Comments and Observations
All right! Enough already! For what seems like the 10th time, the author of Hebrews comes back to his theme that Christ is better than the whole system of the Jewish faith (a theme that will seem politically incorrect to many a contemporary reader and listener). He covers the same ground again and again, and the reader (at least this one) begins to get a bit impatient. You made your point already. Why keep hammering on it?
Because our writer is alarmed, very alarmed.
As I’ve said repeatedly, his readers are considering a decision that will put them in eternal jeopardy. If they walk away from Jesus Christ and return to their old Jewish faith, they will lose everything they had in Christ (Heb. 10:26-31). Verse 31 says it all. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” That is what will happen if they loosen their grip on Christ. So, our author appeals to them one last time with a very clear picture (verses 1-18) that puts the exclamation point on his argument. Then, he gives the great “so what” with a simple “therefore, since… let us….” (verses 19-25).
The picture he paints focuses on the two words, stands and sat. (verses 11 and 12) Those words are at the heart of the now familiar contrast between Judaism and Jesus: every priest/this priest, day by day/for all time; same sacrifices that can never take away sins/one sacrifice for sins. The new point is that all of those priests had to keep standing at their posts, performing the same work over and over. There was no chair in that old sanctuary, no place for those priests to sit down and rest from their work. There was a table and an altar and candlesticks and a basin, but no chair, because those priests were never done. Jesus sat down, because his work was done. And he sat, not in an ordinary chair in the sanctuary on earth, but on the throne at the right hand of God (Rev. 5:6), the place of highest honor and authority in the universe. The work of atonement is completed; there is nothing left for Jesus to do. “[B]y one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (verse 14)
Those last words of verse 14 are significant. They suggest the “already, but not yet” of salvation. The work of atonement is finished; we are at one with God. Through Christ’s sacrifice we are completely right with God, “made perfect” as verse 14 puts it. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in the universe and in us. Jesus and his redeemed children still have enemies, the last of which is death. Those enemies have been defeated at Calvary in a spiritual version of D-Day, but Jesus and we still wait until their complete subjection at history’s V-Day, when they become his footstool (verse 13).
There is work to be done in us, as well. We have already been made holy (verse 10), but we are also being made holy (verse 14). We are positionally holy; in Christ we are perfect in God’s sight, complete saints. But we need to become personally holy; in our own lives we must grow in holiness, because we are still sinners. We have received holiness in Christ; we need to achieve holiness in our lives.
But there’s nothing we need to do to get right with God. After he made the once for all sacrifice of himself for our sins, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God. There is no need for any other sacrifices to be made. By his blood our sins have been forgiven. “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” With those words, Hebrews concludes the case against Judaism. They are the final nail in the coffin of that whole sacrificial system given by God himself. All of those sacrifices pointed to the Christ who would offer himself. Now he has, and all of that system, meaningful and helpful as it was, is done. The death of Christ was the death of that sacrificial system; “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.”
“Therefore….” Here comes the practical point our author has been aiming at all along. Now that you have understood the indicative of what Christ has done, here’s the imperative of what you have to do. You don’t have to atone for your sins; Christ has done that. All you need to do is accept his work by faith. An old definition of faith is helpful here. Faith is “the hand of a beggar reaching out to take the riches of a king.” Hebrews challenges its readers to maintain their grip on those riches, rather than letting them go and returning to that old system of sacrifice.
He breaks that challenge into five parts, five calls to action introduced by “let us” in the NIV. Here’s a helpful way to picture what verses 19-25 say. Think of those five calls to action as the five fingers of the hand of faith. All of them are necessary for a solid grip on the salvation achieved by Christ and received by faith.
But before he issues these calls to action, our writer once again summarizes the benefits of believing in Christ, in order to encourage them to act. You can and must do these 5 things because you have access to the Most Holy Place and because you have a great High Priest who has authority over the whole house of God.
No ordinary Jew would ever presume to enter the Most Holy Place in the temple. As we have seen repeatedly in Hebrews, only the High Priest could do that, and he could do it only once a year under strictly regulated conditions. No one is holy enough to waltz into the presence of The Holy One of Israel. But says verse 19, we have confidence (boldness, parresia) to enter the Most Holy Place. A new way has been made into the presence of God, not the way of animal sacrifice, but the way of Christ’s blood. In an obvious reference to the heavy curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, the curtain that was torn from top to bottom at the climactic moment of Christ’s crucifixion, Hebrews says mysteriously that the body of Christ was the curtain through which we enter into the presence of God.
We don’t have to solve that mysterious word play to get the meaning. Every believer in Christ has direct access to the very presence of God; we don’t need some human priest, or some animal sacrifice, or some elaborate ritual. That’s because, we already have “a great high priest over the house of God.” We don’t need any other. Therefore, we can do the five things he calls us to do. And we must, or we’ll lose our grip on the salvation purchased at such cost.
The first command here was the hardest for an orthodox Jew, even as it is today for a traditional Catholic or a guilt ridden Evangelical or a secular agnostic. “[L]et us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” If the scene at Sinai in Exodus 20 is any indication, the typical Jew was afraid to approach God directly. “When the people saw the thunder and the lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance….”
They were wise to do so, but here our writer says that a new day has come. Now, we can draw near to God with confidence because of Christ. But, adds our text, remember that God is God, not your ole buddy. We can draw near if we have a sincere heart, if we have full assurance of faith, if we’ve been sprinkled with the blood of Christ so that our conscience is clean, and if we’ve been washed with water (probably a reference to baptism).
As we preach this, we’ll need to be careful not to turn those four things into rigid conditions for approaching God. Will God refuse to hear us if, for example, we are having a crisis of faith and we’re not so sure at the moment? Or is it really true that God will receive only the baptized at the throne of grace? We have free access to God because of Christ, not because of our qualifications. But if we want to draw near to God in prayer, so that we experience and enjoy his nearness, we must do so in sincere faith relying completely on the cleansing of Christ symbolized in our baptism. Think of such prayer as the index finger on the hand of faith by which we maintain a firm grip on our salvation.
Second, “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” These Jewish Christians were thinking of going back, back in time to the old ways. No, says Hebrews, you have to look forward, forward to the final fulfillment of the promises of God. Yes, it’s been a while since Jesus was here and especially since he promised to come back. So, I know you wonder if he ever will, or if this delay means that the whole thing is just a dream, a myth, a lie. What you have to do now is hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. The One who promised to return is faithful. The One who was faithful in fulfilling all of those Old Testament ordinances will be faithful in fulfilling his final promise. If you give up that hope, your grip on salvation will weaken. Think of that as the middle finger on the hand of faith.
Third, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good works.” A key part of keeping the faith is to act on your faith. If faith and hope are the index finger and the middle finger of the hand of faith, then love is the ring finger. You can’t keep a firm grip unless your faith and hope go to work in love. So let’s think hard about how to spur one another on to love and good works. As a psychologist friend once said, “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” To keep your grip, you have to do acts of love. As you live your Christian faith and hope, you won’t be looking back at the old ways of Judaism.
Fourth, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing….” Clearly, the writer is talking about “going to church,” going to the place where Christians meet in order to strengthen their faith, hope, and love. Indeed, the word “meeting together” comes from the root word synagogue. In order to maintain a strong grip, you absolutely need to keep meeting together, as the early church did in Acts 2. In Hebrews we are into the second generation of the church, and already people are forsaking that primitive practice.
Indeed, some were in the habit of “skipping church” already. Maybe they thought they already knew the gospel and thus possessed the salvation given in Christ. So they didn’t need the routine of gathering together. Or maybe they were busy with other things, or exhausted from a full week, or attracted by recreational activities, or intimidated by the pressure of non-church going friends and family. These folks were the vanguard of today’s millions who believe in Christ, but don’t go to church, thinking that it isn’t really necessary. But already back then, at the beginning of the Christian church, our writer knew that if they stopped gathering together, their faith, hope and love were in jeopardy. Think of this as the opposable thumb of the hand of faith. The fact is that we cannot maintain our faith, hope and love on our own. We need the support of the rest of the Body of Christ if we are going to keep our grip.
Finally, “let us encourage each other….” This is a sort of appendage to the previous word. Gathering together is helpful for faith if we encourage each other during that time together. Now, there’s a sense in which simply being together is an encouragement. After a week out in the world where it seems that very few follow Christ, it is heartening to gather with a bunch of folks who do follow him. But if we simply walk in and walk back out with no human contact, we miss much of the strengthening power of corporate worship. Interaction between Christians in the setting of worship is crucial in keeping our grip. Sharing our faith, expressing our hope, and showing our love as we gather together will encourage us to hang on.
All of these things are necessary for our perseverance, especially as the Day of Christ’s return draws nearer (verse 25). Our writer makes that point because that Day had delayed so long. The first generation of believers was dying off by now. They had heard the word about his return directly from Christ or the angels or the apostles. But he hadn’t come yet, and these second generation Christians were perhaps facing a crisis of faith over that delay. So Hebrews reminds them that there are signs that his coming is near. You should always do these 5 things, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
How did they see it? Perhaps in the recent trouble in Jerusalem that culminated in the destruction of the Temple. Perhaps in a subtle increase in the pressure of persecution. We see the approach of the Day in the “signs of the times” trumpeted in our newspapers. The point of our writer is that this is not the time to loosen your grip on salvation. You’ve held on this long. Don’t let it go now. This is an important word for our moment in history, when there are so many challenges to the Christian faith. Now, especially, is the prime time to wrap all five fingers of the hand of faith around what you have in Christ. As millions are drifting away from the church, hang on for dear life.
The horrifying videos of hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of the Middle East into Europe where they hope to find a new life reminded me of those millions of Jews who lost their lives in Europe during the Holocaust of WW II. Hitler named his effort to rid the world of the Jews “the Final Solution.” Thank God that it wasn’t. And thank God for his Final Solution to all the bloodshed of human history. Christ’s blood was shed to restore God’s Shalom. The fact that we don’t see that Shalom yet makes it hard to hang on to our faith. That’s why it is so important to keep preaching the same old thing the way Hebrews does. God’s Final Solution has already been accomplished and it is being accomplished, so hang on to Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2015
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 Commentary