The destruction of the Temple that David wrote about has many Christians wondering, so what do Jewish people do about sin, since there are no Temple sacrifices for atonement? In fact, that’s one of the most frequently asked questions we hear at churches where we are privileged to speak.
Various answers have been offered, but none really satisfy the conditions of Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” So where does that leave us?
Well, the truth is, most Jewish people are like most other people in the world. Sin is not considered a particularly relevant issue. It’s not that Jewish people believe they are perfect. It’s that most do not know what sin is, or what it does.
Most people I meet don’t see what they’d count as a little indiscretion here or there as a big deal in this life, much less a threat to their eternal destiny—a destiny by the way, in which few people I meet have invested much thought or planning.
I’m afraid that many people, including Jewish people, think that Christians conceive of God as somewhat neurotic in His perfectionism, unable to handle the slightest deviation, subject to some kind of spiritual OCD that He wants to impose on otherwise healthy people. Interestingly, this is the other side of the coin that Igor Shelest wrote about when describing conversations with people who are angry with God for all the evil in the world.
Can you see the trap that so many people fall into? Why believe in a God who judges their wrongs, which after all, seem very minimal compared to other people’s . . . yet why believe in a God who allows so much evil and suffering? If God would only agree with people about what is sin and what isn’t, which sins need to be judged, and which can slide by, I’m sure that He’d be quite popular. It’s just that He wouldn’t be God.
Here’s what I’ve learned about sin, and maybe you know it but have never expressed it to others. Sin is anything that undermines God’s rightful place in our lives. God’s righteousness isn’t about Him being picky. It’s about Him being God.
One day I was talking to my friend J. about my need to forgive others because I know that God has forgiven me of my sin. She asked exactly what sin I was talking about. As far as she’s concerned, I’m a fairly good person. I explained that I sin, just like she and everyone else does, by everything I think, do or say that tells God I don’t want His interference in my life. She nodded.
“Remember, J., how I keep saying that if we want a relationship with God, it has to be on His terms? And how you’ve let me know that when you hear those words, something in your gut just twists?”
“That twist you feel in your gut is what all human beings feel about the place God wants and deserves in our lives. That twist is the basis of all sin. We reject the idea that God knows and wants what is best for us, that He is the true measure of what is right and good and what ought to be, regardless of what we might want.”
When we understand and explain sin that way—rather than zeroing in on certain behaviors that others, not we, are guilty of—suddenly everyone is confronted by their own sinful attitude toward God. Yes, some will try to wriggle out of it by saying that people only think they know what God says or requires, and that religion is a man-made set of rule and regulations. But make it theoretical—without any specific examples of what sin is or isn’t—and people who are ready to be genuine with you will admit that, at best, they have mixed feelings about wanting to know God if He’s going to tell them anything that might conflict with their own plans or desires.
That is what the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, every one to his own way.” “Our own way” is not going to achieve reconciliation with the God we have cut ourselves loose from. Even if our way includes wonderful acts of philanthropy, it can’t reverse the spiritual insubordination that has ripped us apart from God. Our ability to connect with God has bled out from that wound. It takes the blood of Another who was wounded on our behalf to reconnect us to God.
Back to the question of what Jewish people do about their sin in the absence of the Temple sacrifices. Many simply don’t realize it’s an issue. Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to share your own story and make it clear that sin is not merely a matter of bad deeds; it’s an outlook and a way of life, the twist in our gut over God’s rightful role. Transparency about our own sin is one of the best ways to help other people understand the problem. And sharing our joy in knowing God is one of the best ways to help people long for the solution. But that’s another article.