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Into the Abyss

Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, has been hailed for its graphic realism as it depicts the sufferings of Jesus. However, it has been rightly criticised for failing to offer any clear explanation for why he went through these sufferings, or what they achieved. If we want to find not only a graphic portrayal of Messiah’s death, but also a clear pointer to its significance, then we must turn to the Hebrew Bible. Anyone who knows anything about these Hebrew Scriptures knows that they are replete with references – both direct and illusory – to the sufferings of God’s chosen servant. The most graphic and the most illuminating of these are found in the temple sacrifices.
Recently I came across two details relating to one of these sacrifices that would have been obvious to a Jew in the days of the temple, but not so clear to a Gentile exegete trying to make sense of Jewish ceremonial practice. Both details relate to Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34) – and the animal often described as “the scapegoat”.

The first detail has to do with the name given to this creature: azazel, a Hebrew word the meaning of which is hard to convey into English. Whereas most translations render it “scapegoat”, the New English Bible calls it “the goat for the precipice”. The other detail relates to a reference in Alfred Edersheim’s, The Temple, which indicates that a viaduct used to span the Kidron Valley from the Temple to the Mount of Olives and this was used on the Day of Atonement to lead the scapegoat into the wilderness.

With those two details fixed in our minds it is not hard to visualise the scene: a massive crowd, this solitary creature, a priest symbolically transferring the sin and guilt of the people as he lays his hands upon it, reciting their transgressions. Then the animal led out across the viaduct: destined for “the precipice” – to be hurled into the abyss – carrying the sins of the people with it for another year.

What a preview of the sufferings of the Carpenter of Nazareth! He too stood alone as accusations were heaped upon him. He too was led out like an animal – thousands of eyes fixed upon him as he was taken into the wilderness of the city’s garbage heap. But most of all, as he cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?”, where is he going, what is happening to him? He, too, is being hurled into the Abyss taking the sin and guilt of his people with him, not just for another year, but forever!

It takes more than a film to bring us into the full horror of what Messiah had to suffer in order to make atonement for the sins of his people. Without the preview given to us in the Jewish Scriptures we can see only the ugliness of a Roman form of execution. We need the deeper insight – one that comes so powerfully through the details of this highest of the holy days in the Jewish calendar – to see into the invisible realm of how God must deal with sin to maintain his own integrity and yet fulfil his covenant commitment to his chosen people!

Rev Mark G Johnston
Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell and CWI’s Vice Chairman. Mark is the author of You in Your Small Corner published by Christian Focus, and Let’s Study John published by Banner of Truth.
This article first appeared in the September 2004 edition of the Herald

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