Approaching the Throne of Grace

numUnder the Old Covenant, the covenant community had to stay away from God. He lived in their midst, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. He dwelt in the inner compartment, the Holy of Holies. Yet, only certain chosen men had very limited and prescribed access to Him:

  • Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year (Leviticus 16).
  • Only the Levites could enter into the outer compartment to trim the lamps, arrange the bread of the presence, and perform other duties

The rest of the community could not enter at all. In fact, they were commanded to stay away from the tabernacle altogether:

Numbers 18:22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

Think about this. Under the Old Covenant, God was kept at arms-length. He lived among His chosen people, but could not be approached directly. He made Himself known through intermediaries. Yahweh was personally unapproachable. A believer could not dare to even approach Him in His dwelling-place.

We could draw a whole lot of implications here, but one thing is particularly clear – God is holy, and in our sinful and criminal state, we are not fit to approach Him. Under the temporary arrangements of the Old Covenant, God’s people had to come to Him through intermediaries, expressing their thankfulness, love, repentance and worship through a series of sacrificial offerings, via an ordained priesthood.

Is this the way it was meant to be forever? Being promised certain death if you dared to draw near to God in reverent worship? Being kept at arms-length by God Almighty? Only offering praise, thanksgiving, repentance and worship through an intermediary? Not at all! Today, all who are “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1), who have repented and believed the Gospel, enjoy the blessings of Jesus’ superior ministry, based on a better covenant complete with better promises.

What a change from this dire warning

Numbers 18:22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

to this glorious exhortation?

Hebrews 4:14-16 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.

Instead of being warned to stay far away from Yahweh, Christians are now commanded to confidently approach the very throne of grace! Figuratively speaking, Christians are invited to march right up to the heavenly tabernacle, walk right through the first compartment, fling the veil to the Holy of Holies aside, and kneel before the very mercy seat on the ark of the covenant itself. There is no need for a censer of incense to mask yourself from the divine presence. There is no command to “stay back!” Instead, there is a warm invitation to “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.”

The New Covenant is better. The New Covenant is what the object lessons of the Old were always pointing to. The New Covenant is ours now, and will be Israel’s later. Perhaps now, this bit from the Book of Hebrews begins to make a little more sense:

Hebrews 10:19-22: Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated 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 sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.

If you have repented of your sins and believed the Gospel message, then you will join the angels in heaven as they sing praises to Jesus the Christ. If you continue in criminal rebellion against Him, Jesus will break you with His iron scepter and smash you like a potter’s jar (cf. Ps 2:9). I pray you’ll join God’s family, so you, too, can have access to the throne of grace to find mercy and help in time of need.

Moses on Divorce

jailWhat does the Pentateuch say about divorce? Not a whole lot, really; but what it does say is particularly relevant for Jesus Christ’s own discussion from the New Testament. He quoted this passage. That tells us He believes the Old Testament is authoritative and binding. It also gives us some important insight into God’s own view of marriage. But, that is a topic for some other post. Today, we’ll simply look at what Moses wrote on the subject. Here it is:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (Deut 24:1-4)

Because I really like bullet-point lists, I’ll outline the passage thus:

  • A man has married a woman
  • She does not find or obtain favor in her husband’s eyes, because of some indecency or uncleanness
  • He may write her a bill of divorce and legally terminate the marriage
  • She will then be expelled from his household
  • She is then free to marry once again
  • If either . . .
    • her new husband despises her and divorces her, or
    • he dies while they’re still married,
      • she may not re-marry the first husband
  • The overarching point seems to be that re-marriage to the original husband is not permissible under any circumstances

The real puzzle here is what on earth this “uncleanness” is that makes a divorce permissible! Now, we certainly aren’t the first people to mull this very question over in our heads. The Jewish Pharisees asked Jesus Christ this question, attempting to back Him into a corner:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? (Matthew 19:3)

There were two dominant schools of thought on what, exactly, this “uncleanness” in a wife meant. One group of people believed it referred to gross sexual immorality and indecency, but falling short of adultery. The other group believed this was a broad category for all sorts of real and imagined offenses, such as cooking a meal incorrectly! What does the term mean?

William Tyndale went with uncleanness, with the sense of impurity and unholiness. The KJV imported Tyndale right in, and it also has uncleanness. The NKJV, unsurprisingly, kept uncleanness also. The NASB, however, rendered it indecency. So did the ESV. The NET used something offensive in her. The ISV chose objectionable, as did the LEB. Interestingly, the LEB includes a footnote which further explains the sense is something shameful or repulsive.

The LXX reads ὅτι εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα. The key word here is the adjective ἄσχημον, which means something shameful, unpresentable, indecent, or unmentionable. For example, when Shechem sexually assaulted Jacob’s daughter, the Bible says he had “done a disgraceful thing,” (Gen 34:8, NASB). It sometimes has specific reference to genitalia, the unmentionable and indecent part of one’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12:23; BDAG, s.v. “1235 ἀσχήμων”).

So, what does all this mean? The sense seems to be that a divorce was permitted under Mosaic Law if the wife had done something sexually immoral and indecent. This sexual indecency probably does not rise to the level of outright adultery, because the Law proscribed the death penalty for this act. So, the sexual immorality was something less than adultery, but it was plainly unseemly, outrageous, and beyond the pale of holiness and moral purity.

Messiah Himself gave credence to this viewpoint when He responded to the Pharisees:

They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matthew 19:7-9)

So, we can tentatively conclude that the Mosaic Law only allowed divorce if the wife was engaged in sexual inappropriate, indecent, morally impure and unholy behavior. Of course, this was never intended to be a blank check or a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card to escape from a bad marriage. But, a good understanding of these four verses will ground Christians to better grasp Jesus’ own teaching in the New Testament.

The Slayer and the Avenger

Cities of refuge were a safe haven for someone who killed another accidentally

Christians need to pay more attention to the Old Testament. There is something particularly wicked about ignoring 75% of God’s inspired, sacred and preserved Word. My brethren, these things ought not so to be! To that end, I will be posting a few occasional observations from the Pentateuch for the foreseeable future; a topic which I’m certain will not generate a great deal of excitement! I’ll begin with some brief comments on the “cities of refuge.”

When the LORD thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the LORD thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses; Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither (Deuteronomy 19:1-3)

These are the infamous “cities of refuge,” which God commanded His people to establish once they crossed the Jordan River and completed their conquest of Canaan.

You can see that Moses commanded these cities be places where “every slayer may flee thither.” In this quaint phrase, we have the genesis of the modern category of “manslaughter.” When you compare different English translations, you get a good sense of how people have tried to communicate the nuance. William Tyndale, the ingenious linguist and father of English Bible translations, went with “murder.” The KJV, obviously, chose “slayer,” which is essentially the very same thing. NKJV, NASB and ESV each go with “manslayer.” The NET rendered it “one who kills another person.” The LXX[1] has the word φονευτῇ, which means killer or murderer.

At first bluish, it seems this passage (along with Numbers 35:6-14) establishes a divinely sanctioned projection zone for murderers! This doesn’t sound very appropriate; why would God do such a thing? Moses tells us . . .

And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past (Deuteronomy 19:4)

Who, exactly, is a “slayer?” The Bible is quite clear that a “slayer” is somebody who kills a fellow covenant brother or sister[2] The key word here is “ignorantly,” which was imported straight from Tyndale. Other translations render this as unintentionally (NKJV, ESV, NASB, LEB), unwittingly (ISV) or, perhaps better, accidently (NET). The sense is that this killing was not premeditated; the victim cannot be somebody “whom he hated in time past.”

The human imagination has been dark and cruel since the fall, and surely Moses (and God!) could imagine a scenario where a bitter feud might turn deadly. God also knows full well that accidents happen in this cursed world; and that is the distinction in this passage. A man should not be put to death for accidently killing somebody else. This is precisely what is behind the modern legal distinctions between murder and involuntary manslaughter. Moses goes on to give a simple example to help the Israelites get the point:

As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live: Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past (Deuteronomy 19:5-6)

You can easily imagine just this kind of scenario taking place. A man chops wood. His hand is sweaty, his grip slack, his mind and body dulled with fatigue. He’s not being careful. He raises the ax to smite an offending tree trunk, loses his grip, and the ax head buries itself in his companion’s skull. The man dies. This is the kind of scenario God has in mind.

Naturally, the victim’s family will be out for blood. If necessary, the man can flee to one of these cities of refuge for sanctuary. If he does not, he may well be killed by a relative out for revenge. Why are these cities of refuge even necessary? Because the man does not deserve to die; “he was not worthy of death.” He did not conceive, plan and execute a cold-blooded murder. He did not hate his fellow and want him dead. It was an accident.

This is an excellent example of how God instituted common-sense and practical laws which would allow His people to govern themselves as best they could in this “present, evil world” (Galatians 1:4) while serving the Lord (cf. Deut 6:4-5). This basic distinction is a key component of our modern legal system.

[1] The LXX, or Septuagint, is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew which dates from perhaps 200 B.C. and was the Bible the early church, including Jesus Christ, used and quoted from.

[2] See Numbers 35:15. This command covers more than just ethnic Israelites; it encompassed all covenant members of the Israelite nation. This means (a) Israelites, (b) foreign-born proselytes, and (c) a sojourner, a resident alien, or what the New Testament calls “god-fearers.” It is important to realize that the Mosaic Law and the Sinai Covenant which ratified it was never intended for simply ethnic Israelites. It was intended for all covenant people who came to saving faith in God and the promise of His coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Incidentally, Moses just prophesied about Messiah in the previous chapter in this very book (Deut 18:5ff)!