The Work of Christ 5 / Reconciliation
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation...
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
One of the Bible’s great aids to our understanding the work of Jesus is the Tabernacle, and the structures of worship that composed its life. It is assumed throughout Scripture that the sacrifices routinely offered at the Tabernacle chart the Cross of Christ; and when people want to explain the death of Jesus, they simply evoke the language of Leviticus (see e.g. Rom.8:3). These sacrifices mark the road that a sinful humanity must walk if it would be reconciled to God.
Obviously enough, the first step on such a pilgrimage is the Burnt Offering (Lev.1:1-17, though the order taken here reflects 6:1-7:21). As we begin our journey home the first thing we confront is the fire of the altar. To proceed is to be consumed. And so, an offering is provided that symbolically bears our sin (Lev.1:4, see also Heb.10:4), that goes into the fire in our place, and that endures our destruction. ‘It will’, the worshipper is told, ‘be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you’. Here is the purpose and reason for sacrifice: Atonement. It is a word invented by the great Bible translator, William Tyndale early in the 16th Century: ‘At-one-ment’ - this is how we will be reconciled to the Lord. This burnt offering was the foundation on which all other offerings were to be made.
Then the Grain Offering (or as it is known in Lev.2:2, the memorial portion), a ‘memorial’ of the firstfruits (Lev.2:12). Moses gives us the liturgy of this offering in Deut.26, as the ancient Church remembered God’s goodness, His deliverance, and their commitment to live according to His Law (Dt.26:13) - which is where things rang hollow. Could any Christian in any age have said, ‘I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them’. The memory of our obligation, and thus of our failure, marks the way of reconciliation. It is an acknowledgement that we have sinned (and that we need the righteousness of another). Interestingly, the old Scottish preacher-theologian, Andrew Bonar speaks of this confession not only as a remembering of sin, but as a longing to be different. It is, he says, ‘[t]he offering of myself to the future service of God’.
We are, perhaps, most familiar with the Sin Offering. Here is the problem that is dealt with at the heart of sacrifice. It is our sin that separates us from God and renders us vulnerable to His holiness. Sin is a complex and all pervasive reality - internal and external, legal and relational. I need to be acquitted and cleansed. But again, it is a substitute that is exposed, that is given over to death, the wages of my sin. The relational impact of that sin is captured in the Guilt Offering, which has a deeply social aspect (see e.g. Lev.6:4). My sin is never just between me and God - it has consequences for others. Restitution must be made as sin is dealt with. Its effects must be restored, as we put right the consequences of our sin. Bonar again, ‘The desire to put things right with other people is the surest proof that things have been put right with God’ (see e.g. Zacchaeus, Lk.19:1-10).
Which brings us at last to the Fellowship Offering (or Peace Offering). Having walked the road of these offerings, the archetypal worshipper was now reconciled to the LORD. There is no legal obligation to celebrate the Peace Offering - it was a ‘free will offering’, enjoyed simply because the worshipper longed to celebrate the restoring of fellowship with God. A feast, delighting in God’s grace with family and friends, God’s presence represented by the priest.
All five offerings teach us inalienable truth about what must be done to forge our reconciliation. Christ on the cross is our burnt offering, consumed in the fury of God’s judgement; …our Grain Offering, perfectly dedicated to the Father; …our Sin Offering, cleansing us from the many-faceted reality of sin; our Guilt Offering, paying our debt to God and one another; …our Peace Offering, restoring fellowship and fashioning our intimacy with the Father and our joy in His presence. Each captures an aspect of the mechanics of the cross as we are shown not just that Christ reconciled us to God, but also how.
In what sense do you think Christ was forsaken by God, and in what sense (if any) was He not (see Matt.27:46)? Why is it important to understand this saying correctly?
What do you think the Bible means when it talks of ‘alienation’? Does alienation from God bring freedom?
If God wants to forgive, why doesn’t He just do so?
Read II Cor.5:11-6:2
What does it mean to fear the Lord (5:11)? How does that inspire and sustain Paul’s ministry of reconciliation?
How would you respond to someone who said that they weren’t, in fact, compelled by Christ’s love to engage in the ministry of reconciliation (5:14)?
In what sense can Paul say that ‘Christ died for all’ (5:14-15)? Does that mean that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God?
In what sense can Paul talk about us having died (v.14)? What does it mean for us to ‘no longer live for [our]selves, but for Him…’ (v.15)? How can we encourage one another in this?
If the Corinthians are already reconciled to God, why does Paul implore them: ‘Be reconciled to God’ (5:20)?
What does it mean for us to become, in Christ, the righteousness of God (5:21)?
What would it mean to ‘receive God’s grace in vain’ (6:1)? How would you recognise this problem in a Christian? What is Paul’s remedy?
How does reading Is.49:5-9 shape your understanding of what Paul is II Cor.6:2, where he quotes Is.49:8? (reading Luke 2:29-32 might help).
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
For further reflection:
Reflecting on Heb.9:(esp. v.23) reminds us that the Tabernacle and its Gospel-ministry was ‘a copy of the heavenly things’ (see our series on Leviticus: mie.org.uk). The Levitical sacrifices are what they are because they are modelled on the cross. Reconciliation proves a more complex process than we often realise.
This raises questions about our own forgiveness and the restoration of relationships. Not only is the work of our being reconciled to God far more extensive than we thought, but it shapes our dealing with one another. What must happen before we can forgive and be forgiven, and so be reconciled to each other? Sin is the issue, and sin must be dealt with before reconciliation can take place. We can’t just shrug it off and say, ‘It doesn’t matter’. For there to be forgiveness, the penalty of sin must be paid; the confession of sin made; repentance entered into; the consequences of sin alleviated; a different future committed to (see e.g. Lk. 17:3-4, note that repentance is a condition of forgiving another Christian). All sin (even sin against us) is at its most fundamental sin against God (Ps.51:4). Any forgiveness we offer, any reconciliation we embark on, can therefore only occur within the context of the deeper satisfaction and reconciliation with God through the cross.
This isn’t to say there is nothing we can do when those who aren’t Christians sin against us. We can determine not to be defined by their sin; to trust God to deal with the impact on us (Rom.12:17-21); to not to allow their sin to shape my own behaviour toward them (I Tim.6:11), and perhaps most profoundly, we can pray that the Father would forgive them, that they would become a Christian, so that we can forgive them too (Lk.23:34).