Comments and Observations
Many modern congregants will want to run from this text, and not just because of the strange old priest-haunted world to which it is addressed. More than the unfamiliarity of its cultural background, our text for today is hard for our congregations to hear because it reeks with blood. And we are tired of blood; we are disgusted with blood; we are horrified by blood. As we watch the unending bloodshed in the Middle East, we don’t want to think that the God who revealed himself to the Jews in that part of the world is bloodthirsty. But that is precisely how some people read these words about blood in Hebrews 9.
So it’s no wonder that many scholars and preachers run from this text in embarrassment and disgust. Though the lectionary does include these readings from Hebrews, I’m guessing that few preachers choose them Sunday after Sunday. Even when the few and the brave dare to venture into this strange and difficult world, many of them will be so sensitized by the modern church’s revulsion over blood that they will ignore or explain away that uncomfortable aspect of this text. We want no part of a God who requires a bloody sacrifice before we can be forgiven (verse 22).
But there is another way to approach this text. Rather than letting current cultural sensitivities shape our reading of the text and our ideas about God, we can carefully read the text in the light of its ancient context and let it shape our ideas of God. Perhaps this bloody text will help us recover the difficult, complicated, robust, full bodied, dare I say red blooded picture of God we see all through the Scripture. Let’s try to listen to the Word of the Lord.
A cursory reading reveals that its skeleton is an extended contrast between the Aaronic High Priest and Jesus, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. This contrast has been going on for some time now, but here our author summarizes his argument one more (but not the last) time. He contrasts the old state of things (“until the time of the new order” in verse 10) with this new time “of the good things that are already here” in verse 11. The earthly tabernacle is contrasted with “the greater and more permanent tabernacle.” The blood of goats and calves and bulls offered by priests is contrasted to “the blood of Christ… offered [by] himself….” Ceremonially unclean and outwardly clean are contrasted to “eternal redemption” and “cleanse[d] consciences.”
The point of the comparison is not that there are similarities between Judaism and Christianity, but that the latter is superior to the former, even though the former was given by God himself. After a brief reminder of the entire sacrificial system, our writer makes his point in verse 14. “How much more, then, will be the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.” The old system was good, because it was given by God, but the new reality of the Christian gospel is better because it is centered in Christ. We’ve heard our writer say that over and over as he laboriously deals with the High Priest theme. And he will continue to argue the superiority of Christianity using the themes of temple and tabernacle and covenant. Here, in our text, he focuses on something new, namely, blood. Blood is mentioned 4 times in these few verses and up to 12 times in this chapter of Hebrews. Clearly, our author thought that blood was important.
As I said before, that’s a hard sell in our blood soaked world. In a Christian Century piece back in 2006 Tom Long put the problem in his typically intelligent and eloquent way. Referring to Mel Gibson’s bloody portrayal of Christ’s suffering in “The Passion of the Christ,” Long reported on one woman who had just seen the movie. “I left the theater feeling sick,” she said. “What sort of God would let that kind of violence happen to his own son? I guess I was supposed to be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus; instead I was repulsed by the idea of a God who would will such a thing.”
Long responded as follows. “This is not a new response to Jesus death, of course. The cord running through Western theology, from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, that only a violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honor has been affronted and whose anger has been aroused is, as Michael Welker says, ‘Nothing less than destructive of faith.’ It has, as Welker continues, ‘propagated a latent image of God that is deeply unchristian, indeed, demonic: The God who is always seeking compensation.’”
This kind of critique stings those who stand in that long line running from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, but it also resonates with anyone who is sensitive to the violence and brutality that have ravaged human history. How do we deal with all of this all of this powerful biblical language and equally powerful human response? Long has an ingenious way that touches some of the bases in Hebrews, particularly the idea that Jesus lived a perfectly obedient life. He was like us in all ways, sin excepted. Picking up on the famous quote from Iranaeus that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” Long says that what God requires of us is not blood, but a fully human life, a life well lived. That was the offering Jesus presented to God.
I found that lovely and helpful, but I wonder if it fully explains the plain references to blood in our text. And not just in our text. This notion that the shedding of blood is essential to “eternal redemption” is not peculiar to Hebrews or to the Old Testament on which Hebrews is based and to which it responds. The cord running through Western theology can be traced back to the line of red running through the New Testament, beginning with Jesus’ words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28) Paul picks that theme up in his farewell sermon to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, where he reminds them that Jesus bought the church “with his own blood.” In Rev. 5:10 we hear church victorious singing the praises of the Lamb “because you were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe… and nation.” In the very clear teaching of Ephesians 1:7 and Romans 3:25 we hear Paul say that Christ’s blood was central to atonement.
The whole idea of atonement is central and complex in Hebrews 9. As the old saw put it, it simply means at-one-ment, being made one with God again after sin separated us from God. But for us to be made one with God again, several great existential problems had to be solved. Heb. 9:14 talks about the conscience problem. To varying degrees, all human beings have guilty consciences that must be cleansed before we can willingly and happily relate to God again. We can’t be near to God as long as we feel so guilty and ashamed. We’ll want to run and hide as Adam and Eve did. Our text assures us that only the blood of Christ can cleanse our consciences.
Hebrews 9:15 talks about the hostage problem that must be solved before we can be “at one with God” again. All human beings are held hostage to a host of sins—sins committed in the past that have become a pattern of life, a prison of habits so ingrained and desires so powerful that they won’t let us get close to God. Indeed, we won’t even want to get close to God, not to the “living God” (verse 14) who reveals himself in Scripture. Hebrews assures us that only the death of Christ can set us free from such imprisonment. His blood was like a ransom; it “obtained eternal redemption” for us. (Both ransom and redemption have the same Greek root word.)
But there is one more problem that stands in the way of atonement. It is the God problem, alluded to in Heb. 9:22. Those same sins that stain our conscience and imprison our lives stand as an impenetrable obstacle between us and God. Thought we may not like it, those sins anger God, as Hebrews 10:26-31 so graphically say. So if we are to be one with God again, we must not only have our consciences cleansed and our bondage broken, but also our sins forgiven. And, that, says Heb. 9:22, will require the shedding of blood, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Here’s where folks will struggle, including many preacher folks. Why would that be the case? Why couldn’t God in God’s grace simply forgive? Why the blood? To answer, we need to go back to the origin of the sin problem in the Garden. As God walked with his children in covenantal union in the Garden, he gave them great blessings and one stern warning. “In the day that you eat of that tree, you will surely die.” Why did God say that? It sounds so harsh, even mean and petty.
Well, listen to God as he renewed his covenant in the days of Moses in Deut. 30:11-20. Note particularly the last words about “the Lord who is your life.” When humans break covenant with God, separate themselves from God by sinful rebellion, death must result. Why? Because God is so angry that he kills sinners in a fit of rage? No! He is angry with sin. No doubt about that; the Bible says that again and again. But he is angry with sin because it cuts us off from the Lord who is our life. Death is simply the natural result of sin. When we let go of God’s hand and take life into our own hands, we let go of life itself, and we will die. It is inevitable. It is the nature of reality.
So our sins stand between God and us, the source of our death as well as our guilt and bondage. Sin is the center of the human problem. And the fix is forgiveness. But there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Why must blood be shed? The answer is found in ancient idea that is really quite modern. “The life of a creature,” said God in Lev. 17:11, “is in the blood and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourself on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” Sounds primitive, but it really isn’t. Our local blood bank calls for donations of blood with the slogan, “Give the gift of life.” Of course, the life is in the blood. Without it you die. With it you live. And by the shedding of blood, by a true and actual death, the sins that kill us are forgiven. Only by death could death be defeated. Only by the loss of life could life be regained. And rather than requiring our death, God in his grace provided a substitute who was both priest and sacrifice.
Rather than be repulsed by this teaching, let us celebrate the Good News of the new covenant—that Jesus Christ, the great sympathetic High Priest who lived a perfect life offered his body and blood as an unblemished sacrifice to God, so that we could obtain eternal redemption. To help our people celebrate the Gospel, we’ll need to do a little primer on the nature of sin and the nature of God. But if we can regain the complicated, difficult, robust, red blooded biblical picture of God again, we might join the church victorious in that song of praise to Jesus that fills the heavens. “You are worthy…, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God men and women from every… nation.” (Rev. 5:9)
Do you remember how your heart was moved when you saw the picture of that little Syrian boy lying lifeless in the surf? He was part of that vast throng of refugees from the blood soaked Middle East. For weeks we had been seeing pictures of thousands of refugees trudging for miles, crammed into flimsy boats and filthy camps, stopped at the borders, weeping, begging, fighting for a new life. And we were moved a little, maybe more than a little. But that picture of a three year old drowned while he sought a new life with his family—that shook us, disgusted us, horrified us, and angered us. That is how God feels when he sees his children suffering in a blood stained world. Moved by compassion, love, and, yes, anger, the Father of humanity sent his own Son to plunge himself into the sea of blood to redeem us from guilt, and bondage, and death.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2015
Hebrews 9:11-14 Commentary