Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 3, Number 52, December 24 to December 30, 2001



by Rev. Russell B. Smith

Are you familiar with Macbeth, Shakespeare's famous play set in Scotland? Witches promise the brave and mighty warrior, Macbeth, that he would someday be king of Scotland. When he shares this foretelling with his wife, she goads him into murdering the king, and thus seizing the throne. On the night of the murder, Macbeth is seized with guilt and shame. He wonders if even the water of the oceans would wash away the blood. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, appears cold and calloused. She says of the murder "A little water clears away this deed. How easy it is then!" In contrast to her husband, she seems to have no guilt. However, near the end of the play, we see Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep, imagining that her hands are stained with blood and she cannot get the spots out. She wrings her hands and curses, but the imaginary bloodstains don't go away. She who seemed so strong and conscienceless in the end was overcome with guilt.

In the character of Lady Macbeth, the play teaches that no one can escape the feelings of guilt that come with the bad things they've done. Most of us, either consciously or unconsciously, struggle with guilt. We might cover it up and express it in different ways. Some people dread getting mail or phone calls because they secretly fear the news that somehow, in some way, they have done something wrong. Others try to mask guilt by achievement; if they could only do a good enough job or be a good enough spouse or volunteer enough, then that will cover up the guilt that they fear. Still others seek to drown out the guilt in busyness. When they are still, they are anxious and nervous, fidgety and ready to go, often because they cannot stand the inner confrontation that stillness brings. Even others in our country cover guilt with numbness. They consume enough alcohol or pursue enough pleasure or just sleep enough so that they don't have to feel guilt, or anything else for that matter. Many people use a combination of all of these methods so they don't have to feel so guilty about how they escape their guilt.

Why is it that guilt gnaws at so many? What is it that haunts us at night? It is the guilt that comes from turning from God's will to follow our own will. In my other sermon from Deuteronomy 18, we saw how God gave a prophet as a mediator who proclaims God's will and calls people to obedience. However, any violation of God's law is a transgression that must be paid for. And no one has escaped violating God's law. It's all over the Scriptures. Psalm 14:2-3 says, "The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." The point is that every single one of us, even Christians who love God, violates God's law. This is hard for most of us to hear because most of us like to think we're pretty good people. As Tim Keller said (quoting Jack Miller), "Cheer up, you're a lot worse than you think you are!" Put simply, the reason why many of us struggle with guilt is because we're guilty.

Now if that were the whole story, then there'd be no hope. But if we're worse than we think we are, then God is a lot more gracious than we imagined he could be. Violations of God's law ultimately entail death. God graciously provided a means for taking care of the violations of His law. He provided a way to pay the price — God established the sacrificial law and provided priests to administer this law. The blood of the sacrifices substituted for the blood of the lawbreakers. Hebrews 9:19-22 makes this point clear. In essence, the priests were the sin-cleansers.

Deuteronomy 18:1-8 falls in the middle of two chapters of Deuteronomy that spell out the three types of mediators under the Older Covenant. Interestingly, this passage does not talk about the work of a priest -- it simply says that the priests and Levites are to minister before the Lord. What is interesting here is that rather than talking about the functions of the priests, this passage talks about how Israel is to provide for the priests. They will have no inheritance, no land to themselves, but they will live off the offerings of the people. God thought it so important that the priests, the sin-cleansers, be provided for that in this section of the Law he sets them apart from the rest of Israel so they can concentrate on their work.

What is that work to which they were called? First and foremost, they represented God to God's people. They were teachers of Scripture. They received sacrifices and offerings and accepted them in the name of God. They even performed the sacrifices for the people. But just as importantly, they represented the people to God. Through their prayers, the burning of incense, the priests brought the people's concerns before God. The most picturesque example is the Day of Atonement. This was the day where the High Priest would make a sacrifice to cover the sins of the whole nation. On that day, the high priest would enter the room in the temple that contained the Ark of the Covenant. This room was called the Holy of Holies and was considered the throne room of God. In this room was the Ark of the Covenant that held the fragments of the Ten Commandments. The high priest would sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant with the blood and pray for the forgiveness of the sins of the nation. Now think of the picture. God in his throne room looks down and sees the Ten Commandments — the core standard for judgment of the people, but over top of the Ten Commandments is the blood signifying that the judgment against the people has already been paid. Of what does this illustrate but the intercessory work of the priest between God and his people?

The problem was, like all human mediators, the priests were sinful themselves. They began to neglect their job and lord their authority over the people. Isaiah 28:7-10 gives us a picture of how far the priests degenerated. "And these also stagger from wine and reel from beer: Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions. All the tables are covered with vomit and there is not a spot without filth. "Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast? For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there."" The priests, or some of them at least, began to concentrate on piling up power for themselves, indulging themselves, while tying burdens on the backs of the people. This is the kind of abuse that sparked the protestant reformation. When Martin Luther traveled to Rome, he saw the opulence of city and staggering wealth that the Renaissance Popes had amassed — and he knew that much of it had been done on the backs of the German peasantry.

That is why there was a need for a perfect priest. All the blood shed in the Old Testament looked forward to the perfect priest who would make sacrifice once and for all. That is precisely what Christ did. The whole book of Hebrews spells out how Christ functions as our high priest, and we don't have anywhere near enough time to mine the riches of that imagery, consider that Hebrews 9:26b-28 teaches that Christ, who is fully man, and is thus able to be our priest, is also fully God and his self sacrifice is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world, past, present and future. So, it was a one-time offering that covered all the sins of the faithful. Christ is High Priest and the sacrifice all rolled up into one. Additionally, Christ, our high priest, sits in God's throne room and makes intercession for us. Hebrews 9:12, 24 shows that Christ has gone into the real throne room and there he makes intercession for us. He prays for us. I want you to think about that. Because of your faith in Christ, your sins past present and future have been paid for. And because of your faith in Christ, you have a representative before God's throne who pleads your case.

Remember I mentioned that towards the end of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth becomes so guilty, that her husband thinks her ill. Macbeth asks her doctor how she's doing. Here's the dialogue "How does your patient, doctor?" "Not so sick, my lord, as she is troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from her rest." "Cure her of that! Canst though not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?" "Therein the patient must minister to herself" Macbeth wants to know — isn't there some way you can cleanse her of her guilt? Isn't there a drug or a slick technique to cleanse the heart? "Therein the patient must minister to herself." I propose to you that Shakespeare got it partially right. He was right that there's no drug or quick fix that we can provide to take care of guilt. He was right that it comes down to a personal decision on the part of the guilty party. He leaves out that the ministry to oneself is to submit to the perfect priest.

Take your guilt. Take the burdens that you bear. Take the things that keep you up at night. Take the images that haunt you from your past and the things you done this week. Hesitate not one moment and take them to the High Priest. I promise you, he'll take away the guilt. He won't erase the past, but he'll take away the guilt. And if you go to him, the surprise is that he won't be angry.