Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hebrews 7:23-28 Commentary

Comments and Observations

The Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and the recent sex scandals in the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church will make this text (and much of Hebrews) a real challenge to preach.  With its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the Reformation made the intercession of human priests unnecessary.  All believers can access God directly.  Hostility toward the priesthood reached its bloody climax in the anti-clericalism of the Revolution.  Priests were not only unnecessary; even more they were the enemy.  And though democracy had matured over the years since that head chopping Revolution, so that priests once again held an honored place in society, the recent sex scandal in the Catholic Church has made priests objects of suspicion if not revulsion.  The whole idea of the priesthood has three strikes against it.  A discerning preacher will have to take account of this impediment to preaching on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ.

In the culture of the 1st century Jewish Christian churches, on the other hand, priests and particularly High Priests were all important because they were the indispensable intercessors between a thrice-holy God and his sinful people.  Because the first readers of this letter to Hebrews were being tempted to return to their ancestral Jewish faith, the writer has focused intensively on this idea of High Priest.  Beginning in 2:17 and 4:14-16, and continuing through 5:1-10 and 7:1-22 and even into the next chapters, our author argues that Jesus is a much better high priest than the Aaronic high priests. Our reading for today is the conclusion of that argument.  I would suggest focusing on two eminently preachable phrases—“permanent priesthood” and “save completely.”  Jesus is the superior High Priest because he is permanent and effective.

Using an argument of contrasts, Hebrews points out the obvious.  “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office.”  The ancient historian, Josephus, counted 83 High Priests from Aaron to the fall of the Second Temple.  As anyone who has ever lost a beloved (or even barely competent) pastor knows, it is difficult to adjust to new spiritual leadership.  The old one knew you and you knew that leader.  Trust and love and loyalty take time to develop.  The constant changing of the guard is unsettling to say the least.

You’ll never have to face that transition with Jesus, because he “lives forever.”  He will always be there for you, full of sympathy, grace and mercy, making intercession for you.  What’s more, he doesn’t have any of the flaws you see in your Aaronic High Priests, or your Irish Catholic priest, or your African American Assembly of God pastor, or your Dutch Reformed (that’s me) preacher.  You’ll never need to replace Jesus because of a character flaw or a moral failure.  Because he is “set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens,” he will never be moved to another church, suspended, deposed, or excommunicated.

Indeed, says Hebrews, unlike those other priests (the ones you find so attractive), Jesus is so “holy, blameless, [and] pure” that he “does not need to offer sacrifices day after day first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.”  Our churches won’t have much of a feel for this assertion, so it might be helpful to outline the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement to which our author refers here.  This list shows the absolute uniqueness of Jesus, our permanent High Priest, because he doesn’t have to go through all this.

According to William Hendriksen, “Aaron had to

–offer a bull for his own sin offering to atone for his own sin and the sin of his household,

–enter the Most Holy Place with incense,

–sprinkle the blood of the bull on the atonement cover of the ark,

–cast lots over two live goats brought by the people,

–kill one of the goats for a sin offering for the nation, and sprinkle its blood inside the Most Holy Place,

–place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the people, and

–send the goat away into the wilderness.

The High Priest made intercession for his people by praying this prayer that God might forgive the sins he himself and they had committed:  ‘O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.  O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.’”  The High Priest had to go through that ceremony every year, generation after generation.  Because Jesus is the perfect and permanent High Priest, he never had to pray a prayer like that.

The second major point in this conclusion of the argument about the superiority of Christ’s priesthood is that Christ’s work was completely effective.  He is “able to save completely those who come to God through him….”  That word “completely” is rich in the Greek precisely because of it ambiguity.  Panteles can refer to extent (to the uttermost, in every way necessary) and it can refer to time (for all time, throughout the ages to come).  However you conceive of the atonement, whichever theory of the atonement you think best captures the Gospel, Jesus is able to save you that way.  Whether you think the Gospel is all about a penal substitution, or moral influence, or recapitulation, or “Christus Victor,” Jesus saves “completely.”  Indeed, that word really means we don’t have to choose, because he saves in every way we need saving.  And whoever we are, no matter where and when and how we live, Jesus’ saving work spans the centuries and the continents and the cultures.  He is able to save completely.

There’s only one thing we have to do to experience and enjoy that complete salvation.  We have to “come to God through him….”   This implies that there is some gap or barrier between sinners and a holy God, and only Jesus can get us over that gap and through that barrier to God.  One thinks of the cherubim and flaming sword God placed outside the Garden of Eden after the first humans sin, so that humanity couldn’t sneak back to the Tree.  Or more relevant to the argument here in Hebrews, think of the thick veil that blocked the way to the Holy of Holies, so that sinners wouldn’t just waltz into the presence of God.  Hebrews will later make the point that Jesus the Great High Priest has entered into the real Holy of Holies, making a way into God’s presence through his flesh, that is, his sacrifice on the cross.  Apart from that sacrifice, there is no way to come to God.  I know, that is a very unpopular thing to say today, but our text is pretty explicit.  We need a High Priest, and we have one.  Through him and him alone, we are able to come to God.

Our writer emphasizes the complete effectiveness of Christ’s high priesthood with two more pregnant phrases: “once for all” and “he always lives to make intercession for us.”  “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”  The Aaronic priests offered millions of sacrifices year after year in the temple, because those sacrifices were never enough.  Jesus offered one sacrifice, himself, his body and blood, one time for all people.  The Greek  word is ephapax, a heightened form of hapax, which means once.

Some biographers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer tell us that the word hapax was printed on the altar of the chapel at the Hinterwald concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was imprisoned.  It was a reminder of the once for all work of Christ in that time of immense social upheaval and inconceivable crimes against humanity.  In the midst of the bloody history of the human race, God has done once and for all what needed to be done to stop all the bloodshed.  “It is finished.”

The problem is that it is not finished.  Blood is being shed all over our world today.  If God has done what needed to be done, why isn’t it done?  Well, of course, the answer is that God has given us the responsibility of coming to God and living for God and spreading his Kingdom of love and peace.  And we haven’t done that well enough.  But we aren’t left to ourselves in our efforts.  That’s the point Hebrews makes when it says in verse 25 that “he always lives to intercede for them.”

The high priestly work of Jesus is not only past; it is also present.  His sacrifice saves us completely, once and for all.  And his intercession secures for us the grace and mercy we need for our times of need in this bloody world.  Your former High Priest, your family priest, your beloved pastor has died and gone away, so he isn’t available to you anymore.  Jesus is always available, because he lives forever.  And he is always on the job for you.  Even when you can’t pray for yourself, he prays for you.  There’s nothing you need that he can’t provide, as the beloved hymn says.  “All I have needed thy hand hath provided….”

That’s what the last verse in our reading means when it says that God’s oath “appointed the Son who has been made perfect forever.”  As I said last week, that doesn’t refer to his becoming morally perfect.  It’s all about his work and his role as High Priest.  He was the perfect High Priest, permanent and completely effective.  As E.K. Simpson expresses this with the rhetorical flourish of another era, “In one flawless Mediator we descry priesthood at its summit-level. His unique endowments exhaust the requisites of the office and invest it with ineffaceable validity.”  Or as the NIV translates the beginning of verse 26, “Such a high priest meets our need [perfectly]….”

Illustration Ideas

One of the New York Times bestselling novels is a science fiction tale entitled The Martian (now released as a film starring Matt Damon).  Set twenty years into our future, it’s about a mission to Mars that goes terribly wrong.  An international space mission has landed on Mars to further explore its hostile environment.  When a terrible dust storm blows up, they have to return to their orbiting mother ship.  But one of their fellow crew members is literally blown away in the storm and presumably killed.  Except he wasn’t.  Mark Watney is still very much alive, and very much alone.

The Martian chronicles his heroic and ingenious efforts to stay alive on Mars as long as he can, until, perhaps, he will be rescued.  Using equipment from his own and previous missions to Mars, he manages to restore contact with Earth.  In a line that seemed to resonate with the Christian Gospel, he says, “Sure, I might not get rescued.  But I won’t be alone.”  He might never get out of there; he will almost certainly die there.  But at least he can communicate with someone human.  He might not get “saved completely,” but at least he knows he has people interceding for him.  Eventually, [spoiler alert!] through a tremendous sacrificial effort, he does get rescued.

In a sense, we are all like Watney– trapped in a hostile environment and all alone.  But Jesus does it all—rescues and intercedes, saving us completely.


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