Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 28, 2018
Hebrews 7:23-28 Commentary
This may not seem like a particularly appropriate Sunday on which to preach about priests. After all, Protestant Christians are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Reformation that the corruption of the Roman Catholic priesthood in part fueled.
What’s more, the Reformation emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Since Protestant Christians recognize that all believers can access God directly through prayer, most assume they no longer need priests to intercede for them.
Yet that certainly wasn’t the case for this week’s epistolary lesson’s first hearers. The Jewish faith that some of those Jewish Christians were reevaluating saw priests as necessary intercessors between a holy God and God’s sinful people.
However, Hebrews 7 notes that there were numerous problems with both priests and the priesthood. In verse 23 its Preacher says, “There have been many of those priests.” One historian counted 83 high priests from the time of Aaron to the end of worship in the temple. That’s because “death,” says the Preacher, “prevented them from continuing in office” (23).
On top of being mortal, Judaism’s priests were also spiritually fragile. So they had to repeatedly perform sacrifices, day after day, week after week, year after year, as long as they lived (26). Because it wasn’t just that those sacrifices didn’t have the power to actually forgive sins. It’s also that both the priests and the people they served just kept on sinning.
Those who proclaim Hebrews 7 know that even the best human beings fail every day. Faith weakens. Faithfulness deteriorates. Today’s sins, notes one colleague, overwhelm yesterday’s offerings. So Israel’s aging priests had to trudge back to the sanctuary in an endless cycle of sin and sacrifice, not just on behalf of those they served, but also for themselves. In fact, apparently the first offering they placed each day on the altar was for their own sins.
On top of that, priests, pastors and other leaders just keep dying. Tim was my classmate at Calvin Seminary. We served our first churches about 15 miles from each other in Iowa. Yet just a few years ago Tim died of cancer at the relatively young age of 54. To paraphrase Hebrews’ Preacher, “Death prevented him from continuing in office” (23). Tim’s death caused the church he’d so faithfully served to need to find a new pastor.
Yet even if those who proclaim Hebrews 7 don’t die while serving as our church’s pastor, eventually our churches too will have to find a new pastor. Because pastors don’t just die. We also retire or move to other areas of service and ministry.
Only one Pastor never moves to another church, retires or dies. In fact, only one Pastor-Priest has no character flaws or moral failures. Jesus will never have to be suspended, deposed or excommunicated. Nothing can keep Jesus, by his Spirit, from always being there for God’s adopted sons and daughters, full of sympathy, grace and mercy.
So God’s people no longer have to go out and find a goat or other offering for someone to sacrifice on our behalf. You and I no longer have to sacrifice something of ourselves to make God happy with us. It’s not just that those things can’t make God’s adopted children perfect. It’s also that God has given us, in Jesus Christ, a new kind of access to God. In fact, Jesus is so “holy, blameless [and] pure” (26) that he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself and then for the rest of us.
Yet Jesus trudged through what Tom Long, to whose commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation Series I owe a great deal for this and other Sermon Commentaries, calls “the muck and mire of human life.” He experienced nearly every test, underwent almost every trial and endured virtually every temptation people have ever experienced. Yet Jesus emerged from it not defeated but perfect, not disobedient but obedient. He remained faithful in a way that no human has ever been or ever will be again.
As a result, says the Preacher in verse 25, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him.” Jesus saves us both in every way necessary and for all time. Jesus is able to save all those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 7 completely. He doesn’t even partially save God’s children and leave the rest up to them. No, Jesus totally finishes the job.
So those who preach and teach Hebrews 7 as well as those who hear us can stop worrying about how to save each other and ourselves, our country and world. We can even stop worrying about whether or not we’re saved. Jesus has saved us completely.
By sinning against God and each other, God’s beloved sons and daughters had created a gap between God and us that’s vaster than the Pacific Ocean. Yet God has graciously bridged the vast gap we’ve created by coming to us in Jesus Christ.
All God’s people need to do to cross that gap is to come with faith to God. But, of course, we don’t naturally either want or know how to do that. So God gives us not just Jesus, but also the Holy Spirit who equips us with both the faith and the desire to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures make explicit claims about the need for that faith in Jesus Christ. That leaves us to be concerned about the lasting fate of specific people who don’t come to God through such faith. Yet God’s children do know that God is far more patient and persistent than the most stubborn unbeliever. So as long as people breathe, we have hope they’ll faithfully receive Christ’s completed work of salvation, both now and always.
Hebrews’ Preacher uses two more rich phrases to describe Jesus’ finished work. Verse 27 says Jesus “sacrificed for” our “sins once for all.” Old Testament priests had to offer countless sacrifices because those sacrifices were neither sufficient nor lasting. By contrast, Jesus offered one sacrifice, himself, one time for all who come to God in faith.
In the midst of our bloody history, God has done once and for all what God’s adopted sons and daughters have refused to do: stop the bloodshed. Jesus finished it. So even as we continue to spill each other’s blood as well as harm the creation Jesus came to save, God has in Christ done what needed to be done.
Why then aren’t God’s beloved people done spilling blood yet? Why is our media full of reports of violence and bloodshed, both in our country and overseas? Why are some of us dreading spending time at the holidays with people whose political views differ from our own?
It’s not just that some people haven’t yet come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s also that those who have faithfully come to God have not always lovingly and peacefully lived for God. Christians have, in fact, sometimes treated each other and others even worse than non-Christians do.
That’s why God’s adopted sons and daughters thank God that Jesus, according to verse 25, “always lives to intercede for” us. Jesus’ sacrifice saves you and me completely and once and for all. Yet he’s still, in a sense, working for us.
Christians tend to emphasize Jesus finished work of saving us from our sins. So it’s easy to forget that Jesus is still on the job for us, helping us when we’re tempted, equipping us for obedience and sympathizing with us when we suffer.
Other pastors and priests are no longer available because they’ve died or moved away. Jesus is always available to God’s people because he’s forever on the job. And, in fact, Hebrews’ Preacher insists, Jesus lives to pray for us. It’s almost as if that’s now his most important job. We might even imagine Jesus enjoying few things more than praying for his adopted brothers and sisters. It’s as if he’s dedicated the whole time until he returns to helping us by interceding for us.
So God’s people can know that even when we can’t pray for ourselves, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when we don’t know exactly what to pray, Jesus somehow prays for us. Even when God’s people are sleeping or too busy to pray, he cares enough about you to pray for us. Even after we’ve sinned for the 100th time in a day, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when God’s children are wrestling with fear and doubts, Jesus prays for us.
One of the best things brothers and sisters in Christ can do for each other is pray for each other. Yet most of us sometimes forget to pray for even the people for whom we promise to pray. On top of that, we can’t pray all the time because we have to spend time working and sleeping. That becomes especially obvious when, for example, you have to help people in the middle of the night.
I don’t know and can’t explain just how one member of the Trinity can intercede for us before another member of the Trinity. But God’s adopted children can take great comfort in it. However, Jesus’ constant intercession for us also challenges us. After all, we no longer need priests to pray for us. But the prayers of God’s people are among the greatest gifts we can offer each other.
Mary Craig’s book, Blessings: An Autobiographical Fragment, deals in part with her experiences after her second son was born with a disability. She describes some of the letters she received.
“No one in their right mind could say that they were happy for us, but almost everyone I had ever known … felt compelled to write, to express deep feelings, or even to apologize for the fact that they did not know how to,” Craig writes.
“One letter that moved me to tears said simply: ‘We just don’t know what to say, except that you have our love and prayers . . ..’ The letters, representing as they did, so much human feeling, so much anguished groping for words, said more than the spoken word ever could.”
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