Atonement: Is it from Mt. Sinai or Mt. Moriah?

Dear Child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The calendar of the Jewish year gives great weight to Mt. Sinai. The Law, which was received there, is central to the cycle, from the simplest shabbat to the Awesome Days of Yom Kippur. It is always before us. There is continual reason for Rejoicing in the Law, Simcha Torah.

So it should be, for through the Law, our Creator revealed Himself to us. Yet, because of this revelation, there is also ample reason to tremble at the Law. This is evident from the very means by which it was transmitted to us. When God came down upon Mt. Sinai, it was a place of awe for those in the valley. They had come unto a "mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire... blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words, which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. For they could not endure that which was commanded; And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it should be stoned, or thrust through with a spear. And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, 'I exceeding fear and quake.'" (Hebrews 12:18-21; see Exodus 19).

God, in His unapproachable glory, came near... too near. In His light, man was exposed in his incorrigible waywardness. Who would not tremble?

At the mountain top, the finger of God engraved His Words in stone. While down below, the people fashioned a god from gold and rose up to rejoice in the works of their own hands. The precious Torah lay shattered at Moses' feet before it ever entered the camp. On that day, because of sin, 3,000 men of Israel perished by sword... more succumbed to the plague that followed.

God and His Law are not to be trifled with.

"You shall keep my statutes, and my ordinances,
which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD." [Leviticus 18:5]
"Cursed be he who continues not in all the words of this Law to do them." [Deuteronomy 27:26]
The Law is meant for life. But there is death in disobedience.

Is it not frightening to think that we are made of the same stuff as our forefathers? Even before they heard the Law, they presumed they could keep it: "All that the LORD says, we will do." [Exodus 19:8]
But God knew them better than that. He confided to Moses:
"Oh, that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep my commandments always...". [Deuteronomy 5:29]

In the words of the Psalmist: "The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." [Psalm 14:2,3]

Who am I to take exception to His assessment? Adam, who received just one commandment (and that, directly from His Creator), failed to keep it. The children of Israel broke the Law, while the mountain still trembled with God's presence. How can we, who stand farther off, think to satisfy the ten (not to mention the 613) commandments? Who among us can claim to perfectly keep even the first and great commandment?: "Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all they might." [Deuteronomy 6:5]

Doesn't the Law of Sinai demonstrate how far God is above us? Isn't our foolishness and rebellion silhouetted darkly against the brightness of His glory and holiness? Isn't He justified when His wrath burns hot against us? Are we not guilty before Him?
The Law demands: "Be ye holy, as I am Holy." But we cannot comply.
We stand before Him in awful need of atonement.

If this is so, then how could Abraham be called a "friend of God?" Is the test of Mt. Moriah, which predates that of Mt. Sinai, less stringent? How could Abraham's faith be counted to him for righteousness prior to the Law? [Genesis 15:5,6]

God had made large promises to Abraham, things entirely outside of Abraham's grasp: "A land," while Abraham was a mere sojourner, dwelling in no certain place... "A great nation," while Abraham had no seed... Abraham believed and waited for the provision of the One who said, "I will do it." At age 100, long past the age of child bearing, he waited still. From all appearances, all hope was gone.

Then, God opened Sarah's womb. Isaac, whose name means "laughter," was the joy and rejoicing of Abraham's heart. For him, God's promises were bound up in this son. Here was an heir to the land, a progenitor for the nation, a beginning of the blessing to all nations.

It is not hard to imagine that Abraham's heart became obsessed with this boy. Perhaps unconsciously, he had begun to offer God something less than all his heart. Again, God asked for all. "Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering..." [Genesis 22:2]

As the heavy hearted father set out to obey, the promises again seemed distant. Once again they were dependent upon the provision of God alone. What must have raced through his mind, at his son's inquiry: "My father, here is the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" All he could say was, "My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering." [Genesis 22:7,8]

But what that meant, he could not say. Abraham plodded steadily on to accomplish the appointed task. The wood was laid. The sacrifice was bound to the altar. The knife was raised for the slaughter... It was his place to obey. But even in perfect obedience, his hand could restore neither his son, nor the promises that must perish with him. Abraham found himself with power only to cut-off, but not to complete God's purposes.

Then, in His mercy, God did provide! The ram, caught in the thicket by his horns, became the substitute for Isaac in death, and for Abraham in sorrow. By its death, the ram reunited Abraham with his son, and with the promises. "Abraham called the name of that place: 'The LORD will provide': as it is said to this day, 'In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen [or, it will be provided].'" [Genesis 22:14]

Then the Lord spoke to Abraham and said, "By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore, and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice." [Genesis 22:16-18]

Who is the active agent in this promise to Abraham? It is the One who swore: "By myself... I will bless... I will multiply..." In contrast, the active agents to Mt. Sinai's Law are those who said, "All that the LORD has spoken, we will do."

As we have previously seen, God's Law is perfect, but we are not. While the Law exalts the Lord for who He is, it also marks our downfall. We cannot measure up to His standards. If we are to be accepted before Him, He must intervene on our behalf.

His provision of atonement is the subject of large sections of the Torah. An Israelite who took seriously the consequences of his sin ("The soul that sins, it shall die." [Ezekiel 18:4]), would bring his sin offering to the Temple. There, he would lay his hand upon the animal's head as it was slain, thus identifying in its death. The lamb became his substitute, bearing his sin and its sentence. Then, "the priest shall make an atonement for his sin, and it shall be forgiven him."
This formula, for forgiveness of sin, is prescribed over and over again in the book of Leviticus... always in the context of blood sacrifice. Without the shedding of blood there was no remission for sin. For, "it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul." [Leviticus 17:11]

None of us can afford to pay this price with our own blood. The price precludes any possible benefit. But can the blood of animals really remove a man's guilt? What court of law would accept the death of a murderer's pet terrier as payment for his crime? No, the countless Temple sacrifices, like the sacrifice that set Isaac free, all look to the Lord to provide a Redeemer. God promised Abraham: "In thy seed all nations of the earth shall be blessed." This "seed" (in context, singular, not plural) refers to the individual known elsewhere as the Messiah, the Anointed One. He is described later as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." [John 1:29].

"He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." [Isaiah 53:5,6].

The Lamb, provided by God, has been offered for us upon Mt. Moriah.
For the LORD "spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all..." [Romans 8:32]
But have you claimed Him as your substitute upon the altar?

Sincerely,
A friend

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