This article is excerpted from the book, Christianity: Fundamental Teachings, published in 2017 by © The Joint Commission of Churches in Turkey. This book is a landmark in inter-church efforts to draw closer together. It was written by a commission delegated by leaders of all of the major churches of Turkey [including Eastern Orthodox, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant].from the Preface, Christianity: Fundamental Teachings, Archpriest Father Drtad Uzunian, ed.
This commission, which met at regular intervals, decided to publish a basic book containing the doctrines of faith held in common by all Christian churches.
This joint publication, which will help every Christian in Turkey to understand their own faith doctrines, bears significance not only for its contents, but also for the striking and seminal advance in mutual respect and affection that it represents. The faith doctrines summarized in this book can already be found in each church’s books on faith and doctrine. Yet for churches that have ostracized each other for centuries leaving a legacy of deep divisions and resentments to sign their names to such a work is no small step toward church unity.
Through this book the churches that have maintained their presence in Istanbul express in lasting words how few points of difference they have in their beliefs and how many of the same values and teachings they share on the essentials of their faith.
The Pyramid of Creation
According to the Bible, God created the earth and all the creatures in it from nothing (ex nihilo) so that they could share His love. All of creation reflects the radiance of His unequalled glory. Despite its unending variety and diversity, the structure and system of the creation is not chaotic; rather, it expresses a perfect harmony and unity. The universe was created as a hierarchal pyramid of beings.
Every being is above some other beings while at the same time being below others. The Lord God stands at the bottom and the top, at the beginning and the end of this system, because He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 21:6). Lifeless materials, like electrons, protons, atoms, elements, molecules, minerals and crystals, have their place below plant life and are essential for its existence. The animal realm rises above the plant realm. Humankind was created to be at the pinnacle of this pyramid of existence.
“God blessed them and said to them (the first human pair), ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”‘Genesis 1:28
Man is indebted to his Lord for this privileged position. However, he can only maintain this position if he accepts the supremacy of God and lives for Him. Just as all creation was prepared for man, so also humankind was prepared for God. Before creating humankind, the Lord’s design and decision was to create a people among and within whom He would dwell:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21 :3-5
This goal to be reached at the end of the world was in fact foreseen at the very beginning of creation. However, humankind’s very special nature greatly lengthened the journey toward this purpose.
The Problem of Freedom
Since God created man as the pinnacle of creation, He chose to make a being in His own image.
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”Genesis 1 :26
Lifeless materials, plants, and animals were not created in the likeness of God. They were created to live a mechanical life within the boundaries established for them. But mankind was created with all the capability and potentiality of divinity:
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”Ecclesiastes 3:11
To reach this goal the Creator followed a very specific path:
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”Genesis 2:7
The divine breath at the core of man turned him into an intelligent and free being. This situation raised mankind to the level of children of God: “ … though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being … We are his offspring” (Acts 17:27-28). The Lord God describes the exalted nature of human beings in the 82nd Psalm in this way, “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’”And Jesus Christ taught us to address God in prayer as “Our Father in heaven.”
However, man’s superior position can only be sustained in a state of unity with his Father. Just as a bulb depends on electricity for its brightness, so also man is only able to possess the glory of “sonship” while spiritually connected to his creator. God did not forcibly impose this dependence on man. Instead, what He desired to share with man was a relationship of love sustained in freedom. Love cannot be forced, but can only be received and granted voluntarily. So when God aimed to create a perfect being, He assumed the risk of being rejected.
The Fall of Man
Created without sin, the first human beings Adam and Eve differed from the animals in possessing immortal life. However, this physical immortality was a conditional privilege. The only thing man had to do for this immortality provided by the life energy of God’s Spirit (the fruit of the Tree of Life, Genesis 3 :22) was to freely obey God. That is why the “forbidden fruit” was the symbol of the rules and laws that man was required to follow. For the universe was established with perfect balance and harmony. God cannot allow anything to ruin this. Animals with their robot-like existence could never cross these boundaries. But man was required to accomplish this through his freedom.
So long as man does not conform to this he will be punished by the laws of divine justice:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”Genesis 2:15-17
More explicitly, man was presented with the choice either to remain obediently faithful, thereby benefiting from the grace of divine life, or to be disobedient, thus severing his spiritual connection with God and dying. Notice that the decision to maintain the spiritual ties of life which were established with God or to sever them is left up to man’s free choice. God adopts man as His child by His own free will and gives him the right to share His divine life forever. He wants to see how man will respond to this love.
The first human beings chose disobedience to God. ln religious terminology they sinned. Sin is the purposeful disobedience of a conscious and free being against God and His laws. It is a rebellion. It is the claim that, “I can be happier without God.” Sin is human defying God. It is man, at the top of the pyramid established by God, refusing to recognize anything higher than himself and attempting to create his own rules. Sinful man bas to endure the consequences of this choice. This means that he can no longer remain at the pyramid’s pinnacle. He cannot reject God and His authority while benefitting from His grace as before. God respects man’s decision and grants him the freedom to live as he has desired. Mankind chose to fall, to break away and distance himself from God;
“To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”Genesis 3:17-19
As God said, “the wages of sin is death.”Romans 6:23.
Banishment from the garden was nothing other than despising, belittling and failing to understand the value of Paradise. Man wanted to and still wants to create a paradise of his own design without God. But in the famous words of St. Augustine,
“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” .Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, paragraph 1
The Plan of Salvation
Nevertheless, as a compassionate father, God never gave up on His children. With the attitude of a true teacher and instructor, He began to teach them the error of their decisions. Indeed, all of history shows how fallen humanity tastes the painful results of sin and endeavors to regain innocence. Eve1y person wanting to be happy is actually searching for a lost paradise. God wants this man that He created to return to Him. However, He also wants this to follow man’s thorough understanding of the essence, weight and curse of sin. This return is most eloquently explained by Jesus Christ in the parable of the Prodigal Son which is recorded in Luke 17:11-32.
God tied His work of saving mankind and bringing them back to Himself to a historical chronology. He would accomplish this work in stages over a few thousand years which though in human measurement seem a long time, in comparison with cosmic time (billions of years) is a comparatively short span. Humankind learned painfully through Noah’s flood just bow much sin angered its Creator. It was openly demonstrated how unrepentant humankind would be punished (Genesis 6-9). After the flood, man multiplied and spread all over the earth according to language, race and nation. Over time the nations lost the light of truth “and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23). God permitted this spiritual blindness and bondage for a while, in order that this spiritual darkness would better reveal the glory and significance of the great illumination and revelation that He was preparing.
The Election of Abraham as the Father of Faith
During the first stage of the plan of salvation, God desired to enlighten and leaven the nations through one chosen people. It was His purpose to send prophets, proclaim His laws, reveal His own character to this people and then raise them to a level from which they would be able to share this experience with all of humankind. However, in order to be impartial, He chose to form this people from scratch. For this reason, God chose a believing man whose wife was barren, born in Ur and living in Haran, and ultimately called this nation into existence from him Genesis 11:30-31; 12:5).
Four thousand years ago, while the whole world was buried in idolatry, this one, invisible Lord God and Creator of heaven and earth, commanded His servant Abraham who worshipped Him to leave Haran and go to the place that He would show him;
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’”Genesis 12:1
So begins the sacred history intended to bring humankind back to the one God. Abraham lives a nomadic life. This journey picks up speed with the miraculous birth of a child to Abraham in his old age. Abraham’s offspring multiply. Within four hundred years their numbers reach millions in Egypt, where they fall into a state of slavery. The prophet Moses delivers this enslaved Hebrew nation from their bondage through miracles granted by God and leads them out of Egypt. After wandering for forty years in the Sinai Desert, they arrive in the promised land, where gradually they settle. The prophets and the Holy Scriptures begin and develop within the history of this nation.
Sin According to Sacred Law
This period of instruction and enlightenment, beginning with the prophet Moses, was especially intended to teach God’s people about the seriousness of sin. From the very beginning, humanity’s attitude was to minimize and disregard sin. In order to save man from this condition, God through His Sacred Law, began to teach him how sin offends His divine justice and how difficult it is to make amends for it. The Law shows out that the punishment for every kind of sin- whether great or small – is a “death,” which means separation from God. It does not take a large rock to destroy a watch; a single grain of sand getting into it is sufficient. Man’s indifference does not negate sin’s seriousness, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
People usually feel regret and desire forgiveness after committing sin and witnessing its painful results. However, the Word and Law of God clearly state that it is not that easy; sin upsets the universal balance and, until this imbalance is rectified, the sinner will not be counted right (righteous, justified) before the justice of God. In the justice of God, sin requires a penalty, which absolutely must be paid. The Law of Moses (Torah) was given to show how powerless man is against sin. According to this Law, no one is without sin; even prophets and holy men sinned;
“The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”Psalm 14:2-3
From the first fall into sin, mankind has been a slave to sin and our greatest human problem is to be free from the chains of sin.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”Romans 3:23
At the same time, Sacred Law teaches that man cannot be saved from sin by himself. We can fall into the pit of sin by ourselves, but we cannot get out without an intermediary. Yet how can such a mediator be found in a world where all have sinned against God and are in debt to Him? How can mankind’s sin be erased? God’s Law foresaw the solution through the system of “sacrifice.”
The Sacrificial System
Animal sacrifice is a historical practice still used as a form of worship in many religions. The concept of sacrifice has an important place in the monotheistic faith systems. Obviously, as time went on, it was spiritualized and abstracted from its original, primitive meaning.
There are two basic, inseparable functions of sacrifice in the Old Testament:
1. Sacrifice is the representation of total commitment to and surrender of everything to God, as seen in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
2. Sacrifice was a ransom offered for the forgiveness of sin. The most fundamental form of justice is the provision of perfect balance. In this sense, every crime would be recompensed in kind. The principle of “fracture for Facture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24: 19-20) is the most fundamental practice in the Law of Moses. The application of this law for the forgiveness of sins established the Old Testament system of sacrifices. According to this:
- All mankind is sinful. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Stained by sin, humankind is separated from God. The wages of sin is spiritual separation from God and death (Romans 6:23).
- Man must pay the death penalty for sin, and offer a living animal as compensation for his offences. It was necessary for a living animal to be slaughtered according to ceremonial regulations, killed by the shedding of its blood. Thus, a perfect lamb would be brought before the priest by the sinner. The person would put his own hand on this animal and proclaim that he was a sinner and his sin had passed to the animal. In this way, the animal would serve as a substitute for the person. With the sacrifice of the lamb, the debt of sin was paid under religious law and the person was pronounced purified by the lamb’s shed blood.
The Inadequacy of the Sacrificial Animal
Of the above-mentioned inseparable functions of sacrifice in the Old Testament (commitment and sin offering), the first was usually forgotten, causing a serious crisis between God and His chosen people. Rather than the person dedicating and offering himself wholly to the Lord, he was only mechanically and formally offering animal sacrifices to the Lord. The great warning of the Prophets concerned the correction of this formalism. For example, how movingly the Lord’s warning through the Prophet Isaiah expresses this condition:
“The multitude of your sacrifices- what are they to me?” says the Lord … “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats… Stop bringing meaningless offerings! … They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”Isaiah 1: 11-14
Ages earlier, the Prophets foretold that a Savior would come and the true meaning of sacrifice would be fulfilled in His life and death. For this reason, the final prophet, John the Baptist, pointed to Jesus Christ as He approached to be baptized and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Animal sacrifices could not take away the guilt of humankind. According to the requirement of divine justice, this could only be accomplished by a person offering his whole life to God in obedience (Isaiah 53). It was impossible for such a one to be born among men because, according to the spiritual law, even prophets were counted as sinners.
Jesus Christ: The True Sacrifice
Thus, God desired His own Word, His one and only beloved Son, to be born miraculously as a human being by the Holy Virgin Mary. This person, who was born and lived without sin, did not have to die. Yet it is for this purpose that He came into the world. In the fullness of time, then, our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ offered His life on the Cross as the only acceptable sacrifice for our sins.
This sacrifice is the most perfect revelation of God’s love in the history of the world.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”1 John 4:10
This is the noble and glorious meaning of the affliction, pain and eventual death that Jesus Christ suffered throughout His life as He willingly accepted His Father’s plan of salvation. As death approached, the Lord Jesus genuinely asks,
“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall! say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”John 12:27
The letter to the Hebrews clearly states that the Law given to Moses was a shadow and preparation. It beautifully shows that their symbolic meaning was fulfilled and realized through the eternal High-Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
“He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”Hebrews 10:9-10
The curtain in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, which separates man from the presence of God, was always kept closed and the blood of the slain sacrificial animals was sprinkled onto this thick curtain. At the very moment that the Lord Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, the curtain was tom in two (Matthew 27:51-53). With the death of Jesus, the curtain of sin that separated man from God was tom apart and humankind could now enter into the presence of God through His blood.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”John 14:6
The Victory of Easter
Of course the timing of Jesus Christ’s death was a part of the divine plan. The Jewish Festival of Passover (Hebrew Pesach, passing over) was determined as the time for His death. Every year, the Jews celebrated and remembered the Passover sacrifice, which had secured their deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 11-12).
Briefly, this deliverance took place as follows: God decided to perform a huge miracle for the Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt and captives of Pharaoh. God commanded through Moses that every Jewish family should kill a sacrificial lamb and smear its blood on their doors, because in the middle of the night the angel of the Lord was to pass through the land of Egypt killing every first-born child and animal. He would only pass over those houses, which had the sign of the sacrificial blood. Passover comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach” which means to “pass over without touching.” After this horrible plague, the Egyptians set the Jews free.
When the Lord Jesus Christ celebrated Passover on His last night with His disciples, He announced He was the true sacrifice that would save humankind and that His shed blood would have saving power. When the time for the meal arrived, Jesus sat down with His disciples and told them,
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the sup per he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”Matthew 26:17-35; Mark 14:12-31; Luke 22:13-20
Thus, Jesus established this Last Supper that He ate with His apostles as the memorial ceremony of the sacrifice He would offer willingly to the Father for the peace of humankind. Jesus desired His disciples to participate in His ceremony of sacrifice and to continue it (Luke 22: 19). This desire has since been fulfilled without interruption for nearly two thousand years by the Church, which is the Lord’s own Body, with complete solemnity and respect.
The era of sacrificing animals came to an end with the single, once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. By faith, we Christians participate and share in this unique Sacrifice, offered once in all of history. From that moment, for a Christian to sacrifice an animal for his sins would be to deny his faith; or at the very least, it would be a sign of deep ignorance. To submit for some reason to a superstitious practice remaining from times of idolatry and believe that one can be saved by sacrificing an animal, and placing its blood on one’s forehead or on some object, is a denial of one’s baptismal vows.
This article is excerpted from Christianity: Fundamental Teachings, pages 34-46, copyright © The Joint Commission of the Churches in Turkey. Used with permission.
Top image credit: image of a wooden cross at sunset sky background. Crucifixion and resurrection theme from Bigstock.com, © by banphote, stock photo ID: 455541355. Used with permission.
Arch priest Father Drtad Uzunyan, is the vice president of the Joint Commission of Churches in Turkey. He is a member of the religious council of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey and Executive officer for inter church relations. He also serves on the CHARIS “Christian Unity Commission” (CUC) for the purpose of promoting and working for unity of the body of Christ, as expressed in the prayer of Jesus Christ (John 17,21).