Comments and Observations
The lectionary reading for this Sunday is the high point of the argument of the letter to the Hebrews, but for many people today, including many Christians, it is the low point. Way back in 1926 Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a now famous sermon in which he labeled the whole idea of Christ’s once for all blood sacrifice as “pre-civilized barbarity.” As former adherents of the Jewish faith, the first readers of this epistle understood the imagery of that sacrifice very well. Today’s readers, on the other hand, may find all of this talk about sanctuaries and sacrifices, priests and high priests, Most Holy Place and blood sprinkled on the mercy seat, to be so much mumbo jumbo. If we’re going to preach on this text, we’ll have to do three things: show its connection to our lives today; show its roots in the nature of God as revealed in, particularly, Old Testament Scripture; and carefully lay out how this “pre-civilized barbarity” is really Good News.
The plain fact is that all of us have experienced the very human problem that this text addresses, namely, the experience of alienation from someone we love and need. It might be a parent or a child, a lover or a spouse, a friend or a colleague. At one time, your hearts and lives were one. But then you did something so egregious that the relationship was badly damaged, perhaps even irreparably broken. What would it take to bring you back together with the one you’ve hurt or offended or angered—words of apology, tears of contrition, displays of affection, appropriate gifts, personal sacrifices, years of penance? And what if, every time you made some gesture of reconciliation, you also repeated the behavior that caused the rift in the first place?
That’s the problem behind this whole idea of the once for all sacrifice of Christ. We are alienated from God by our sin. God is terribly hurt and offended and angered by our sin. And even when we try to make things right, we continue to sin and wound his love. We’ve experienced such brokenness in our human relations, but we simply cannot imagine how great the chasm is between sinners and God. We literally cannot fathom how much our sins hurt God, because we don’t understand how much God loves us.
That’s why we cannot understand the utter necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. Verse 23 uses that phrase in connection with the idea of purification. “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things with better sacrifices than these.” Then the writer summarizes the good news of Christ’s sacrifice. It was necessary for Christ to sacrifice himself to make things right between sinners and God. Why was that necessary? Couldn’t God just forget about it? Why couldn’t God just extend his grace, forgive our sins, and accept us back? Verse 22 says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness?” But why? Why is that necessary?
The Bible roots that necessity in the nature of God, particularly in his holiness. When he laid out the entire sacrificial system in the book of Leviticus, the system that Christ’s sacrifice fulfills, God said again and again, “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44, 45) In Leviticus, that holiness has the sense of purity, of cleanness, of being morally holy. But the deeper sense of holiness is otherness, difference, as in the Wholly Other.
So, we might say that God could and should just forget our sins– extend his grace, forgive our sins and accept us even with all our sins. We would do that for our children or spouse or friend. We wouldn’t demand a blood sacrifice before we would forgive. One well-known emergent theologian ridicules the idea of blood sacrifice with this caricature: “God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless he punishes somebody in place of the person he was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things like this to you—‘Forgive your wife and then go kick the dog.’” In other words, we wouldn’t demand punishment before forgiving people. So why should God?
The answer from Leviticus and the rest of the Bible is that God is not like us. We are like him, a little bit. But sin has distorted his image in us, so that we cannot reason from ourselves to God. We must reason about God based on his revelation of himself. And he says, “I am holy,” absolutely pure, completely without sin, and wholly other, totally different from us. His holiness is so pure that he cannot forgive without punishing the sin that caused the rift in the first place. But his love is so pure that he provided a sacrifice in our place to take that punishment. God is so holy that he can’t stand to even look on sin, and God is so loving that he sent his own Son to become sin for us and die our death.
In other words, any preacher who tries to preach on this text will have to deal with contemporary ideas about God in order to make the sacrifice of Christ intelligible, morally acceptable, and desirable Good News. The old temptation of making God in our image and thus serving an idol is as strong today as it was in the days of Baal. So here’s the great question facing anyone who dares to preach on this text or any other part of Hebrew’s extensive (some might say exhausting) treatment of the High Priesthood of Christ. Will we bow before the sensibilities of modern people or before the God of the Scripture who is other, wholly other than we might wish him to be?
What’s more, God is not only other; he is better than we might imagine him to be! That’s the point of this letter to the Hebrews. Those first readers knew the God of the Old Testament very well. In fact, they were mightily tempted to walk away from the new revelation of that God in Jesus Christ and return to all those Old Testament ways of worshiping. As we’ve seen, this epistle aims to prove to these drifting Christians that Jesus is better than anything Judaism had to offer. Here the author gathers all his arguments into this summary word about Christ’s sacrifice. If it was necessary that sacrifices were offered to purify all the elements of that old sanctuary, how much more was the sacrifice of Christ necessary?
And it was infinitely better. The author proves the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice by drawing an extended comparison between the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Christ in “these last days.” The entire Old Testament system was a copy of the heavenly original. The man made sanctuary of the tabernacle was a copy of heaven itself, the real sanctuary. In that copy, God was present symbolically in that luminous shekinah cloud that hovered between the cherubim over the cover of the ark, called The Mercy Seat. In heaven, God is actually present in all his glory.
In the copy, sacrifices are offered again and again, showing that their effectiveness is only temporary. In Jesus, a sacrifice has been offered once for all; its effectiveness is permanent. In the copy, a mortal high priest entered into the Most Holy Place once a year, every year, to sprinkle the blood of animals on the Mercy Seat to make atonement for the Jewish people. In the original, our Eternal High Priest has entered into heaven itself, into the very presence of God, once and for all to sprinkle his own blood as atonement for the sins of all God’s people. In the copy, the sacrifice of blood purified the tabernacle ceremonially, but it was not able to cleanse the conscience of the people. In the original, the sacrifice of Christ’s blood does away with sin. In the copy the blood stays on the furniture. In the original, that blood carries the sin away, so that it no longer stands in the breach between God and the people he loves.
The copy was practiced in the ages past. The sacrifice of Jesus has inaugurated “the end of the ages.” You know all about that copy, and you think you want to go back to it. “But now Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In every way, the sacrifice of Christ is better.
What more could the author say? To make absolutely sure that his readers get the point, he repeats the “once” two more times and ends with a “once again.” He connects the “once for all-ness” of Christ’s death to our own death. Everyone knows (or least the Jewish people did back then) that human beings die once. Today, under the influence of Hindu ideas of reincarnation, many people think that we die and then return to try again and again until we get it right. The Bible is very clear that we die once and then comes judgment. That is the destiny of every human. In a similar way, it was the destiny of Jesus Christ to be sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. We don’t have to work off our sins in repetitive cycles of existence; Christ has paid it all once and for all for everyone who will accept his sacrifice. As we die once and face judgment, Jesus died once so that we won’t have to worry about that judgment.
And, concludes the author, he will appear once again. Here the image is the high priest emerging from the Most Holy Place after making atonement by the sprinkling of blood. The story of Zechariah in Luke 1 gives us a sense of this event, though Zechariah had only gone into the Holy Place to offer incense. The people waited for him to re-appear. When the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place the waiting was even more suspenseful. Would God accept the sacrifice? Would the High Priest survive his encounter with the Holy One?
Well, says our author, Jesus will appear a second time, not to bear sin (he’s already done that perfectly and permanently), but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Hebrews has highlighted several dimensions of salvation already: removal of guilt through the cleansing of our consciences, release from the bondage of sin through the ransom paid, forgiveness of sins through the shedding of blood. We believe that is true, but who of us has actually experienced the full reality of that salvation. We are already saved, but we have not yet received all of that salvation. So we wait for him to come once again, to part the veil that separates the copy from the original, and appear in all his glory bringing salvation to those who wait for him.
There is an old legend that the other priests tied a rope to the leg of the High Priest when he entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. That way, if he died in that Holy Place, they could retrieve his body. Serious scholars tell us that didn’t really happen in Judaism, but it makes the point that atonement was deadly serious business. Would the High Priest re-appear, thus demonstrating that the sacrifice was acceptable, that atonement was accomplished, and that the sinful people were reconciled to their Holy God?
Recently there has been a flurry of scientific and popular interest in finding other planets that might sustain life. Scientists have determined what factors must be present before there can be life on other planets, and they have actually found many such planets scattered throughout the universe. However, all of their calculations are based on the notion that life must be carbon based, like life on planet earth. But what if there is another form of life altogether, life that is wholly other than our lives? That’s the stuff of scientific fiction right now, but who knows what we will discover as we probe the universe. So why should we think it so peculiar that God is wholly other than we are. Though we are bit like God, we cannot reason from ourselves to The Wholly Other. All we can do is accept God’s revelation of himself and let his word shape our ideas of God, even if they offend modern sensibilities.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2015
Hebrews 9:24-28 Commentary