““all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23
A story is told in the North of a man going to church for a Sunday evening service. A man of few words, he comes home afterwards and his wife asks him, “What did the minister preach about this evening?”
“Sin”, said the man.
“Well, what did he say?” asked the wife.
“He was agin’ it”, said the man. The man’s recall of the sermon was probably better than that of most people on a Sunday.
Like the minister, we are against sin, but what is it that we are against and why are we against it?
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word most often translated as “sin” is “chata’ah”, it appears almost three hundred times and means “missing the mark” in the way an arrow may miss its intended target. Other words which convey a similar sense are “pesha”, translated as “transgression”, something done to spite God, an act of rebellion, going beyond the bounds of the Law; and “avon”, translated as “iniquity”, a distorting of God’s will for selfish ends.
Turning to the New Testament, the word translated as “sin” is the Greek word “ἁμαρτία” (hamartia). In ancient Greek, hamartia meant a mistake or an error in judgement. The verb ἁμαρτάνειν (hamartanein) had a meaning similar to the Hebrew chata’ah, it was about missing the mark, it covered behaviour that might be ignorant or mistaken, things that might be accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate things that we would regard as iniquity, error, or sin. Saint Paul captures a sense of us missing the mark in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 3 Verse 23 when he writes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”: everyone sins because everyone misses the mark.
Sin makes its appearance in Scripture as an act of rebellion against God. In the story of the Fall in Genesis Chapter 3, the man and woman choose to ignore what God has said and to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. It is an act of rebellion that breaks the bond of trust between themselves and God and, realizing what they have done, they are overcome by guilt and attempt to hide—sin becomes a barrier between people and God.
Sin not only becomes a barrier between people and God, it becomes a barrier between people, between brothers. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis Chapter 4 is a story of where sin will lead. Cain is envious of Abel and the LORD warns him in Verse 7, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”.
Far from Cain mastering the sin that lurks, it masters him. They go out to the field and Cain kills Abel, and then, in Verse 9, adds lying to the sin of murder. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” Sin has separated Cain from God and sin has separated Cain from his brother Abel. Sin even destroys the relationship between Cain and the earth he cultivates, the LORD warns him in Verse 12, “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength”.
Sin brings separation and it brings isolation. Cain is told by the LORD, “you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Verse 14 expresses the complete sense of alienation that Cain feels, he says to the LORD, “Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’” There in a single verse is a summary of the barriers that sin brings into our world:
- “you have driven me away from the soil”: sin breaks the relationship between humanity and God’s creation;
- “I shall be hidden from your face”: sin breaks the relationship between humanity and God;
- “anyone who meets me may kill me”: sin breaks the relationship between members of a humanity that should live in harmony.
Sin becomes a barrier and, in an effort to break down that barrier, the Law offers a system of sacrifice. The book of Leviticus outlines the offerings to be made for sin, whether intentional or unintentional, and whether the sins of individuals, of leaders, or of the whole community. The most solemn day in the calendar in Leviticus is the Day of Atonement, the day when the priest will enter the Most Holy Place to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. Leviticus Chapter 16 Verses 15-16 give instructions, “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been “.
One goat is slaughtered and the other is used as the scapegoat which will carry away people’s sins, Verse 20-21 say, “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. 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”.
The Temple, the place that becomes the focal point for the faith, is there for the system of sacrifices, but all of it is to no avail; sin remains, the barriers remain. The Letter to the Hebrews sets it forth in plain terms, in Chapter 10 Verse 4, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”, continuing, in Verse 11-12, “every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God”.
In that single sacrifice, that moment on Calvary, Jesus breaks down the wall of sin, he breaks down the separation. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us’ “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”. The curtain screened off the Holy of Holies, the place the priest entered once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifice for the sin of the people. Through what Jesus has done, that place is no longer needed, no further sacrifices are necessary.
Saint Paul tells us that this is for each one of us, writing in Romans Chapter 3 Verses 23-25, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith”.
The response to sin, says Saint Paul, is faith. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves, nothing that we can do to atone for our failings, nothing that we can do break down the barriers.
Christ breaks down the barrier that separates us from God. The Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 14 says he breaks down the barriers that separate us from one another, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”. The Letter to the Romans Chapter 8 says that even the barrier between humanity and creation is broken down, Verse 21 says “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”.
In Jesus, the sin that arrives with humanity’s rebellion against God, the sin that brings division and destruction, loses its power; the barriers are forever destroyed.