The Bible is essential in our quest to understand our Creator's ways and means. As we become familiar with HIS revelation, we begin to understand that the Gospels were not a chronicle of the foundation of a new religion called Christianity. GOD's efforts recorded there were initially focused on getting His chosen nation Israel to repent. This was that which first John the Baptist and ultimately Yeshua endeavored to accomplish during their ministries.
MATTHEW 3:1-2 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
MATTHEW 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Repent was the original message of GOD to HIS lost nation Israel. Rarely do we find it used in the epistles of Paul, who was GOD's apostle to the Gentiles; yet when presenting his defence before king Agrippa he affirmed that repentance was a principal part of his ministry to the Gentiles (ACTS 26:20). Howbeit, it is generally reserved for the wayward Jew. Primarily used in the Gospel accounts, this same clarion call to repent is offered to Israel for forty more years during ACTS by Yeshua's disciples.
ACTS 3:19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.
Thus we see that if they wanted to be forgiven of their sins, repentance was the vital key towards that end. Yet that is wholly different than what many in Israel had come to understand from the Mosaic Law. There, making the proper sacrifice at the altar in the temple of GOD had become the acceptable way to get your sins forgiven.
LEVITICUS 4:33-35 And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar: And he shall take away all the fat thereof, as the fat of the lamb is taken away from the sacrifice of the peace offerings; and the priest shall burn them upon the altar, according to the offerings made by fire unto the LORD: and the priest shall make an atonement for his sin that he hath committed, and it shall be forgiven him.
Thus, the believers living during the times of the Hebrew Bible sacrificed various animals upon the altar in order to have their sins forgiven. Yet when we come to the Gospels we find something entirely foreign to what the Jews had traditionally learned from their religious leaders as to the way to have their sins forgiven.
MATTHEW 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS [Yeshua]: for he shall save his people from their sins.
JOHN 1:29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
In the Christian scriptures (the New Testament), Yeshua was going to save the people from their sins. He was now the true sacrifice which must be accepted. We must consider and ponder what exactly caused this change. Why did it seem acceptable in the Mosaic Law to have your sins forgiven by offering some sacrifice at the altar, but not in the Gospels? Why do we plainly read in LEVITICUS that sins are forgiven with the offering of animal sacrifices but then when we come to the Gospels and ACTS we find an abrupt change? Why is there now only one sacrifice and only after repenting and believing in Him could they then have their sins forgiven?
There can be no argument that during the early history of Israel the people's sins were forgiven as they offered various sacrifices upon the altar to GOD. But the ritual misled the observer because it was not really the actual act of sacrificing an animal that obtained their forgiveness. Firstly, the shedding of blood of helpless animals was intended to demonstrate to man the seriousness of his sin. Something had to die, and if not the sinner, something innocent in his stead. And his sacrifice must needs be the best he had, the choicest of his flock.
The entire ritual was intended to manufacture within the sinner a godly sorrow. The simple act of sacrificing the dumb beast was not enough for him to be cleansed of his sin and renewed to fellowship with his maker. He must at the same time repent, he must feel a huge regret for his actions and determine to change something significant in his life that first allowed his sin. That is what the word repent means, to first be convicted within, then to feel a heartfelt sorrow and finally to reform one's life.
Yet as time went on, many Israelites had made their sacrifices only a routine that they observed: they were simply going through the motions without any real heart felt repentance associated with it. Thus Yahweh sent HIS prophets to reprove them in a most powerful way.
ISAIAH 1:11-20 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with [tolerate]; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow....If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
GOD sent prophets like Isaiah unto Israel because they had failed to live in harmony with HIS will. They had drifted away from the truth of the Law and made their own law out of observing HIS law. They had failed to "do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless and plead for the widow". GOD demanded obedience from the heart but they often gave HIM only lip service. Many in Israel made the mistake of thinking that they could live as they liked as long as they kept the feast and made the required sacrifice, but GOD demanded more. HE required that they seek Him with all their heart and soul and strength (DEUTERONOMY 6:5).
MICAH 6:6-8 Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
The failure of the sacrificial system was that the offerer often failed to take a serious personal inventory of his lifestyle. He failed to change his ways. Thinking that he could easily have his sins blotted out by a routine sacrifice at the next scheduled feast, he rarely developed within himself faith's righteousness. Too often his heart became hard to the point of not even recognizing his own sins, much less feeling remorse. Miss-thinking he was already righteous simply because of who he was, a circumcised Jew, a descendant of Abraham, he failed to nurture within himself the love of GOD to those around him; his neighbors. It became more important to many of these Jews to defend the status quo rather than to recognize their own sins. It was more important for them to observe all the details of the ritual than to get right with GOD. But that was all contrary to the commands of GOD.
2 CHRONICLES 7:14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
ISAIAH 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
JEREMIAH 36:3 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.
So we see that even in the Hebrew Bible, sins were forgiven not simply by the slaying of some defenseless animal, but by a humble and repentant sinner. This was always GOD's requirement, but over the years the truth got turned upside down and inside out. The idea that their heart must be right before GOD would accept their sacrifice, somehow got pushed aside and out of the way. The ritual too often replaced the true intent of the ceremony. GOD still accepted the offering of their animal sacrifices, but they needed to be offered along with a repentant heart, as is reiterated in verse 19 below.
PSALM 51:16-17 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart....19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
Then, after they got their heart right, then they were to go ahead and offer their sacrifices. But GOD never intended the physical blood of bulls and goats by itself to ever take away sins (HEBREWS 10:4).
Aside from creating within the sinner a godly sorrow (2 CORINTHIANS 7:10), the sacrifices were ultimately meant to point them to the one true Lamb, the only true sacrifice that was destined to someday come and finally redeem mankind in a real and permanent sense. Sacrifices during the times of the Hebrew Bible always typified Him who would someday be "brought as a lamb to the slaughter" (ISAIAH 53:7). From the original sin of Adam and Eve all through the Hebrew Bible, animal sacrifices were of the first-fruits, of the first-born, and were always pointing to the ultimate sacrifice of GOD's own first-born, HIS own best sacrifice (to see a list of the required sacrifices, click here). Christ was foreordained even before the foundation of the world as this final, perfect sacrifice.
1 PETER 1:18-20 Forasmuch as ye [the Jew] know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, from the days even before Cain and Abel, the sacrificial system was always pointing to the final perfect sacrifice. The people were never actually redeemed by the corruptible things which they offered, but only by the blood of Christ which all those other sacrifices typified. It is sort of like writing a check for a purchase instead of using cash. The retailer accepts the check instead of cash expecting that he will be able to redeem the check for cash at a later date. Offering an animal as a sacrifice was accepted by GOD because HE knew that at some later date it would be redeemed, made good by the blood of Christ. The animal sacrifice was the sinners promissory note.
The Jews leaders of old had become very proficient at making sure the entire sacrificial service looked religious and holy. They expended tremendous effort in making sure all of their ceremonies and rituals were performed and observed in every precise detail, but too often their heart they had closed off to GOD. This was their great failing, hardheartedness. And this is where Yeshua expended the most energy, especially in the early part of His ministry when He was endeavoring to pierce that hard heart and return them to GOD's will for their lives and nation.
LUKE 18:9-14 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Time after time on occasion after occasion we read in the Gospels of how Yeshua taught that too often His fellow Jews had drifted away from the truth. They had set up for themselves a false religion and that the god which they worshipped was not the true GOD of Israel. He taught them that they were blind to the reality that they were living in sin and because they believed that they were righteous when in fact they were not, they did not realize the dyer circumstances in which they lived. They didn't have a clue that they were on the brink of disaster, the precipice of calamity.
To a great extent, this is what it means to be hard hearted. When a person is so sure they are right that they won't even consider the possibility that they might be wrong, they have a heart that is calloused over, encased in a thick covering that won't allow any truth to penetrate it. Howbeit, this is far different than when scripture tells us to guard our heart (PROVERBS 4:23). We are indeed instructed to guard our heart from every unholy influence that endeavors to turn us away from the truth, by measuring those influences by the word of GOD. But to have a hard heart is to refuse to measure, or consider, or to even search the scriptures to see if what we believe is the truth (JOHN 5:39 ACTS 17:11).
One who has a hard-heart often has a instant knee-jerk rejection to every new perspective that comes his way. Hard hearted people who are religious often have a one-verse response to any concept that might threaten their traditions. Without giving due thought to some particular concept, they just reject it out of hand. Another word for a hard heart might be a rubber-head, because fresh ideas just bounce off. Rarely do they give serious thought to a perspective new to them. Hard hearted people rarely conceive of themselves as being wrong. Thus they rarely find it necessary to repent.
This was the thrust of Yeshua's ministry, that "except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (LUKE 13:3). John the Baptist had also understood that Israel as a nation was missing completely GOD's intention of the sacrificial system. He knew that many of his brethren thought that they were saved simply because of who they were and he too endeavored to pierce that calloused covering over their hearts. Many did in fact awake to his call.
MATTHEW 3:8-12 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
One of the most interesting truths to discover from scripture is what it actually means to be baptized in holy spirit and fire. To be baptized means simply to be cleansed. To be baptized in holy spirit is to have holy spirit cleanse us. How is this done? Within the heart of our minds! This is what Yeshua alluded to when He promised His followers that "Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (ESV JOHN 14:26). Holy spirit was going to give them the ability to connect the dots, so to speak. We can have the whole Bible in our heads, but unless we can put it into application, actively in our present situation, unless it is mixed with faith, it is of no profit. On the other hand, to be baptized with fire is to have "every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit" burned away. To read a short study on this, see Baptized.
Throughout His ministry, Yeshua sought to move His people from their dead religious services to a worship of the heart, of faith, one that required a true and vital relationship with their heavenly Father. He worked to pierce their hard heart with His words of truth and His works of righteousness, so as to cause them to turn and look at themselves, within themselves, to see their own sin. Then as repentant sinners they would hopefully convert, and fully turn back to the living GOD (ACTS 3:19).
MATTHEW 5:13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Israel was the salt of the earth, they were the lights set on a hill (MATTHEW 5:14). They were a holy nation of priests (1PETER 2:9). It was all along GOD's intention that these Jews should be the ones who would teach the world the truth about HIM, but they hadn't yet learned the lesson themselves. This in a nutshell is what GOD was trying to accomplish with the ministries of Yeshua and His disciples, to turn Israel from their hardheartedness so that they themselves could then be the priests of the world. But that failing, GOD had another plan. If Israel was not going to rise up to be the people GOD had intended them to be, if they were not going to fill the shoes that HE equipped them to fill, if they were going to reject GOD's purpose for their lives, then GOD would find another people who would believe (MATTHEW 21:42-43).
LUKE 13:6-9 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
If they were to bare fruit, then well, but if not they were to be cut down like the fig tree in the parable above. Unfortunately, this stubborn and hard-hearted nation would not hear it nor have any part of it. They were perfectly content with the status quo and had no need for this new scheme of things which Yeshua was endeavoring to teach them. Their religion had served them well, so they thought, and they were not about to give up all of their traditions to the fancies of this so called prophet from the insignificant hamlet of Nazareth. What was good enough for their fathers was good enough for them. And so about half way through His ministry, Yeshua pronounced their doom.
MATTHEW 13:14-15 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross [hard], and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
Yet to the few who chose to follow His teaching, to the remnant whose hearts His words did pierce, to those who humbled themselves and did repent of their sins, who took upon them His yoke, to them He promised that they would indeed enter into His kingdom and into His rest.
MATTHEW 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
MATTHEW 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
MATTHEW 18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Throughout the book ACTS we see Yeshua's disciples also trying to reach out to Israel and pierce their hard heartedness before the dresser of his vineyard came and cut down the fruitless tree (ROMANS 11:17-21). And they even had limited success, but again it was only the remnant that answered the call (ROMANS 11:5,7).
ACTS 2:37-38 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost....40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward [perverse] generation.
But for the most part that generation was lost, and so at the end of ACTS the apostle Paul for the last time pronounced their final and ultimate doom.
ACTS 28:27-28 For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.
They could not be forgiven because they did not repent. To their eyes they had nothing to repent of. They were rubber-heads. They had been led to believe that the ceremony itself cleansed them. So today, too often Church-goers think that attending the weekly service, paying their tithes and occasionally taking Communion is somehow all that GOD requires. Even now, many in the Church full well reject the commandment of GOD that they might keep their traditions. As with Israel of old, too many in today's Church mistake religion for the true worship of GOD. It is always our hearts that GOD requires, not our sacrifices nor our offerings.
MATTHEW 15:8-9 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
They may kneel at the altar, they may sing with the choir, they may even drop a coin in the passing plate, but too often their hearts are in trivial pursuits. Too often their religiosity, their ceremonies, their offerings are in vain because they have not given their heart up to GOD. Lip service is most of what they offer, too many times.
Let us instead take upon us His yoke. Let us search the scriptures daily, and together study to show ourselves approved unto GOD, as workmen, that need not be ashamed.