple to symbolise the fact that the presence and glory of God dwelt there. According to both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, in the year 30AD that light went out. It was relit everyday but from that time for the remaining life of the temple it went out every night. God, it appears, had left the building.
The failing light in the temple isn’t the only extraordinary thing that happened, in fact history records that between 30AD and the destruction of the temple in the year 70AD strange things occurred. It wasn’t Christian historians who wrote this but Jews; the Babylonian Talmud was written by Rabbis and the other source is the historian Josephus.
As Lee Strobel highlights in The Case for the Real Jesus, the Jewish people held that certain miraculous signs demonstrated that God had accepted their sacrifices on the day of atonement. After the death of Christ not one of these miraculous signs occurred ever again. The most symbolic was perhaps the scarlet ribbon that was tied to a door in the temple; this ribbon was miraculously turned to white as a symbol of God’s acceptance of their sacrifice on the day of atonement. The scarlet ribbon never did turn white again, because the blood of a goat could never again atone for the sins of man.
So why am I writing about this? Can it have relevance for us today? Is it anything more than an ancient historical curio? Yes. It is important because when God refuses to accept the sacrifices of the Jewish people any more, when God signifies that the blood of a goat is not going to cut it, He has to be pointing to a better way. Throughout history God has never shut the door on his people, He always makes a way for them to come to Him. He is not a God of abandonment but one of reconciliation. So when goats suddenly become terminally unable to atone for sin, something else has to be doing the job. In the book of Hebrews we find exactly what, or rather who, it is that has brought about this change. There is a great section in Hebrews 10:1-18 that covers this in depth.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
– Hebrews 10:11-14 (ESV)
The blood of goats never could atone for sins, it was a stop gap. The priest had to sacrifice endlessly and the best they could ever hope to achieve was to break even and be clean until the next day the sacrifice had to happen again. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, it was impossible for man to become holy by butchering animals. All we got was a few moments of cleanliness before the dirt set in again. When Jesus came He gave a sacrifice of such eternal significance that everything changed.
There is no point in bringing a sacrifice for our own sins because they’re already paid for. Kill a goat? God basically signals that He’s had more than enough goats, and they’re meaningless now. Try to buy an indulgence? Pointless, forgiveness and redemption cannot be bought. Chip an extra tenner in the bucket because it’s been a pretty sinful week? Pointless, because Jesus has already fixed it once and for all. It’s an in or out deal. You in? Great, you’re clean. Clean from yesterday’s dirt, today’s dirt, tomorrow’s dirt; you are teflon and nothing can stick. You out? Well try whatever you want, there’s not enough soap in the world to clean you.
There is one more wonderful sign of change that occurred in the temple after 30AD and the power of it, both literal and symbolic, was so great that it reduced Rabbi Johanan ben Zakai to standing in the temple screaming. For those final forty years that the second temple stood the doors of the hekal, the area in front of the holiest place, would not stay shut. Why need they? What would they be restricting access to?
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
– Romans 8:11 (ESV)
God now dwells in us. I’ve heard people joke about not being good enough to step into church, as though the walls would fall around them if they did. But the over riding message of the swinging doors is that anyone can come and access God and the proof of that isn’t in the fact that He dwells in one small room in one ancient building, but that He dwells in you and I. We can’t be too bad to come to Jesus any more than we could ever be good enough to come to Jesus; it’s about His goodness and not ours.
Jesus is why we can bring our crap, our sin, our dirt, to God because He has already conquered. He cannot be surprised by what we bring because He has already suffered and died for it, He knows, He felt it, He bore it on Himself and He says it is finished. We need never skip a week of church because we don’t feel good enough or because we think we have no right to be there. We should never shy away from coming to the house of God because He has accepted the sacrifice, torn the veil, opened the doors and announced that we are welcome home.
The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma a-b.