Every year I am invited to give a talk on Easter to a group of English students at a local university. In the past I have focused on proofs of the resurrection. This time, however, I decided to approach the subject from a different angle, talking about the significance of Easter. What follows is a summary of that talk.
To understand Easter, one must go back to the beginning of the Old Testament. Beginning in Genesis 3, two key concepts take over the biblical narrative: separation and death. Immediately upon sinning we find that their communion with God has been severed (separation), and the first thing God does is kill an animal (death). God then kicks our first parents out of the Garden of Eden (separation), and in the following narrative their son Cain kills their son Abel (death). From that moment on humanity is stalked by these twin specters of separation and death.
Many examples could be drawn from the Old Testament to illustrate this, but perhaps none is so explicit as that of the system of worship God established for his people Israel following the Exodus from Egypt. There in the wilderness, when God handed down the rules for the service of the Tabernacle, separation and death were at the forefront. Here are but three examples:
A Meal Nobody Is Allowed Eat
In Leviticus 24:5-9 we find this injunction:
And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake. And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the Lord. And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the Lord. Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the Lord continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be Aaron’s and his sons’; and they shall eat it in the holy place: for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the Lord made by fire by a perpetual statute.
Many meanings are ascribed to the “shewbread”, or “bread of communion”, as it is commonly called, and most or all may have a legitimate place. But I would like to draw attention to what appears to me to be an overlooked possibility.
In the ancient near east, breaking bread with someone was a sign of friendship and close fellowship. And here we have bread being placed on the table…and left there for a week. Nobody could eat it until the end of the week, and then only the priests could eat it. Remember that there are specifically twelve loaves, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel. But in the end, only one tribe gets to take part, the tribe of the Levites. This seems to evoke a powerful symbolism: God is saying “I have set out a meal that was intended for you, but you can’t have it. Your sin keeps you from fellowship with Me.”
So during the entirety of the Old Testament times, the meal is set out, and nobody partakes. Except for once.
A Beautiful Thing Nobody Is Allowed See
Jewish worship was to revolve around one object, which represented the presence of Yahweh Himself: the Ark of the Covenant. And, from the description given, it was a truly beautiful piece of furniture.
And yet, throughout the many centuries of the history of Old Testament Israel, a minuscule percentage of the population of the nation actually got to lay their eyes upon it. Why? Because of this:
And thou shalt hang up the vail under the taches, that thou mayest bring in thither within the vail the ark of the testimony: and the vail shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy. (Exodus 26:33)
The most holy artifact in Jewish worship – the one that indicated the presence of God – was obscured from view.
Innocent Lambs Who Are Not Allowed to Live
Then we get to the actual acts of worship – animal sacrifice. Lots of animal sacrifice. Literally hundreds of animals being slaughtered on a daily basis. Blood everywhere. The air is constantly filled with the pathetic bleating, mooing, screeching of the dying, and the stench of the dead. It is not pretty. Not at all like the artwork that accompanied our Sunday School lessons portrayed it.
And this continued for roughly 2,000 years.
But Then Everything Changed…
One day a prophet named John is walking and talking with his disciples, when they spot another man a distance away. Without warning, John lifts his finger and exclaims,
…Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
To a group of Jewish men, calling a person “Lamb of God” must be mind-blowing. Lambs that took away sin…well…they see those every time they go to the tabernacle. And those Lambs always die.
Is he saying…?
Later on, this “Lamb of God”, Jesus of Nazareth, is walking and talking with His disciples, and they have a run-in with a group of religious leaders about their eating grain on the Sabbath. In rebuking them Jesus makes allusion to the bread of fellowship, and mentions how King David had eaten it and given it to his friends.
Can it be…?
Less than three years later this same Jesus hangs, cruelly nailed to a Roman cross. He struggles for every painful breath, until struggle is no longer physically possible. Lifting Himself up for one final gasp, he cries out “It is finished!”
Finished? What’s finished? That’s a cry of victory…odd thing to hear from Someone nailed to a cross with common criminals.
The scene moves from the cross, across a small valley, up a ridge, through a city gate, winding around narrow streets, up a majestic stairway, through two heavy doors, to the front of the temple – to the curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.
The attending priest is petrified, as both his incense and his jaw hit the floor. The curtain – that thick veil which has separated sinful man from the presence of a Holy God since the days of Moses – rips from top to bottom.
That which separates has been separated, and there is no more separation.
That following Sunday morning a group of Roman soldiers are on guard against the remote possibility that Jesus’ followers might try to steal the body. While they are concentrated on a supposed (and ludicrous) threat from without, they have no idea that something much more interesting is happening within the tomb.
Suddenly a burst of light renders all of them unconscious. The heavy stone at the front of the tomb rolls open, and Jesus steps out, having finally conquered something far greater than the Roman Empire (although He eventually conquers that too): He has conquered Death itself.
That which kills has been killed, so that it may kill no more.
Fast forward 2,000 years.
This Sunday millions of Christians will meet in churches all over the world. No animals will die. No curtains will separate the believers from their sanctuary. And as we remember the resurrection and fellowship together around the bread, we will rejoice in the separation of the separator, and the killing of death.
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