Sometimes you just have to wonder where the inventors of the Revised Common Lectionary got their ideas for the choices they made. I mean, here we are, 5 days away from Christmas, surely one of the most pregnant times in the church calendar. The other readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent are clearly about the impending birth of the Messiah, but the epistolary reading is this obscure passage about sacrifice and obedience in Hebrews 10. What on earth were they thinking in choosing this text for this day? What does this have to do with Advent?
Those were my thoughts as I turned to this text, but then I saw what they were thinking when I noticed the two occurrences of “come.” “Therefore, when Christ came into the world (verse 5)…. ‘I have come to do your will, O God (verse 7).’” Not only is this text about Christ’s Advent, but it also gives us a profound perspective on the reason for his Coming. For centuries believers have asked the question at the center of the Incarnation. Cur Deus Homo? Why did God become human?
In Hebrews 10 we get the answer straight from the lips of the Christ. In fact, you can almost read this text as the first words of the baby Jesus. That’s how our writer says it: “when Christ came into the world, he said….” Here is Jesus’ explanation for his Incarnation, the first words he ever spoke. I don’t mean that literally, of course, but that would be an interesting, even arresting way to preach this Advent text. This text sheds the proper, albeit sobering light on the event that has become a sentimental, almost silly holiday; it was all about sacrifice and obedience, body and blood and atonement. In these words of Jesus, the atonement explains the incarnation.
The problem, of course, is that we have no record of Jesus ever having spoken these exact words. But that need not be an insurmountable problem if we believe Jesus’ promise that he would send the Spirit of Truth, who would lead his disciples into all the truth about Jesus (John 16:12-15). We find this sort of thing all through the New Testament, as the writers of Gospels and Epistles reflect on the meaning of Jesus life and death in the light of the Old Testament. That’s exactly what Jesus encouraged them to do in one of his post-Resurrection appearances. (Luke 24:44, 45)
So here the writer of Hebrews once again reaches back into the Old Testament to convince his readers that Jesus was better than anything the Jewish faith had to offer. (He had done this in 2:8-9, 3:16-19, 7:2-3.) In Hebrews 10:5-7, he takes the words of David in Psalm 40:6-8 and puts them in the mouth of the Son of David, because in his Spirit-inspired mind those words capture perfectly what the coming of the Christ meant. In John 16:14, Jesus said that the Spirit “will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” So the writer of Hebrews could legitimately claim these words of David as the words of the Son of David.
Be aware, however, that our writer uses the Septuagint version of the Old Testament throughout his letter. That Greek translation differs in some significant points from the Hebrew version. Most important here is the last line of verse 5. While the Masoretic text says, “ears you have dug for me,” the Greek says, “a body you have prepared for me.” Some scholars go to great lengths to show how the Greek and the Hebrew are related; the ear is part of the body, the open ear is necessary for the obedience that is central to the mission of the Messiah, etc. But the simplest explanation is that our writer only had access to the Septuagint, so that is what he used. And the concept of a “body prepared” is central to his argument, because it was through the sacrifice of Christ’s body that “we have been made perfect….”
Textual issues aside, the point of our text is very clear. The sacrifices of the Old Testament have been fulfilled and replaced by Jesus. Using four different words (sacrifices, offerings, burnt offerings, and sin offerings) our writer sums up the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament. He makes shocking statements about them. God did not desire them. God was not pleased with them. Even though the law of God required them to be made, they have now been replaced by Jesus. Jesus “sets aside the first (the sacrifices) to establish the second (his obedient sacrifice).” One cannot imagine a more direct offensive against another religion. In our day, such an attack might be labeled a hate crime.
But our writer does not hate Jews or the Jewish faith. Indeed, his whole purpose is to insure the ultimate salvation of his Jewish readers. And, as I’ve said, his tactic is to show that, although the Jewish religion is wonderful and helpful and God given, God has now done a new thing that makes the old obsolete. That new thing is summarized in those first words of the Christ in verse 7. “Here I am…. I have come to do your will, O God.” Israel waited for years in the silent God-forsaken darkness, but then the Son of God (cf. Heb. 1:1-4) bursts on the scene. “Here I am.” After God’s people tried and failed to do God’s will for centuries, God’s Son comes “to do your will….” This is not an insult to the Jewish people; it is the best news they (and we) have ever heard. God has come to do for you what you could not do for yourself.
What did the Christ come to do? To do God’s will, to follow Torah to the letter and in its spirit. That’s what verse 7 means when Jesus says, “it is written about me in the scroll.” Some see that as a reference to the multiple prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, some of them obscure until illumined by the life and Spirit of Christ (as here with Psalm 40). But given the context here, it is more likely that Jesus is talking about Torah as the script for his life. Torah describes my life. To keep Torah is my written duty. Obedience to God’s will written in the scroll is the way I will save you. What you could not do, I will do perfectly. I will stick to the script(ure).
So does that mean that we are saved by the life of Jesus? Can we do away with that horrible business of his death? Can we finally dispense with all that talk about his sacrifice on the cross and atonement through his blood? All the negative talk about sacrifice here in our text might seem to lead in that direction. But our writer is very clear that Christ’s obedience also involved his death, as Philippians 2:8 put it (“he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”). Verse 10 makes that crystal clear. “By that will (that is, by doing that will), we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.” It was God’s will that Jesus not only live by Torah perfectly, but also that he die on the cross as though he was a lawbreaker of the worst sort. We are made holy not only by his holiness, but also by his cursedness. (Older theologians refer to Christ’s active obedience and his passive obedience.) What we should experience because of our sin, he experienced for us in spite of his sinlessness. If that seems a bit of a stretch, see the following verses where the writer explicitly speaks of the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrificial death as opposed to the ineffectual sacrifices of bulls and goats.
A couple of questions beg for an answer. If the sacrifices that fill the Old Testament were ultimately ineffective in saving anyone, why did God require them? One reason is found right before our reading. Verse 3 says they were “an annual reminder of sins.” Lest people forget that they have sinned against a holy God, God gave these sacrifices to remind them that they were sinners in need of salvation. They also called people to cleanness, as they provided external purification. Further, those sacrifices gave tangible expression of a devoted and obedient heart. They were, in other words, a sign of a sacrificed life, a la Romans 12:1, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God….” And finally, all those sacrifices pointed ahead to the Great Sacrifice that would be made by God’s own Son. They were types without which the antitype would have been incomprehensible. How would anyone have known why that little baby was born in Bethlehem and why the grownup Jesus died on Calvary if the whole idea of obedient sacrifice had not been revealed so vividly in the Old Testament sacrifices?
Second, if “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” why are we still so unholy? One of the greatest arguments against the Christian faith is that Christians don’t seem all that different than anyone else. It would seem that the work of Christ was as ineffective as those Jewish sacrifices. C. S. Lewis answered that objection by pointing that Christ doesn’t necessarily make Christians better than non-Christians; he makes Christians better than they would have been if they weren’t Christians.
That’s interesting and true, but that’s not how Hebrews 10 answers the question. It points to the “already, but not yet” of salvation by using two different verb tenses in verse 10 and 14. We “have been made holy” and we “are being made holy.” We are positionally holy in Christ, but we are not yet personally holy in our lives. Or put it in terms of justification and sanctification. We have been declared righteous, so we are holy in God’s sight. But we haven’t yet achieved personal righteousness, so we are unholy in the eyes of the world (and in our own eyes). We wait, as the Christ does, for the completion of our redemption, for his Second Advent, when” all his enemies [shall] be made his footstool.” (verse 13)
All of this theologizing puts Advent and Christmas in a different light, doesn’t it? All of the hoopla in the world’s celebration of Christmas has little to do with Christ, except maybe a sentimental nod in the direction of an innocent babe cooing in a manger. Our text reminds us that this innocent came into a world that seemed to be God forsaken. Into the silent darkness came the Son of God exclaiming, “Here I am…. I have come to do your will, O God.” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom he is well pleased.”
Most parents look forward eagerly to their child’s first word and they remember it forever after. Was it “mama” or “da?” Our older son’s first word was unusual. We lived in a parsonage on a busy four lane road, and he loved to watch the cars and truck whiz by. He would stand by the window for hours, dancing with glee for every passing vehicle. We would join him, shouting “car” and “truck.” So it’s not surprising that his first intelligible word was “fruck.” Cute, but hardly profound, unlike the first words of the Christ in our text. “Here I am…. I have come….”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 20, 2015
Hebrews 10:5-10 Commentary