Most of react strongly when accused of doing wrong. 'Stop trying to make me feel guilty!' is what street-wise adolescents say to parents. 'I hate when you do that - you just want to make me feel bad!' is another claim that is made. Old people, children, husbands, wives, teachers and charities can be experts at using emotion to manipulate.
Feelings of guilt are why many avoid church. It's a reason why backslidden Christians refuse to dust bibles off the shelf. We dislike feeling shifty! We squirm when conscience is loaded down! I certainly don't want to burden an already hyper-sensitive soul, but, with the help of Leviticus 5, I hope to drive away any foggy confusion you may still have about guilt.
Leviticus 5 deals with the 'ASHAM' or guilt-offering. There is sacrificial provision made for various persons in a number of different cases (5.1-13), together with particular offenses committed against both Yahweh's Person (5.14-19), and People (5.20-26) - the ESV English numbering for these sections is different to the Hebrew (5.1-13; 14-19; 6.1-7). In these instructions God teaches us through Moses the following principles about the basics of guilt and grace which form the backdrop to the Gospel:
The primary consideration in the description of biblical guilt, is not that we feel subjectively guilty (whether the accusation is false, unproven or confirmed), but that, in the eyes of the LORD we are ACTUALLY, objectively and legally guilty before the Law. Absence or presence of feelings at this point are irrelevant. Sin, as an act, has established personal guilt, thereby tainting the worshiper's relationship with God. It is quite apparent in this passage that the guilty party was often unaware of what he had done or of the seriousness of his offense. His conscience might be clear. In all probability he did not feel the slightest bit guilty. His subjective frame of mind, however, had no bearing on his guilt. In 5.2, 3 and 4 we hear a repeated refrain "...and it is hidden from him and he has become unclean", while in 5.17 we read "...though he did not know it". In 6.1-7 (part of chapter 5 in the Hebrew text) deception and deliberation are clearly involved for, in 6.1, "...if anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD", or, in 6.3, "...has found something lost and lied about", God establishes their guilt. The important thing is not what we think, feel or state about our personal guilt. The decisive factor is what Yahweh knows about us in relation to His laws. We could protest "I am faultless" or claim "I didn't know" or say "I didn't mean to" but it would not alter the fact - ignorance is no defense before the Law and cannot, therefore, excuse guilt. As the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) puts it:
"Any individual who sinned was a guilty person."
The personal subjective factor does come into play, however, in the overall picture of how guilt must be dealt with. We are not told how the worshiper gained awareness of wrong done. Perhaps their parents told them, or friends gave sharp rebukes, or a reading at the synagogue or temple pulled them up short. Public and private means of grace have always been the Holy Spirit's chief tool for producing a genuine understanding of guilt when we have blotted our copybook. Conversely, no amount of harping-on or haranguing can smash a guilt-ridden, stony, heart. Suddenly an Israelite is now persuaded of his crimes. His sunny disposition is now clouded over with frowns. The conscience is convicted and convinced - he knows and feels he has certainly done wrong. There is an uncomfortable inner burden that things must be put right. Moses refers to this vital discovery in 5.2 where "he realizes his guilt", again in 5.4-5 where "he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt in any of these: when he realizes his guilt in any of these things", and also in 5.17 "then he realizes his guilt." Why is it important to make this discovery and gain a proper awareness of guilt - to FEEL guilt before God? For two key reasons at least: firstly, because guilt before God is a terribly serious thing which, no matter how great or small, demands nothing less than death. As TWOT explains:
"...It may denote acts of sin, responsibility for sin, punishment, and even the aftermath of punishment. Perhaps, one may hold that the ASHAM connotes the totality of alienation from God, including its consequences."
5.1 makes it plain such a person bears his guilt (a different word, perhaps signifying liability for his crime); secondly, because such guilt needs to be confessed, 5.5, so that worshippers respond in ways prescribed by God to seek relief from guilt.
There is no doubt at all about what the Bible teaches about this whole matter of guilt before God. On word count alone we find eight occurrences of 'guilt' or 'guilty' in this passage in 5.2, 3, 4, 5, 17, 19 (twice) & 23 (in Hebrew versification). The word for 'guilt-offering', sometimes obscured by the English translations, occurs a further 9 times in the Hebrew 5.6, 7, 15 (twice), 16, 18, 19, 25 (twice). At one juncture, in the original, a rapid-fire, triple-guilt combination occurs - a blind man on a galloping horse in unable to miss this - it really gives readers and hearers alike a jolt, and dispels any faint inklings of doubt concerning human or personal guilt. The ESV text of 5.19 reads "It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before the LORD." In Hebrew 5.19 only contains five words - ASHAM hu ASHOM ASHAM laYAHWEH or (my translation), 'A guilt offering it is - SURELY guilty He is guilty before Jehovah.' The message is clear - we can shout as loud as we like but we cannot dodge our guilt. The reading of these facts, when we consider all our sin, both committed and undone, is enough to smash, pulverize and crush the guilty, awakened, heart!
If we go back to the start of Leviticus chapter 5.1-13, we very quickly discover the wide ranging matter of guilt. This first section on the guilt offering Moses wrote deals with what to us appear outward, trivial, ceremonial, nit-picking offenses. He will proceed later, in 5.14, to deal with sins against the LORD in the matter of holy things (presumably to do with tabernacle worship regulations and other ceremonial matters), and then in 5.17 to the breach of God's commands (presumably this extends beyond the ministry of the Tent to the Sinai Decalogue), before he finally address guilt for offenses committed against our brother by means of falsehood, fraud or greed (thus the concept of guilt applies to both tables of the Law and all our creature-sins both great and small). For the moment, however, Moses sets his sights on various cases of commission - failing to come forward as a witness, bumping into an unclean carcass, being infected by a brother's personal defilement, or swearing rashly for good or ill. The point is this, that though our natural flesh may protest 'what's the fuss', such relatively trivial sins are an obstacle for God who declares they incur guilt. Such small sins, and others which are great, from all kinds of situations, cause men, women, boys and girls to become guilty before God. There is no such thing as a trifling offense - all are viewed as serious, in commission and consequence, before our Majestic Covenant Head. When we begin to reflect on the spirituality of the Law as applied to the inner man, or on the kinds of moral defilement we may contact or condone, or on the words, thoughts and deeds which Christ shows effect commandment breach, the variety of possible guilt should fill us with proper alarm and breed sobriety before God.
If we have received any light from the truth of this Word we may now be at a point of contrition before God - as we think upon our guilt or our dark deceptive heart the weight of guilt, which stands between men and God, is enough to hammer us into Hell, without divine provision, aid or cure - considered from the standpoint of the Judgment of God alone we might cry out with Cain or Crowds in despair:
'My guilt is more than I can bear ...brothers what must I do to be saved.'
It is just at this point the remedy of the Redeemer of Israelites is applied - for at every point in this text, if we think our guilt is great, the grace of God is greater and exceeds our guilt by far! Just think for a moment about the grace in this passage.
Never should we forget that it was Yahweh, the Covenant God, Himself who rescued His people from bondage, according to sovereign, covenant, loving promises, and Pharonic slavery in Egypt. They'd plunged themselves in sin. They'd begun to worship idols. They also deserved plagues but were delivered from the destroyer. Passover blood was painted on door-posts and lintels - undeserving, but faithfully and graciously, God passed over their houses. He saved them from their slavery, he brought them to Mount Sinai - with this inflexible, inexorable purpose - that these down-and-out no-hopers might be salvaged for Himself, in order to be His people, betrothed then wedded to Yahweh, that he might dwell among them - God with us!
The Ten Commandments were given nationally to regulate the life of Israel. They were never intended to be a means to earn salvation or justify sinners before the Saviour (the problem was, of course, this was the later Israelite error which Judaism subsequently repeated [along with Judaizers] - Law was severed from Grace, there was a Gospel without Messiah - Promise was pursued, but their false gospel was Do-It-Yourself, a flawed, fatal attempt to procure grace by merit). Part of the function of Law, as originally given by Yahweh, was to magnify Israel's sin, to highlight the sinners crimes, unmask all unknown guilt, to bring them in contrition to seek God's merciful, legal, provision. The point of knowing your sin was to seek the solution through sacrifice: throughout this passage, and indeed the Book of Leviticus, Moses is teaching first principles about how a Holy God can dwell among His sinful covenant people - shedding of blood is the means provided for salvation. Here in Leviticus 5 they are taught about their guilt, so confessing their sin to God, then making recompense as required, they can offer the sacrifice God has provided for their guilt. Surely you see the point - the great desire of God, in showing up our guilt, by the giving of the Law, is to remove sin's weight and renew grateful worship of the well-provided-for, penitent, saint.
Full provision is made for all and every Israelite guilt. Many cases of crimes are covered (presumably these are only samples). Whatever had been done to incur liability before God had a remedy prescribed, no matter who your were and regardless of what you'd done. The standard guilt offering was a female animal from the flock, v6. The LORD knew some can't afford that so the poor man's provision comes next - two turtle-doves or pigeons will be medication enough for all who are sin-sick, v7. Yet suppose there is a person with no access to animal husbandry, and who scrimps and scrapes a crust as a poor subsistence farmer - he shall not be excluded but can offer from his crops, a tenth of an ephah of flour can be presented to the LORD. Surely the point is this, no matter what you've done, and how much or little you earn, regardless of your status or position in the church, or what your occupation in life is, God takes detailed steps to rid you of your guilt.
We could take some time looking at this vital step, but it should suffice to say, when the sacrifice is made, that guilt now goes away, by divine provision of blood. A mediator is needed - beasts must be offered through the priest! When God's procedure is followed, atonement is made for sin 5.6, 10, 13, 16, 18 (ESV). Even for the crook, who cheated, stole and lied, when he comes in genuine repentance, believing God is kind and just, on the basis of His Word, the LORD graciously assures of atonement of his guilt.
Great Guilt, Greater Grace, yet all fulfilled in Christ - our sins and offenses, as believers in Jesus, in light of his detailed teaching, are only magnified and multiplied. We know, or should know, better than they, all the guilt contracted by sinful words, thoughts and deeds that displease the LORD. The Law did make provision for sin and take away the stain, but this was not by the virtue of the blood of bulls and goats - all the pardon that came, to purge away the stain, flowed back to them from Christ, to whom these guilt offerings point.
How vastly and infinitely superior is the substance of Christ's Cross to these shadows of grain and goats. They had their earthly mediators but mortals do not live forever - Messiah's priesthood is eternally and heavenly effective. They had to keep coming for every realization of guilt - once for all time for all His own the Lord Jesus did away with every guilty stain and liability before God - He suffered for that sin, bore away its guilt, exhausting its force, imputing guiltlessness to us. Worshipers in those days sinned against the Covenant LORD and His Law, the Gospel concealed - we sin against King Jesus, His New Covenant blood, the Gospel revealed and in full flower. There is really no comparison to an involuntary, unblemished goat, when compared with eternal God the Son, who took on human flesh, voluntarily with delight, and made straight for the Cross. In love as Great High Priest, with His sweetheart on His breast, our Saviour gave Himself, and ascended to the heights to apply God's grace to us - the Spirit is now commissioned, by virtue of that death, to convict us of our guilt and convince us of God's intention to gladly pardon and acquit. These facts alone should be enough to make us come to, but more than that to sing of, the wondrous provision of God for the people whom he chose.
Great Guilt, Greater Grace, Glorious Gospel!
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