Do You Long to Be Treasured by God but Only Feel Tolerated Because of Your Sin?
Understanding the biblical concept of the scapegoat will help.
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This is the next post in a series that I’m calling Retreading the Heart: Meditations on Grace from Psalm 51.
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Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
– Psalm 51:11-12
PRESENCE AND POWER
David’s petition in Psalm 51:11-12 has caused some confusion among biblical scholars. Is David saying it is possible to lose the Spirit in the sense of losing one’s salvation? Is being cast from God’s presence the fear of condemnation? The short answers are no and no.
If you have ever fallen into grievous sin that weighed upon your soul like a massive boulder threatening to crush you to death, then you understand what he is feeling. David knew that the Lord would be faithful to forgive all his sin. He has made this abundantly clear in the previous verses of the Psalm. What he struggled to believe is whether his relational status with God would be preserved and would the Shepherd of his soul fill him with the sanctifying, enabling grace of the Spirit. Or would he be left to continual moral defeat.
What he wants more than anything is to feel treasured again—to feel the joy of his salvation. But with sin heavy on his shoulders and guilt weighing his conscience down, he feels merely tolerated, as if he has used up all God’s mercy and is in danger of being disowned.
These two verses represent the prayer of a broken man who makes no pretense about the weakness of his flesh. Without the Spirit to sustain his life, he will continue to fail and fall. Apart from God’s enabling grace, he will surely bring misfortune upon the nation he leads. Will the Lord love him enough to remain close and empower him with his Spirit?
MORE THAN FORGIVENESS
Can you relate to this feeling of helplessness? Maybe you wonder what the Lord really thinks about you. Oh, there is the promise of forgiveness and that is wonderful. But legal forgiveness without relational closeness loses its shine pretty quickly. And with the loss of shine comes the dissolution of hope.
We want more. We do not want to be merely tolerated. We long to be treasured. We don’t just want the Father to allow us to keep the family name. We want to be welcomed with enthusiasm and joy by the family holiday dinner. We do not want to continue to dishonor our kin but want to learn how to walk in the ways of our elder brother, Jesus.
The promise of the gospel is that these deep desires are met with inexhaustible grace. One reason why we can possess such confidence is in the concept of the scapegoat. You know what a scapegoat is. It is someone who takes the blame for someone else. The scapegoat is innocent. But to protect the guilty, the goat takes the penalty instead.
Did you know the practice of placing blame upon a scapegoat comes from the Old Testament? The practice is described in Leviticus 16:20-22.
20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
What would happen to a goat in the Judean wilderness? We are not told explicitly but can imagine how a domestic animal would fare in a region where lions, bears, hyenas, and jackals roamed freely. The goat either would die of exposure, thirst, starvation or would be torn to pieces.
The New Testament speaks with unmistakable clarity concerning the fulfillment of the Old Testament scapegoat. He is Jesus, the one presented by the Father as the lamb of God who was cast outside the gates of the city—to a solitary, desolate place—to be ripped by lashes, suffer thirst, and finally, be nailed unto suffocation.1
Jesus is the scapegoat led out of the camp to die in the wilderness.
The most important detail in the Leviticus text is just three words: all their sins. Every offense was imputed (transferred) from the sinner to the substitute. And in the gospel, not only is the sin imputed to the goat, but every obedience of the substitute is transferred to the sinner. As Paul says so emphatically, “Jesus became sin so that we could become the righteousness of God.”2
I wonder what it would have felt like for the congregation of Israel to watch the goat be led away. Alone. A feast for beasts. Knowing that it should have been them.
WHEN WILL I BE CONVINCED?
All their sin had been ceremonially removed. All of it. And there had been a lot to transfer!
As the goat began to fade away in the distance with their sin, when would it dawn on them. The unmerited mercy. The limitless grace. The unfailing love. When would they finally get it?
When will I finally get it? When I pray with David, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me,” when will I be convinced, without reservation, that he will not cast me away? Jesus was cast away for me. He, as the scapegoat, has born the weight of my sin on his shoulders.
Not a single sin remains on my record. In fact, the record is filled with the beauty of Jesus. I’m not merely tolerated. I am treasured in Christ Jesus. The scapegoat who has taken away not only the sins of the world, but mine—to make me his.
A NEW PRAYER
And in making me his, he promises not only to be for me but to dwell in me. This is the hope of the believer. We receive both the presence and the power of God. Yes, in ourselves we are incapable of doing any good thing. But abiding in the Vine, real change is possible—especially for those of us who are well aware of our helpless estate apart from Jesus.
The prayer for presence and power is one that I make for my children on a regular basis. “O Lord, may they know the loving-kindness of your presence and be sustained by your indwelling, supernatural, Spirit-supplied power to resist the flesh and the lies of the enemy, and walk in the ways of wisdom and freedom.”
It is a simple prayer. But one I want to make more for myself and offer it to you as a way to be mindful of the gospel. That because of the scapegoat, we may experience the presence and power of God. Not merely as the tolerated of God but as treasured sons and daughters who delight in the joy of the gospel.
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Hebrews 13:11-12 makes the parallel explicit. “11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.”
2 Corinthians 5:21