God's Perfect Religion
Candles in the Darkness
When Adam and Eve took the path of independence, deciding for themselves what was “good” or “evil,” they fell. Hard. With them fell the human race’s hope for a free, unhindered, face-to-face walk with their Creator. Humanity’s little experiment with self-rule soon brought chaos and death into every aspect of existence on planet earth. As Paul later put it, “Creation was subjected to frustration…in bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20-21). Everything just fell apart.
God found Himself combating human evil continually. He took drastic measures at times just to keep the species from creating hell on earth. God scattered mankind over the entire planet, confusing their languages so that people couldn’t band together to accomplish their twisted goals. He drastically reduced the human lifespan from over 900 years to 120, so that He wouldn’t have to “put up with humans for such a long time” (Genesis 6:3). At one point God even took the most radical step imaginable: He wiped out almost the entire species, starting over with one man’s family. Still, man’s evil could only be restrained, barely—never cured.
And so we read in Genesis some of the saddest words in the Bible: “The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and He saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry He had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke His heart” (Genesis 6:5-6).
But in this darkness we find a few—a very few—shining lights.
First came Enoch. We know almost nothing about him, but we do know this: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:24).
Three generations later came Noah. He “found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” He was a “righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” When God saw that “all the people on earth had corrupted their ways,” He found in Noah a man who would “do everything exactly as God commanded him” (Genesis 6:8-9, 12, 22). Noah was the only man on earth who chose walking with God over independence from Him. When God decided to wipe the earth clean from evil and start over with one man, Noah was His choice.
Ten more generations passed. Again, the earth was full of depravity, rebellion, and idolatry. For a second time God decided to start over with one man. In keeping with His earlier promise, He refrained from sending another flood. Instead, God selected Abram to produce a new nation of people who were to be dedicated to Him and His ways. They were to exist side by side with the pagan nations, but they were not to become like them. The influence was to work in the other direction—all nations on the earth were to be blessed through them. Like Noah, Abram was a “reboot” for the human race. And like Enoch, he walked with God.
Three men. That’s all God had to work with, really, for thirteen whole generations. No wonder these “candles in the darkness” are regarded as heroes of faith to this very day (Hebrews 11:5-9).
But notice something about them: not one of the three was “religious,” as we define the term. They had no special holy places; they simply walked with God. Whenever they encountered Him in some exceptional way, they might stop and build an altar to offer Him a sacrifice. But then they moved on. There was no “attending” or “revisiting” the altar. What’s more, they had no religious calendars or designated holy days, as far as we know. Every day fit into a life of worship and obedience. And they had no priests or holy men standing between them and God. The lone exception is Abraham’s brief encounter with the mysterious Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God Most High, who blessed him and gave him bread and wine. But that was a single, unexpected meeting. There is no record of Abraham, “the friend of God,” using the services of a priest at any other time in his long life.
On the whole, these three shining lights had a relationship with God remarkably outside the religious norm of holy place, holy time, and holy man. They were doing their best to live a “Garden of Eden” life in a tragically fallen world.
The Perfect Religion
But God had a plan. Three men were not enough to satisfy His intent for creation. That’s why He had told His friend Abraham, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” And He had added:
You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth…After four generations your descendants will return. (Genesis 15:13-14,16)
That is exactly how it worked out, of course. After four centuries, Abraham’s descendents had grown into a huge nation. Through Moses and Aaron, God delivered them from their oppression. He marched them through a stormy sea and over a burning desert towards the Promised Land. Then He had them stop at a mountain so that He could do something very surprising.
God gave them a religion.
Up until then, God had stayed out of the religion business. While most of mankind had been devotedly worshiping their idolatrous impersonations of Him, bowing down in their “holy” buildings on their “holy” days with “holy” men leading them in the approved rituals, God had simply looked on in silence. He was satisfied, it seemed, with a few simple, down-to-earth men who were brave enough and humble enough to be His friends. Had that all changed?
Not really. For His own purposes, God now chose to work within fallen humanity’s frame of reference by giving them the perfect religion and challenging a people to approach Him that way. His religion took the special place-time-man pattern to a radically higher level.
Holy place. During the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, God ordered them to construct a special holy tent. Later, after the nation had established itself in the Promised Land, God selected a city, Jerusalem, for a more permanent structure.
The basic plan was the same for both the tent and the temple. Both were rectangular structures divided by a curtain into two rooms. The larger space was called, appropriately enough, the Holy Place. In it were three pieces of furniture set aside for God’s use: a lampstand with seven branches, a table for daily offerings of special bread, and an altar for burning incense to God. Behind the curtain was an even more sacred compartment, the Most Holy Place. In it was only one object: a gold-covered box signifying God’s presence and His agreement, or “covenant,” with the Israelites.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the tabernacle—and later, the temple—to “God’s perfect religion.” The structure was the only approved place for the Israelites to offer their sacrifices to God. It was the required destination for faithful Israelites during the three special festival weeks. Most importantly, it represented the physical location for the presence of an infinite God among His people.
Holy times. God’s calendar set aside special days, weeks, and years, each one of them rich with meaning. Every month, when the night skies announced that the moon was beginning its cycle again, they held a “new moon festival.” Special sacrifices, including a sin offering, marked the observance. Each week concluded with another holy day, the Sabbath. It had been on the seventh day that God rested from His work of creation; it was on the seventh day that each Israelite was to rest from his or her work, too. Servants, slaves, even oxen and donkeys were to enjoy a break from their labors.
Then there were three special weeks every year. The Passover, held each spring, commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery. It culminated in each household with a feast featuring a roasted lamb, reminding the Israelites of a very special sacrifice that had quite literally saved their lives when they were delivered from slavery. As spring ripened into summer, the Feast of Weeks was observed. It marked the time when God gave His religion to the Israelites and also celebrated the early grain harvest each year. During the autumn of the year came the special Day of Atonement, centering on the themes of repentance and sacrifice. It was followed by the week-long Feast of Booths, during which the Israelites were to “camp” in temporary huts to commemorate the forty years in which God had cared for their ancestors’ needs in the desert.
Finally there were entire years that were designated as especially holy. Each seventh year was itself a Sabbath. The Israelites were to allow their fields and vineyards to rest from their work and eat only what the land produced on its own. And each fiftieth year was declared to be a year of Jubilee. All debts were canceled. All property reverted to its original owner. All slaves were set free.
There is much more we could say about the special times set aside in God’s religion. But it should be obvious, at least, that the Israelites had continual opportunities to contemplate the deep things of God and to thank Him for His history of kindness towards their people.
Holy man. Israel was to be a holy nation. But within Israel there was a certain holy tribe, the descendents of Abraham’s great-grandson, Levi. God chose the Levites for His service as representatives of the entire nation. During the days of the tabernacle, the Levites and only the Levites were allowed to touch or move the tent and its furnishings. If anyone else even approached the holy things, he or she was to be put to death. After the temple was built, the Levites were placed in charge of its work. Some prepared the holy bread; others led special songs and praises. Regardless, service to God was their life.
Within the Levite tribe was an even more select group, the descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron. They and only they could serve as priests. It was their job to offer all sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of the nation. The priests stood in the place of the entire nation through all of the required ritual.
Finally, there was within the priestly family the most select holy man of all—the High Priest. He was the only human being allowed behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place, and he only went there once a year—on the Day of Atonement. Waving a smoking censer of incense, the priest sprinkled blood in front of the gold-covered box, the “Ark of the Covenant.” Through this act he secured forgiveness, first for his own sin and then for the sin of the entire nation.
We could go on for hours describing the intricacy and beauty of “God’s perfect religion.” Nothing was without meaning, from the furnishings of the temple to the tassels on the priest’s robe. God had truly taken religion—with its holy places, times, and men—to a level unequaled before or since. Over the centuries since the fall, very few men had walked with Him. But God had found a way to reveal to man deep insights into His character and mind through His religion.
Would it make a difference? Would man even care?
A Hard Lesson
How did the Jews do with this God-given religion? What was their experience, their testimony? It was a crucial test, not only for the Jews, but for us. If people are given a perfect religion, can they successfully approach God through it?
God’s religion was in effect for roughly thirteen centuries between Moses and Jesus. During that entire period, we can only find a very few who transcended both their environment and their limitations and drew near to God through faith. Phinehas, Samuel, David, Elijah, Elisha, and a handful of other kings and prophets lived their lives with a faith that still stirs us today (Hebrews 11). All of them did their best to obey God’s laws and follow the commands of His religion.
But even for these men and women, was it really the religion that drew them close? David, though he loved the law, learned more of God’s faithfulness on the lonely hillsides of Bethlehem than he ever did by attending a Sabbath service (1 Samuel 17:34-37). Phinehas, though a priest, atoned for more sins with a spear than he ever did with a burnt offering (Numbers 25:1-13). And Elijah’s most powerful sacrifice was offered on a mountain in Samaria, not in a temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 18:30-39). Still, it is true that a few did find God within the scope of His religion during those long years.
But it is also true that the huge majority failed catastrophically.
What of God’s holy place? Solomon constructed a magnificent one, the Jerusalem temple. But in spite of its beauty and deep significance to their faith, most Israelites ignored it, or worse.
In blatant disobedience to God’s command that sacrifices were only to be offered at the temple, most people continued to offer them at their own shrines. The phrase, “the high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there,” appears in the records of five different kings of Judah. And those were the good kings! Sometimes the worship of pagan gods was mingled with the worship of Yahweh in those “high places.” The temple, stripped of its gold and bronze repeatedly to pay off foreign kings and invading armies, eventually became as decrepit as an abandoned warehouse or a closed-down factory. One of the latter kings of Judah, Manasseh, erected altars to foreign idols in the temple itself and even sacrificed his own son on one of them. No wonder God allowed the Babylonians to burn the temple to the ground.
What of God’s holy days and weeks and years? The Israelites began breaking the Sabbath almost as soon as God declared it holy (Numbers 15:32-36). They forgot to observe the Passover celebration—with all its rich meaning—from the moment they entered the Promised Land. It wasn’t celebrated again until the reign of Josiah, the twentieth of Judah’s twenty-four kings. And the year of Jubilee? As far as we know, the Israelites never observed it. In 1300 years, they had 26 opportunities, but missed them all.
And what of God’s holy men, the priests and Levites? They were to be a special tribe within Israel—and a special family within that tribe—chosen to represent the entire nation to God. But when the kingdom split early in Israel’s history, the first ruler of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, changed all that. He wanted to give the Jerusalem temple, located in the southern kingdom, some competition, in hopes that his people would stop traveling south for the feasts and holidays. So Jeroboam fabricated two golden calves and set them up in two cities in the north. Then he “built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites” (1 Kings 12:31). This counterfeit priesthood and its imitation ritual was abhorrent to God (1 Kings 13).
In the kingdom of Judah, the “special men” were still the Levites, as God had commanded. But the spiritual condition of these men was scarcely better than their northern counterparts. As God Himself said, “The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know Me; the leaders rebelled against Me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols” (Isaiah 2:8).
These priests had the right genetics, perhaps, but not the right heart.
Again God rebuked them: “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way” (Jeremiah 5:30-31). And again: “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:13-14).
The religious failure of Israel was a devastating catastrophe, far exceeding in the spiritual realm the damage from any natural disaster in the physical realm. Despite a beautiful and deeply meaningful system of holy times, places, and people, Israel as a nation utterly failed to draw near to God in faith.
Would you have done any better? Would I?
God’s religion didn’t fail; fallen humanity failed, and in so doing proved forever that holy place-time-man religion would never succeed. If God’s perfect religion wasn’t enough, what makes us think that any religion could be?
So what was God doing? Why had He even bothered instituting His religion at all? There are at least two reasons.
God’s first objective was to teach man a lesson. Since the Garden, humans had wanted to believe that they were capable of choosing between good and evil. They wanted to think of themselves as capable, smart, and moral. God knew otherwise. To help our species get that point, God decided to give us an objective standard to judge ourselves by.
As Paul put it, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law…In order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful” (Romans 7:7,12). God wanted honest people to admit to themselves that they could never be “good.” He wanted them to understand that they would never be able to approach Him through rule-keeping and rituals. He wanted to make them desperate for another way.
God’s second objective was also to educate man, but in a more positive sense. God had placed a “subliminal message” within His religion. The details of the special times, special places, and special people foreshadowed something Higher, Truer, more Real. His “perfect religion” was merely a shadow, but there was a Reality coming. The fulfillment of so much, from the Passover lamb to the Sabbath rest, was just around the corner. The promise of a new covenant shone like a beacon lighting the way to a better future.
A New Beginning
Israel was in shambles. In a short time, the temple—what was left of it—would be burned to the ground by the invading Babylonians. The sacrifices and holidays and feasts would come to a screeching halt. The priests and prophets would be marched under guard to settle in a foreign country—if they survived the invasion at all.
Right at this moment, just when it seemed that His religion was at its lowest ebb, God breathed out a promise. It was as if a fresh, fragrant breeze blew out of Eden for just a moment, ruffling man’s hair and reminding him of what he had lost—and what he might actually regain.
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God was willing to make a new beginning. The Israelites stayed in exile for 70 years, allowing the land to catch up on the Sabbath rests it had missed over the centuries. Finally God allowed them to return, rebuild the temple, and start up their religious observances again. But God was waiting patiently until just the right moment to make His promised new covenant with mankind. This time, He wouldn’t entrust the job to a go-between. He wouldn’t use a prophet or priest—or even an angel.
This time, God would show up in Person and do the job Himself.