Every evening, every morning, throughout the centuries of Old Testament worship, the smoke of sacrifices coiled upward from the Tabernacle and later from the Temple. Every year the man of Israel, the priest of his home, would select from his flock the finest male lamb to offer to the Lord as a sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Since it was the man's sins that required atonement, under the guidance of the priest, the man would slay the lamb himself. When the instructions for offering these sacrifices to the Lord are given in Leviticus a strange statement is made repeatedly. "It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD" (Lev 1:9 NIV). Does our God enjoy the smell of burning flesh and hair, of grain and oil? Since God is spirit (John 4:24) the smells of the material world, so unavoidable to us, do not register in his awareness as they do in ours. What was the spiritual aroma that pleased him when an Old Testament worshiper put the knife to the lamb or lifted the grain and waved before the Lord? Jesus made it clear that true worship emanates from the heart; to worship the Father who is spirit, we must enter the realm of the Spirit and do so in truth. Under the New Covenant our animals are safe from the knife and altar. The New Testament sacrifice is the sacrifice of praise. It is putting the knife to our own pride and self-reliance.
The fundamental biblical image of worship is that of the sacrifice. In the Old Testament the record is clear. Unnamed animals died to provide the covering of Adam and Eve's sin-revealed nakedness. Murder in the first family of earth entered the world through a heart that was not right, its error revealed by an improper sacrifice. Animals in Noah's ark included in their number not just pairs for repopulating the earth, but sets of sacrificial animals to mark the deliverance of mankind and the animal kingdom from the floods of God's wrath. Abraham told his servants to wait while He and Isaac went some distance away to worship. He was talking about putting the knife to his only son at God's command. The whole relationship of God with Israel was predicated upon constant sacrifices, day and night and with the great seasonal feasts throughout the year. King Saul lost his Kingdom through an unlawful and rebellious "sacrifice." King David was chosen to be king in Saul's place because his heart was right. Later in life, David refused to offer a sacrifice on ground given to him with these words, "I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing" (2 Sam 24:24 NIV).
In the New Testament, Mary of Bethany offered to Jesus a costly sacrifice of praise when she lavished her most prized possession on the Lord. She won His highest commendations, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me" (Matt 26:10 NIV). "She did what she could" (Mark 14:8 NIV). He also connected the preaching of the undiluted Word of God with this costly sacrifice of praise. "I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her"(Mark 14:8-9 NIV).
In Mark's gospel Jesus also said this, "She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial." The meaning of Jesus' death is that of the final sacrificial lamb. His is not the story of a young man tragically struck down by society; it is the story of a willing, perfect sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews explains that, like the material veil torn in the Temple at the moment of His death, Jesus' body was the spiritual veil torn to open the way for a fallen mankind to enter the presence of a Holy God (Hebrews 10:19-25). Paul exalted this costly sacrifice as the example for us in worship. "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself ... He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:4-9 NASU, Italics mine). The aroma God loves is the spiritual scent of hearts being emptied before Him, the self-inflicted wounding of our human pride. As the Psalmist said, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Ps 51:17).
Romans 12:1,2 presents powerful promises to the one who would offer his humanity to the Lord as a living sacrifice. The destructive patterns of life in a fallen world will be broken. The worshiper's mind will be renewed and he will prove the fullness of God's will. Somehow this meager presentation of our fallen, wounded selves, this voluntary lifting up of our hearts, hands and voices to Him in worship, is pleasing to God. Surely this is the "aroma pleasing to the Lord" Moses tells us about. No wonder Paul pleads with the Romans to enter into this sacrifice of praise. It is a reasonable thing to do.
The writer to the Hebrews exalts the Sacrifice of Praise to the pinnacle of his exposition of the New Covenant. "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (Heb 13:15-16). This is more than the event described in Romans 12; this is a continual offering, a life-process like breathing. The attitude of praise (gratitude, humility) should be as consistent as respiration, a constant intake of heaven's atmosphere into our earthbound spirits. This will result in the fruit of our lips confessing His name and the fruit of our lives as we "do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." This is the "aroma pleasing to the Lord."
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