atonement

The Deepest Kind of Riches

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.

I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Some churches seem to have everything. And yet, when they forget one thing, trouble ensues.

In writing to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul began with a joyful, thankful tone. And he was right to do so. Many blessings had fallen on the Christians in Corinth, even as they lived in the midst of a cosmopolitan economic hub full of competing ideas about religions and morality.

In particular, Paul noted, the Christian Corinthians had received “spiritual gifts,”  a subject he discussed in greater detail later in the letter, in the part we mark as chapter 12. There, we learn he meant specific abilities given to Christians by God’s Holy Spirit so we can better serve Christ’s kingdom. Paul specifically mentioned gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and languages. Like most of Paul’s lists, this one was not meant to be exhaustive; instead, he was just highlighting some key abilities any Christian community would value.

In chapter 12, he was also quick to point out that no one Christian has all the gifts—this was in part to emphasize their need to work together. For you see, the Christians in Corinth had a basic problem. They were not working together, and often for the silliest of reasons.

Within the church, the Corinthian Christians had developed what we might call personality cults. One group would claim, “I follow this person,” while another would say, “No, I prefer to follow this guy.”

Paul himself was perceived as one of these factional leaders, even though he did not want to be one. There also was a Christian leader named Apollos, known for his eloquent preaching. Some claimed allegiance to “Peter,” presumably the Apostle Peter, and others took the high road, saying they followed Christ.

Paul’s solution was to point these Christians back to their core reason for existing. Focus, he told them, on one thing: the Good News, what he also described as “the message of the cross.”

The world around them likely would find the message foolish, he warned them. But preach it, teach it, and live it just the same, he was saying, for it is a special kind of foolishness, one designed to unravel what the world calls wisdom.

We are much like the Corinthians, living in a world where many ideas come together, and where we have access to almost anything we want, assuming we can afford it. This extravangance can be distracting, and certainly, we can be driven into factions, even within churches.

But can we not all agree on one thing—why we gather as Christians? We gather because of Jesus Christ and how he has revealed himself on the cross.

I have wondered if some people struggle with building their lives around “one thing” because they’re afraid they will somehow get bored. If that is so, it is unlikely they have truly explored the idea of Christ and the cross.

Most religions have mysteries to be explored, ideas that confound and obsess their deepest followers. These ideas require meditation and prayer to explore, and through that experience, the follower is changed. Zen riddles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?) come to mind.

Christ’s work on the cross is our riddle, our mystery to explore. The problem is we have come to take it for granted—we have let the strangeness and the mystery of it all slip away.

In American culture, we are too quick to explain it. Often, we talk about the cross in terms of transferred punishment, with the Son of God absorbing what was meant for us. It is certainly one good way to understand the cross, but if you really take time to explore that idea, it does have its weaknesses. So God’s not satisfied until the one he calls “Son” is horribly abused and killed?

Over the centuries, other theories have been put forth. Was Christ essentially the payment of ransom to Satan, who held us captive because of sin? Did Jesus come to replay the role of Adam, providing a sort of “do over” for humanity? Did Jesus enter the realm of death so he could battle and defeat evil, winning the truly ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship?

I have particularly enjoyed studying how views of the cross change with each culture. When the Japanese began to hear of Christ, most of the European views of how the cross worked did not resonate with them. But being in a culture where shame was the worst thing that could happen to you, Japanese Christians understood the cross in terms of Christ absorbing the shame we all share for sin.

It seems as if looking at the cross in so many ways could in itself be divisive. But however it works, the cross is an act of love, a unifying love that makes no sense. It is the act of an infinitely strong God choosing to love weak, broken beings so much that he would do anything to save them.

It also results in unyielding hope. In death, even shameful, horrible death, there is resurrection! Out of such nastiness comes eternal joy and bliss!

The truest, deepest kind of riches are to be found in the Good News. Understanding this becomes our great motivation as Christians and as the church. It is only reasonable and natural we share this truth with others, not only as an idea, but in action, as we draw on our richness of spirit to help others.

And in the process, as we preach the cross, teach the cross, meditate on the cross, and continue to live the message of the cross every day, we of course find unity and strength.

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Wholly Thine

Usually when we talk about Old Testament sacrifices, we end up exploring how they are precursors to Jesus’ death on the cross. His is the ultimate, all-atoning sacrifice, covering sins for all time.

The kind of sacrifice we see described in Leviticus 1:1-9, what we sometimes call “the whole burnt offering,” takes us there, but in a roundabout way. Like the other sacrifices described in Leviticus, it is an ancient practice, a Bronze Age ritual filled with blood and fire. The only similar experience we might have today involves smell—at some point in the process, that bull on the altar must have given off an aroma like steaks on a grill.

The point of the whole burnt offering still resonates today, though. For the one making the offering, it was an act of deep commitment.

Note again what was required to make this offering: an unblemished bull, what today would be a prize winner at the county fair. (People also could bring a male sheep or goat, or if they were poor, a bird. We’re going to focus on the bull today, however.) Such a well-formed beast usually represented years of careful breeding, hard work and what we might call a little luck.

The bull was valuable, not just for what it represented on the hoof, but more for what it represented in offspring for years to come. Bred with the right cows, it could make its owner and his family comfortable, well-off or even wealthy. With such a bull roaming his fields, a man might feel a little more secure in his future.

Instead of leaving it to do what bulls do, however, the owner chose instead to take this prize bull and have it turned into ashes and smoke. Unlike the other types of offerings, there was not the opportunity for the owner or even the priests to consume any of the meat. The priests were entitled to the skin only.

When the time came, the owner would stand before the bull and lay his hands upon the animal’s head. There must have been a sobering moment when the owner could feel the life in the animal, its pulsing, its twitching, perhaps its nervousness at the strangeness of the surroundings. Then, if the ritual were performed as it was typically done throughout history, the owner would slaughter the animal himself, cutting its windpipe and esophagus quickly and deeply with a very large, sharp knife.

Blood would have flown, of course, with the priests catching it and flinging it against the altar. The bull, so alive in one moment, would have buckled and fallen before the owner who had fed it and tended it with such care. It would then be cut up and burned according to the prescriptive details we find in Leviticus.

Certainly, it was an act of atonement, but the whole burnt offering was different from the sin offerings in one particular way. It was far less about blood and much more about establishing a right relationship with God. Or think of it this way: It was less about what a person had done and more about how a person intended to live.

First, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, the bull was intended as a gift to God. It was turned to smoke as much as possible because that is how Bronze Age Israelites perceived offerings going to God, by way of smoke, up into the heavens. A gift was a formal expression of a desire for solidarity, or even friendship.

Second, it was an act of dependency. The one making the offering was saying, “God, I need you more than I need this bull. God, I trust you more than I trust in my own ability as a breeder,” or whatever other occupation might make a person well-off enough to own such an animal.

And despite the seeming primitiveness of the whole burnt offering, we should be able to connect with what was happening in the heart of the worshiper when such a sacrifice occurred.

In fact, it is easier for us to reach that place where we no longer stand in cringing fear of God because of sin. God has made it easier. We simply claim Christ as our own, and the claim sin has on us vanishes. Through Christ, the path to a loving relationship with God has been made clear and simple.

What remains for us is a response to the gift of eternal life we’ve been given. What kind of gifts do we give to the one who has done so much for us already? How do we acknowledge our dependency?

Perhaps we need to determine what our bull in the field is. What might we have bred and grown for our own security, and how might we release that to God, demonstrating our trust in him?

For each person, the answer will be different. The question is well worth considering, however, particularly when so much ministry in the world is needed.