One of the earliest dates I had with my wife was a Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Huddling together (close, but not too close) on the grand boulevard, we nearly froze during one of the coldest days in New York City on record for that festive occasion. It was fun, but it was largely a parade of consumerism more than thanksgiving.
University of Chicago historian B. A. Gerrish has suggested that John Calvin’s entire theology can be summarized by the word, “eucharistic,” from the word meaning “thankful.” Human beings were created to live in gratitude and the goal of salvation is ultimately to restore this life of thanksgiving. The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, is structured in terms of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude, leading G. C. Berkouwer to conclude, “The essence of theology is grace; the essence of ethics is gratitude.” Or, as we say around here, duties (imperatives) are always grounded in gospel promise (indicatives). The appropriate response to a gift is thankfulness.
Every ancient pagan religion grounded its worldview in a creation story. Typically, these stories begin with war and strife, with one of the gods achieving a bloody victory. However, Genesis begins the story of God’s covenant with God. There are no other gods who can frustrate God’s plans and God alone is to be praised. He is to be praised, first of all, because he created all things by his Word and pronounced them good. Creation originates in truth, goodness, and beauty, not in calamity, evil, and violence.
In Genesis 1, the creation of realms is correlated with the creation of rulers for each: light and darkness on Day 1 with sun and lesser lights on Day 4; the sky and water (Day 2), ruled by birds and fish (Day 5); land and vegetation (Day 3), ruled by the great land mammals, with human beings as God’s viceroy over the created order under God (Day 6). God made Adam and Eve in his own image, an expression that basically means adopted son, the king of the other creature-kings, appointed to exercise dominion under God himself. Psalm 8:5-6 recounts this royal office, “crowned with glory and honor.” “You have made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet…”
Yet creation was only the beginning of the adventure. The Great King labored for six days and then entered his seventh-day rest. “Rest” here does not mean a vacation. God was not weary. Rather, it’s a royal term, referring to the enthronement of the Great King. Surveying all that he had made, he rejoices in his works, pronouncing it all “very good.” As the covenantal head of the race, Adam was to lead the thanksgiving parade, with creation in his train, into the everlasting Sabbath. Like the opening ceremony of the modern Olympics, each creature-king passed by the Great King’s throne in festive procession, with Adam at the head, bearing the flag of God’s universal empire. Alan Richardson observes,”Whether plant, tree, sun, moon, star, bird, or fish—everything performs its duly ordained liturgical office, like the priests and Levites of the sanctuary in their appointed courses. And finally, man, as the arch-priest and crown of the whole created order, exercises dominion under God in this vast, cosmic theocratic empire, in which everything that happens redounds to the glory of God.” Luther explained, “Adam ruled over all birds, animals and fish not only without all walls and weapons, but even without clothing, merely by his kingly office….The whole creation was obedient to the divine Word which commanded Adam and Eve to have dominion over the creatures.”
Yet the viceroy led the joyful procession through the exit and into the valley of death, away from the loving gaze of the Great King. No longer exercising his legitimate royal office that leads all of creation into the everlasting peace of God’s kingdom, humanity now leads a parade of terror across the earth: Cain, Lamech, Nimrod, and the empires of Babel, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, centralize this mutiny. Psalm 2 portrays the kings of the earth breaking their bonds and shaking their fists in the face of Yahweh and his Messiah.
Instead of being God’s analogy and servant, humanity wanted to be the creator and ruler. Paul vividly captures the tragedy of the condition in which all of us are born as royal office-bearers who have gone our own way: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known about God is evident to them, for God has shown them. For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that have been made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Instead of worshiping God in thankfulness, they turned their hearts toward idols (Ro 1:18-22). History became a parody of the thanksgiving parade.
It is striking that before the fall there is no evidence of animal sacrifices. After all, these were sacrifices of atonement: guilt offerings. In their innocence, Adam and Eve brought their tribute offering—the sort of tithe or tax that lesser kings delivered annually to the Great King in thankfulness. However, now they needed their nakedness to be covered by the animal skins that God provided and to bring a sin-offering from the flock. Abel followed this pattern of worship, acknowledging his guilt and need for God’s atoning provision, while Cain did not and instead continued merely to bring the tribute-offering: no lamb, just some of the produce from his orchard. Although Eve exclaimed at Cain’s birth, “Behold, I have brought forth [the] man!”, he was not in fact the promised Savior but the first anti-Christ who persecutes the church.
Still, God kept his parade marching forward to Zion. Leading his people out of bondage through the Red Sea, he led them through the wilderness and despite their own unfaithfulness, brought them into the earthly Canaan, a type of his land of Sabbath rest. Psalm 24 is one of the songs of ascent, as the Israelites made their annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, singing and playing instruments as they ascended the hill of the Lord.
Among the Songs of Ascent, Psalm 24 is one of the richest. The Israelites would sing these songs antiphonally as they made their way to the hill of the Lord and entered the sanctuary. Like Eden, the temple was the locus of God’s presence among his people. Psalm 24 begins by echoing the creation-language of Genesis 1: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (v 1). After all, he is its founder (v 2). Yahweh, Israel’s King, is in fact the King of all creation. He is enthroned on Mount Zion in his Sabbath rest, the source of light and life, fruitfulness and blessing.
Verses 3-10 pose the question: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD or stand in his holy place?” Who can enter the Sabbath rest, sharing in the peace and joy of God’s own enthronement? If Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the Great King before whom the whole creation must bow, then who is the one who leads the parade? The only one worthy is Yahweh’s own image-bearer, one who not only is created in his image but who actually fulfills his embassy and reflects the ethical glory. The stipulations of this covenant are the same as those in Eden: clean hands and a pure heart; a true worshiper who reserves thanksgiving only for Yahweh, the Great King. The promises echo the original covenant, too: “blessing from the Lord” and “righteousness from the God of his salvation.” “This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face” (v 6). Whoever this is, it is the true Adam, the faithful Israel of God, the royal Son of God’s favor.
As the drum rolls and the curtain is about to rise on this faithful leader of the thanksgiving parade, we wonder: Is it Moses? No, he was barred from entering the earthly land of rest. David? Surely not the one who confessed, “In sin my mother conceived me…For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” The identity is finally revealed in verses 7-10. It is none other than the Great King himself—”the King of Glory,” yet clothed in our humanity. He is not only the Lord who commands, but the servant who obeys. And he commands the gates of the heavenly sanctuary to open for his triumphal entry, his procession with his people in his train.
Living this side of the fall, Israelites were saved by grace through faith in Christ. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving, but also sacrifices of atonement, “for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). If one’s life is not offered up in perfect thanksgiving, then the transgressor’s life (contained in the blood, Lev 17:11) must be surrendered. With the sin offerings prescribed by God in the ceremonial law (Lev 1:4-9; 4:20-21) , the principle of substitution is clearly presented. Laying his hands on the head of the burnt offering, the priest transferred the guilt from the sinner to the substitute. The gospel was hidden under these types and shadows, leading believers to the coming “Lamb of God.” Yet Israel as a nation was also a new Eden, placed under a covenant of law, to cleanse God’s garden-temple of the serpent and his godless progeny. Tragically, “Like Adam, Israel broke the covenant” (Hos 6:7).
Israel too has broken ranks with the thanksgiving parade, going its own way like sheep without a shepherd. Yet Yahweh himself will descend to us, providing in his own flesh a sacrifice of atonement so that we can be not only forgiven but be transformed ourselves into a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
In the institution of the Supper, Jesus draws together both types of sacrifices (Mat 26). Acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” he offers thanks for the bread and the wine. Like any other meal, this one is meant to give thanks to God as Creator and Provider. Yet he also inaugurates the Supper, which is the sacrament of his atoning sacrifice, proclaiming his death until he comes again. Yet even before he will offer this sacrifice of atonement, he has, unlike Adam, Israel, and the rest of us, already offered up perfectly a sacrifice of thanksgiving throughout the course of his earthly labors. He has no need for a sin-offering for himself, since he has rendered a life of perfect thanks. The one who offers up thanks to God is also about to offer himself up to God as no other worshipper in redemptive history has done: as an atoning sacrifice. The cup raised in the Supper is “the cup of blessing” for us because it was the cup of wrath that Christ drank for us. Therefore, this cup is “a participation in the blood of Christ, as the bread is “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16-17), because through them we receive the inheritance that his death secured.
The animal sacrifices for human fault could never replace the eucharistic (thankful) life of covenantal obedience and love for which God created humanity. It is not the offering of representative sacrifices, but the offering of oneself in thanksgiving that is God’s delight: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Ps 95:2); “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name” (Ps 100:4). Referring to those whom God has redeemed, the psalmist exhorts, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to man. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy” (Ps 107:21-22).
Now we come to the heart of my argument.
The animal sacrifices, both of atonement and thanksgiving, were never ends in themselves. In fact, the psalmist could declare, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required; Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart'” (Ps 40:6-8, emphasis added; cf Ps 51:16). Mediating God’s dispute with his people, the prophets repeat the psalmist’s refrain against those who dare to bring their sacrifices while violating his covenant (Hos 6:6; Am 4:4; Mal 1:8). Jesus takes up the theme as well (Mt 9:13). Obedience is better than sacrifice, because thanksgiving is even greater than forgiveness.
Far from downplaying the importance of the sacrifices, the psalmist is pointing to Christ, the one who is not only a guilt offering, but actually renders at last the thank-offering: the covenantal faithfulness that humanity in Adam has failed to yield. That is how the writer to the Hebrews interprets it. No New Testament writer is more eager to highlight the significance of Christ’s sacrifice of atonement—the guilt offering. Yet his point (consistent with the psalmist’s), is that something greater is needed. Not only is a greater guilt-offering required, since the old covenant sacrifices could never take away sins but only cover them over in typological anticipation of Christ; something more than a guilt-offering itself is envisioned. The writer points out that the burnt offering always reminded worshippers, as well as God, of their guilt. Although it made temporary provision, it always highlighted the negative breach that required satisfaction. In other words, we might say, it never transcended the debt-economy. If these sacrifices would have actually remitted all of their guilt for the course of their entire lives, the worshiper would not have to return home after the Day of Atonement still burdened by “any consciousness of sin” (Heb 10:2). “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v 4).
This, I maintain, is what the psalmist had in mind when he recognized the weakness of the old covenant sacrificial system. Forgiveness is good, but obedience is better. God delights in forgiving debts, but his deepest joy—in fact, his requirement—is the faithful love and obedience of the covenant servant whom he created in his own image, with the mission of entering into the sabbath day with the whole creation in toe. The old covenant sacrifices did not absolve transgressors of guilt once and for all, so their negative function (forgiveness) was temporary, and furthermore, such sacrifices could not offer to God the positive obedience (justification) that God required of his covenant partner.
In Christ, however, both types of sacrifices converge: not only is he the only qualified substitute for the guilt of sinners; he is the only one capable of rendering the life of thankful obedience in which God truly delights.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).'” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:5-10, emphasis added).
Therefore, it is not simply that Jesus has transcended the temporary sacrifices of the old covenant; he has transcended the sacrificial economy altogether—not by abolishing it, but by fulfilling it. It is not only our Lord’s death, but his life, that saves us. He brings not only forgiveness of sins, but that positive relationship with God—justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification—that could only come through something more than a sacrificial atonement. He has not only fulfilled the debt economy but has established a eucharistic economy on the basis of his own perfect obedience by which we are being sanctified. In holding together Christ’s active and passive obedience, the writer is able to connect Christ’s representative “Here I am!” to his propitiatory sacrifice: he is both the perfect eucharistic offering of obedience and the perfect sacrifice for sin. Together, this total life of living before the Father in the Spirit and giving himself up for the guilty becomes “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).
Christ as the New Adam leads his covenant people in a triumphant procession into the promised shalom. As a result of our union with Christ, therefore, we too can be designated a fragrant sacrifice—and our lives, though still full of corruption, can nevertheless become eucharistically oriented.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor 2:14-16).
The language of being led by Christ in “triumphal procession” underscores the covenantal, representative character of this economy of grace. While we ourselves cannot render an adequate sacrifice of thanksgiving any more than an offering for guilt, the perfume of Christ’s living and dying runs down his face to every part of his body. Even the stench of sin clinging to our best works is overpowered by this scent. It’s not at all surprising, then, that Hebrews 10—announcing the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—leads us to the parade of witnesses from Abel to Daniel in chapter 11.
So step out of the debt-economy of trying to atone and step into the parade of grace and gratitude. “In view of God’s mercies,” says Paul, “I appeal to you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Ro 12:1). It is in view of the triumphant indicatives—”God’s mercies”—which Paul has enumerated throughout the epistle, that the imperative is issued. No longer offering dead sacrifices (of atonement), believers offer their own bodies as living sacrifices (of thanksgiving), in a “spiritual worship” that goes far beyond the bloody altars of the old covenant. Jesus Christ alone offered a sufficient sacrifice for sin (Heb 5:1; 9:26; 10:12), and this brings to an end any notion of debt in our relation to God. “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15). Or, as we find it in 1 Peter 2:5, “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof.” Nothing belongs to us; there is nothing to be acquired, either for our earthly or heavenly welfare, but only to be gratefully received and shared with others.
We need not “redeem” the culture in order to love and serve our neighbor. Christ has already taken care of the salvation of the creation. Even before the cross and resurrection, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). Lutheran theologian Leif Grane expresses the implications well:
The world is neither mine nor the government’s, nor is it merely the result of the working together of its different laws. But it is God’s, which includes these laws and institutions and me and whatever may be the decisive person, or thing, in our world and time…. As to the features of reality, one may put it sloppily this way: Because God is the proprietor of our reality, its immeasurability and inconsistency are God’s problem and not ours; and if there is anybody at all able to solve it, then it is God alone. Therefore we leave it to him. We are free to realize our tasks.
In this way, the question of my own freedom and independence “has become penultimate.”
‘Hands, channels, and means’—even dictators and CEOs all have to execute, willy-nilly, God’s will. Therefore, whatever they connive at or do, it will ‘work together for good’ (Rom. 8:28). It is not allowed to bind or free me. Rather, I am a free person, at least with regard to creatures. For we have this in common: we all together are ‘the Lord’s.’
Thus, God remains Lord over creation and redemption, culture as well as cult, society as well as the church, but in different ways. Through the mask of ministers in their office of proclamation and sacrament, and the witness of all believers to God’s saving action in Christ, as well as through the vocations of believers and unbelievers alike, God still cares for his world, both in saving grace and common grace. Even though he draws us into the parade of thanksgiving, using us as his means of loving and serving creation, “the earth is the LORD’s,” not ours.
Psalm 24 does not hold out to us a goal toward which we must strive, but a procession that we are to join. This liturgy does not give us a higher self, but puts our old self to death and raises us with Christ, clothed in his righteousness and delighting in his grace. Joining the parade, we are to love and serve our neighbor as God’s masks in God’s world. Our last Adam has secured our prize, marching from his six days of labor to his seventh day of everlasting enthronement at the Father’s right hand. And he has taken us with him: “Behold,” he announces in Hebrews, “here I am, and the children you have given me” (Heb 2:13 with Is. 8:18). There is nothing left but praise. No dead sacrifices for sin, just living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. Even our imperfect works are a fragrant offering, because we—our very persons-are sanctified in Christ. Our prayers are received not for their virtue but because as they ascend the Father recognizes the fragrance of his Son. “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind,” Calvin reminds us, “we cannot but tremble and be driven away by the recognition of our own unworthiness, until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.”  We can all pray with David,
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps 51:14-17).
We need not wallow in our unworthiness, but join the thanksgiving parade that is already in progress, until one day we join our voices with the rest of redeemed creation. The vision of the heavenly kingdom in Revelation is a restored liturgy, with every part of creation performing its ordained role. It is a universal city without man-made walls or a man-made temple, for the Lord surrounds it in safety and the Lamb is its temple. At last, the symphony resounds throughout the empire: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!…Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148:3, 12-13).
1. Klaus Schwarzwaller, “The Bondage of the Free Human,” in Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden, eds., By Faith Alone, 50-51.[Back]
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion., 3.20.17 [Back]