In a recent book, Dan Kimball surveys the attitudes of non-Christians towards Christianity and finds, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. What do they like about Jesus? Alicia, a 24 years old biologist, says, “Jesus, to me, is an all-loving, perfect, prophetic person.” Duggan, a 30 year old coffee shop manager says, “Jesus was a great teacher. A caregiver. A carpenter. A human being. Approachable. He was the everyday man who lived among others and understood the trials and tribulations of what it takes to put food on the table. … Jesus was a voice of peace and hope and an inspiration to many people.”
They like this Jesus, but not the church that goes by his name. They see it very differently. In interviews throughout the book they speak of the church using words like control and manipulation, judgmentalism and hypocrisy, politics and power. They make reference to Christians they know, and to famous Christians in the news, and to many examples in history of Christians behaving in un-Christlike ways, including the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Inquisition.
When we look over two thousand years of history—or even our own life experience—we must admit that we, too, can find plenty of evidence to support those negative impressions. I want to focus on the historical examples that these non-Christians refer to, because they come up so often and because they are so far removed from the teaching of Jesus. Our petty hypocrisies are one thing—killing in the name of Jesus is something else entirely. How could this have happened? The earliest Christians did a good job of following the teaching and example of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who spoke of loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. What went wrong? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it?
I recently watched a documentary, “Constantine’s Sword,” that explores this question. It’s based on James Carroll’s book of the same name. Carroll argues the church started departing from the non-violent example of Jesus in the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. Overnight the church went from being persecuted to being favored. A key moment was the day Constantine was preparing to cross the Milvian bridge to take his legions into Rome and claim the throne. He said he had a vision. He said he saw a cross, and below it, the Latin words, “In hoc signo vinces”—“In this sign conquer.”
The cross, Carroll says, became Constantine’s sword; church and state merged. In the centuries that followed Christians went quickly down a slippery slope—they went from being against violence, to excusing occasional violence in self-defense, to promoting violence as a means of spreading the Gospel. In the year 1095 Pope Urban II called Christian knights to embark on the First Crusade to free Jerusalem from Muslim hands. Some wondered why they had to go all the way to the Holy Land to kill unbelievers when they had them in their midst—and in towns scattered across Germany and France Jews became a convenient target.
Other enemies were found close to home. In 1208 a crusade was declared against heretics in Southern France, the Albigensians. To make sure the heresy was completely eradicated, the Inquisition was established to question suspects. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV said they could use torture if they thought it helpful. Those who were found guilty could be burned at the stake—and hundreds were.
This linking of spiritual and secular power is not just something of the distant past, however. It continued into the 20th century. Carroll points to the Concordat signed between the Vatican and Nazi Germany in 1933, which gave the Catholic church special privileges while causing Catholics to temper their criticism of the Nazis. The tragic result was the silence of Catholic leaders in the face of the death of 6,000,000 Jews.
Giving special privileges to churches wasn’t unique to Germany. It has happened even in our own country, on a more informal level. In cities and towns throughout the country, when priests were accused of abusing children and teens, police and prosecutors frequently didn’t want to embarrass the church, and so let bishops handle it—they did so by moving perpetrators from place to place, while berating and shaming those who complained.
Is it any wonder people say they like Jesus, but they don’t like what Christians have done in his name? I don’t like it either! And I don’t like the fact that we are held responsible for things we had no part in. I take comfort from the fact that God has promised that he will take care of it, but I’m impatient. Like the souls under the altar in the book of Revelation, I want to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” But I know he will act. I think of something Thomas Jefferson said. That great advocate of liberty was also a slaveholder, and he was well aware of the contradictions in his own life and teachings. He said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.” God will have the last word. Judgment is coming.
Judgment is coming not only to the world that rejects Jesus, and slaps him, and spits in his face—judgment is coming as well to the people of God who have misrepresented him before the world and denied him … and betrayed him with a kiss. And that’s where I have to stop and wonder, am I among them? Have I done or said things that have kept people from embracing his salvation? And I, like Jefferson, tremble.
There’s a day in the Jewish calendar devoted to reflecting on this theme of judgment—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the climax of the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar is blown, warning of coming judgment—warning God’s people to prepare—calling them to repent of their sins, and to stand in silence and prayer ten days later, the Day of Atonement, when God will judge his people.
It started in the sanctuary in the wilderness. Through the year, when someone sinned in ignorance, they would offer a sin offering to the Lord, as we read in Leviticus 4. The blood would be applied to the horns of the altar of burn offering—or, in certain cases, taken into the sanctuary itself. If it was a priest or the whole people who sinned, they would offer a bull. They would take the bull, lay a hand on it, and then kill it. The priest would take its blood into the sanctuary, and sprinkle it on the ground before the veil, and then smear it on the horns of the altar of incense. The sin would be removed from the priest, or the people, in this way, and transferred to the sanctuary.
On the Day of Atonement the sanctuary would be cleansed from the sins transferred to it throughout the year. The high priest would offer a bull for a sin offering for himself and a ram as a burnt offering. He would take two goats, choose one them by lot, and kill it as a sin offering for the people. Then he would enter the most holy place, first with incense, then with the blood of the bull for himself, then with the blood of the goat for the people, which he would sprinkle within the veil, before the ark of the covenant.
Leviticus 16, starting with verse 11:
And Aaron shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself: And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the LORD, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not: And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: 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.
Then he would sprinkle the blood on the horns of the altar of incense in the outer room, reversing his steps, covering his tracks, as it were, as he brought the sins out of the sanctuary.
When he was finished, they brought to him the other goat—the goat that was not killed, and that would not be killed. It was not to be a sacrifice. It had another role:
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
Here we see the full picture. The work on this day was to remove the sins of the people from the sanctuary, to separate them from the people, sending them away into the wilderness.
And if they were to be removed completely from the people, the cleansing of the sanctuary couldn’t be just about the building. The ritual must ultimately be about cleansing the people, removing sin from their hearts. So they were not mere spectators to this drama. They, too, had a role to play. Verse 29:
And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It shall be a Sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever.
It was the day of judgment. They stood before the Lord. They had confessed their sins through the year and offered sacrifice; through its blood their sins had been transferred to the sanctuary. The question now was this: Would they demonstrate their faithfulness to the God who had forgiven them? Would they let him cleanse them fully from it?
Jews today don’t have a temple, and so can’t do the full ritual. But they hear the story and they still place themselves before God’s judgment. The ritual book they follow is called the Mahzor; an edition of it that I have comments on this point:
[Repentance for the past, even forgiveness of the past by God] falls short of … purity, because the person himself has not changed—yet. …There still remain the impurities built up over a lifetime, the cumulative effect of exposure to the common culture, assimilation into society, daily encounters with the cynical media, less-than-scrupulous clients, customers, and associates, the perceived need to laugh, cheer, and lambaste together with comrades and colleagues. So even after we have repented and won atonement, we are tempted by the old sins.
Even forgiven, we need something more. We need cleansing. We need a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26).
This talk of ancient ritual and sacrifice may seem strange to us today. It may seem far from the problem I raised at the beginning. But isn’t this the reality we know all too well? We’ve confessed our sins, we’ve been forgiven, but we know we still sin. We know we still cherish some of those sins. And if we hold such hypocrisy in our own hearts, why should we be surprised that the church of Christ through the ages is comprised of saints and sinners, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, and foolish and wise? We can’t point fingers—we can only cry out, “Have mercy, O Lord! Forgive my sins. Cleanse my heart.”
The book of Hebrews tells us there are lessons in the sanctuary for Christians. We read in Hebrews 9:11-14:
But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
The sacrifices of the Levitical system, as many and varied as they were, represented Christ’s one sacrifice of himself on the cross of Calvary. But after Calvary he still had a work to do, and the earthly sanctuary provided a model, or a type, of this. He entered the heavenly sanctuary through the veil of his flesh, says Hebrew 10:20, consecrating for us a new and living way of access to God. This echoes the language of Numbers 7, where Moses enters the sanctuary for the first time to inaugurate it—to get its work going.
What has Jesus been doing? We read in Hebrews 4:14-16:
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
Since his ascension, Jesus has been ministering as our high priest in the heavenly sanctuary. Unlike the high priest of old, he doesn’t need a sacrifice for himself, because he is sinless. Unlike the high priest of old, he doesn’t get replaced, because he lives for ever. Unlike the high priest of old, he doesn’t take an animal’s blood, but his own, ever lifting up his one and eternal sacrifice to the Father.
And this, Paul says, gives us assurance. Because Jesus is there on our behalf, we have hope that our prayers are heard. Because Jesus is there, we have assurance of access to the presence of God. Because Jesus is there, we may enter with boldness, knowing we will find mercy and grace.
But something remains. Hebrews 9:27-28:
And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.
Judgment remains—and his return in glory. We long for his return, but we’re not so sure about this judgment. Yet the shofar is sounding for us: it’s coming. We can’t avoid it. The Scripture tells us, prepare. It was future in Paul’s day, but Biblical prophecy tells us we are now in the day of judgment. We are now in the Day of Atonement. Since the end of the 2300 days prophesied in Daniel 8, Christ is now engaged in that special work represented by what the high priest did on the Day of Atonement when the sanctuary and the temple were standing.
What does all this mean for us today? As the people of Israel were warned to prepare in advance of the Day of Atonement, the Day of Judgment, by putting away sin, Paul exhorts us to do the same, as we read in Hebrews 10. He paints a beautiful portrait of the confidence we may have; urges us to follow Christ, and to accept his cleansing—for judgment is coming, he warns, and it will start with those claiming the name of Christ.
Hebrews 10, starting with v. 19 (ESV)
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Paul warns of a day of judgment, yet future in his time, that will separate the righteous, who remain faithful to God, from the hypocrites, the willful sinners, those who trample the Son of God under foot, and despise his blood and the Spirit of grace. All those through history who have committed crimes in the name of Jesus. All those who cause the world to shudder when it hears the name of “Christian.”
But he says we don’t need to worry about them: God will do it. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” says the Lord. God tells us this repeatedly through Scripture. He tells us not to go about the task of trying to tear out the weeds—he will do it (Matt 13:29). He will depose the man of sin who sits in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2). He will overthrow beastly powers that persecute the saints (Daniel 7). He will cleanse the sanctuary that has been trampled down by the little horn (Daniel 8).
That’s good news, as John says in Revelation 14:6-7,
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come
The coming of the judgment is good news—it is gospel. God will have the last word. He will end his long silence. He will deal with those who have done evil in his name, whose deeds have kept so many from hearing the message of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And at the same time he gives this promise of the coming overthrow of those who have proven false, he shows us what he wants to remain. He tells us of a woman, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1). She is the church, the bride of Christ, adorned for her husband. Paul writes to the Ephesians (5:25-27):
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
In effect, he wants the church to look more like Jesus, who was “holy, harmless, and undefiled” (Heb. 7:26). And he will accomplish this, too.
And that brings me back to where I started. Dan Kimball says that’s what unbelievers really wish the church were like ….not just a sermon, or a building, but a community of faith growing together in love through fellowship and service; not worried about adhering to an order of service, but lifting up genuine prayer and worship to God; not condemning sinners, but loving them and interceding for them.
God is calling us to be that spotless bride, whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 22:14). He wants to refine us like silver, and try us like gold (Zech 13:9). He wants us to be “securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard” (Col 1:23). And so he invites us to enter into the sanctuary by faith, as our High Priest intercedes.
There’s not a new standard for us, not a new condition, not a new hurdle—what God asks for he has already provided, the blood of the Lamb. “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10), but “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). And so we don’t have to fret and fear and worry about what will happen when our name comes up in judgment—it’s already there, for he says, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa 49:16).
Come, and enter in. Turn in faith to him. Let him wash you in his cleansing blood. Lift up your heads to heaven, where he intercedes now for you, in the confidence that the hymn writer Charles Wesley had when he penned these words,
Arise, my soul, arise. Shake off thy guilty fears.
The bleeding sacrifice In my behalf appears.
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.
He ever lives above For me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love, His precious blood to plead.
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
The Father hears Him pray, His dear anointed one;
He cannot turn away The presence of His Son:
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me I am born of God.
My God is reconciled; His pard’ning voice I hear.
He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And, “Father, Abba, Father”, cry.