Most of us remember when the grace of God first reached our hearts. We were troubled about our sins which had put us at such a distance from God, and the great questions that exercised us were these: How can our sins be put away? How can we be freed from this sense of guilt? How can we ever feel at home with God when we know we have so grievously trespassed against Him and so wantonly violated His holy law? We shall never forget, many of us, how we were brought to see that what we could never do ourselves, God had done for us through the work of our Lord Jesus on the cross. We remember when we sang with exultation:
"All my iniquities on Him were laid,
All my indebtedness by Him was paid,
All who believe on Him, the Lord hath said,
Have everlasting life."
This is the truth of the trespass offering, in which sin assumes the aspect of a debt needing to be discharged.
But as we went on we began to get a little higher view of the work of the cross. We saw that sin was not only a debt requiring settlement, but that it was something which in itself was defiling and unclean, something that rendered us utterly unfit for companionship with God, the infinitely Holy One. And little by little the Spirit of God opened up another aspect of the atonement and we say that our blessed Lord not only made expiation for all our guiltiness but for all our defilement too. "For God hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." It was a wondrous moment in the history of our souls when we saw that we were saved eternally, and made fit for God's presence because the Holy One had become the great sin offering, was made sin for us on Calvary's cross.
But there were other lessons we had to learn. We soon saw that because of their sins men are at enmity with God, that there could be no communion with God until a righteous basis for fellowship was procured. Something had to take place before God and man could meet together in perfect enjoyment and happy complacency. And thus we began to enter into the peace offering aspect of the work of Christ. We saw that it was God's desire to bring us into fellowship with Himself, and this could only be as redeemed sinners who had been reconciled to God through the death of our Lord Jesus.
As we learned to value more the work the Saviour did, we found ourselves increasingly occupied with the Person who did that work. In the beginning it was the value of the blood that gave us peace in regard to our sin, but after we went on we learned to enjoy Him for what He is in Himself. And this is the meal offering; for it is here that we see Christ in all His perfection, God and Man in one glorious Person, and our hearts become ravished with His beauty and we feed with delight upon Himself.
We can understand now what the poetess meant when she sang:
"They speak to me of music rare,
Of anthems soft and low,
Of harps, and viols, and angel-choirs,
All these I can forego;
But the music of the Shepherd's voice
That won my wayward heart
Is the only strain I ever heard
With which I cannot part."
"For, ah, the Master is so fair,
His smile's so sweet to banished men
That they who meet Him unaware
Can never rest on Earth again.
And they who see Him risen afar
At God's right hand, to welcome them,
Forgetful are of home and land,
Desiring fair Jerusalem."
To the cold formalist all this seems mystical and extravagant, but to the true lover of Christ it is the soberest reality.
And now there remains one other aspect of the Person and work of our Lord to be considered, and it is this which is set forth in the burnt offering. As the years went on some of us began to apprehend, feebly at first, and then perhaps in more glorious fulness, something that in the beginning had never even dawned upon our souls, through the work of Christ upon the cross there was something in that work of tremendous importance which meant even more to God than the salvation of sinners.
He created man for His own glory. The catechism is right when it tells us that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." But, alas, nowhere had any man been found who had not dishonored God in some way. The charge that Daniel brought against Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, was true of us all: "The God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified." God must find a man in this world who would fully glorify Him in all things. He had been so terribly dishonored down here; He had been so continually misrepresented by the first man to whom He had committed lordship over the earth, and by all his descendants, that it was necessary that some man should be found who would live in this scene wholly to His glory. God's character must be vindicated; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, was the only one who could do that. And in His perfect obedience unto death we see that which fully meets all the requirements of the divine nature and glorifies God completely in the scene where He had been so sadly misrepresented. This is the burnt offering aspect of the Cross. By means of that cross more glory accrued to God than He had ever lost by the fall. So that we may say that even if not one sinner had ever been saved through the sacrifice of our Lord upon the tree, yet God had been fully glorified in respect of sin, and no stain could be imputed to His character, nor could any question ever be raised through all eternity as to His abhorrence of sin and His delight in holiness.
So in the book of Leviticus the burnt offering comes first, for it is that which is more precious to God and should therefore be most precious to us.
Lectures on the Levitical Offerings
Jim's comments: This book is interesting, although some of the attempts to read Jesus back into the Levitical offerings seem pretty contrived to me. But this larger summary really spoke to me. I've always struggled with the parts of the Old Testament that detail sacrifices or genealogies -- I suspect many people do -- and this troubles me because we are told to reflect upon them, and that this will be a rewarding experience. This book goes a long way towards helping me in this regard.
The penultimate paragraph is also interesting because it has some relevance to the "O Felix Culpa" defense of the problem of evil, which Alvin Plantinga has stated is his favorite resolution. The idea here is that the best possible worlds would be those which include incarnation and atonement, that is, God entering into his creation and atoning for the sins of the world. These would be the best worlds because those worlds would reveal more of the depth of God's love. Possible worlds in which no one ever sinned could certainly display God's love, but not on the level that a world including incarnation and atonement would.
But of course a world with incarnation and atonement requires sin and evil, otherwise there would be nothing to atone for. In fact, the greater the sin and evil, the greater that world will reveal the depth of God's love in atoning for it. So the greatest possible worlds would be those with a great deal of sin and evil. Ironside goes further and says that even if no one ever accepts God's atonement, God would still do it because his nature requires sin to be atoned for.