This week’s Epistolary Lesson is a bloody one. In fact, it’s so bloody that citizens of the already figuratively blood-soaked 21st century may be uncomfortable with it. Even its preachers and teachers may wonder how to apply Hebrews 9’s truths to a world that’s already in some ways soaked in the blood of war, ethnic conflict and violence.
This week’s “bloody” Lectionary Epistle points back to what Christians generally call the Day of Atonement that Leviticus 16 describes. That Day of Atonement was also a bloody business. On it, after all, the priest would slaughter both a goat that had been chosen by lots and a bull.
He would then sprinkle some blood from both animals in front of and on the cover of the ark, as well as in front of and on the atonement cover. The priest would also sprinkle blood in the Tent of Meeting as well as on the altar of burnt offering.
The term “scapegoat” originates with the Day of Atonement. After all, on that day Israel’s priest would lay his hands on a goat, symbolizing the transfer of Israel’s sin onto that animal. The priest then chased the goat to die out into the desert.
The Day of Atonement, however, was very smoky as well as bloody. After all, the priest sprinkled incense on burning coals to obscure the ark from the peoples’ sight. At the end of the Day, someone also brought all of the sacrifices to a place outside the camp where he burned them.
Yet in the midst of all this bloodiness and smokiness there was, what’s more, quite understandably, much washing. After all, in preparation for the Day of Atonement’s ceremony, the priest would wash himself. After someone took the scapegoat out into the desert, he also washed himself.
After the priest had performed the Atonement’s ceremonies, he again washed himself. On top of all that, outside the camp, the man who burned all of the sacrifices also washed both his clothes and himself before rejoining the people.
We can imagine, however, that the Day of Atonement was also a noisy business. Think, after all, of what all the bleating of the goats and the bellowing of the bulls being slaughtered sounded like.
The priest did much of that smelly and smoky, bloody and noisy work on the Day of Atonement. In fact, Hebrews 9:7 says, “only the high priest” walked on the extremely sacred ground that was the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle.
That was, however, dangerous work. After all, Old Testament priests stood in the gap between our most holy God and a sinful people. In fact, when priests entered the Most Holy Place, they did so with ropes tied around their ankles. That way someone could safely pull them back out in case God angrily struck them down.
All of the Day of Atonement’s drama and seriousness pointed to the desperate seriousness of peoples’ sins. God commanded the Israelites to offer these sacrifices in order to help them understand how much it would cost to deliver them from their sins.
Yet as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, no creature could actually pay for our sins. No goat or calf, after all, can bear the full weight of and release others from God’s wrath. No, to pay for our sins God’s adopted sons and daughters need someone who is “truly human and truly righteous, yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.”
On top of that, as we read in Hebrews 9:9-10, “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”
Those are some of the reasons why Christians profess that all of the Day of Atonement’s blood, smoke and ritual finally point God’s people ahead to the Messiah. It points us to the way God graciously gave Jesus us to set us completely free and make us right with himself. Jesus Christ, however, entered God’s presence not on the basis of the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood.
Jesus was, then, in a real sense, both the High Priest and the sacrifice. He both offered the atoning sacrifice and was himself the atoning sacrifice. However, Christ was also the “scapegoat” on whom God laid our sins and then sent him out into the “desert” which was death on the cross.
So Christians no longer believe we must sacrifice animals to please God. For Jesus is the Lamb of God who people sacrificed instead of goats and calves. Through his blood, he truly and fully takes away the sins of the world.
The Jews for Jesus website reports that because Jewish people no longer have a temple, they’ve replaced the old sacrificial system. They now substitute a kind of atonement by repentance, prayers and good deeds for atonement by animal sacrifice. In other words, Jewish people hope that those religious acts will pay for their sins and appease God’s holiness.
Thankfully, Christians profess, God has graciously offered a way that produces more confidence that arises not from our superiority, but God’s kindness. Hebrews’ writer reminds us in chapter 10:19, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” Believers no longer have to go through some religious professional, whether it’s a priest, rabbi or pastor, to have access to God. Christians no longer need people like pastors to serve as a kind of mediator, a go-between for Christians with God. For Jesus’ sake, God’s deeply beloved sons and daughters can all go directly to God, especially in prayer.
“Conscience” is one of the central themes this week’s Epistolary lesson. Hebrews 9:9 reminds God’s dearly beloved people that true Old Testament believers understood that the sacrificial system couldn’t clear their consciences. They offered the sacrifices, after all, only for sins they accidentally committed. The priests offered no atonement for deliberate sins.
Thankfully and graciously, then, Christ’s death also cleansed our consciences (14). Christians still sin, sometimes accidentally, but all too often quite deliberately. We grieve our sin and confess it to God. Even our conscience, as God’s children confess, accuses us of having grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments.
However, God’s people know that Christ has brought us peace with God. For Jesus’ sake, God won’t let Christians’ sin eternally separate us from the Lord. Jesus’ has paid for both our “accidental” and deliberate sins. He has appeased God’s wrath over Christians’ sins.
Of course, as we noted earlier, the 20th and 21st century’s violence has made some Christians reluctant to talk about what we sometimes call “atonement theory.” Their bloodshed makes it important for preachers and teachers to talk carefully about the need for Christ’s blood to be shed.
It’s hard to fully summarize all the ways that Christ’s death by God’s grace saves us. The Bible, in fact, uses other analogies to talk about its saving effects. But faithful biblical preachers and teachers look for ways to honestly admit and address the role of blood in our salvation that our text raises.
Through the gory death of Jesus Christ, after all, Christians no longer know tenuousness or uncertainty. We don’t have to just hope that God has written our names in God’s book of life. God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to tie ropes to our ankles, lest God angrily strike us down as we approach him.
No, because of what Christ has graciously done for God’s beloved children, God’s people have what Hebrews 10:19 calls “confidence” or boldness. As a result, you and I can “draw near to,” approach God in what verse 22 calls “full assurance of faith.”
Earlier God’s people’s approach to God was hesitant and fearful. Now can be humble and confident as well as joyous. Earlier God constantly warned people to keep their distance. God now invites us to draw near. In the Old Testament only the appointed high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and even then only once a year. Now Hebrews’ writer urges all Christians to come near God at any time.
Many commentators see this invitation as referring primarily to drawing near to God in prayer. Hebrews 9 means that we can pray to God boldly, in full confidence that he hears and answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake. God’s adopted sons and daughters can now humbly but also boldly approach God in prayer because God first humbly came to us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Many Jewish people consider Yom Kippur to be the most sacred of all their holy days, their “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Its tone and mood, writes John Schuurman, to whom I owe credit for many ideas in this Sermon Commentary, is like Christians’ Good Friday, only more so.
While Jewish people eat well right up until Yom Kipper. they don’t eat or drink, as well as wear perfume or lotion on its holiest of all holy days. They also don’t have marital relations, wash or, at least in some cases, wear leather shoes. After all, Jewish people believe that on Yom Kippur, they emulate the angels in heaven, who don’t eat, drink or wash either.
Jewish people believe that on Rosh Hashanah, which they celebrate eight days ago before Yom Kippur, God judges most of the world and writes God’s judgments in God’s book of life. However, Jewish people also believe that God grants a ten-day reprieve between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, then, our Jewish neighbors believe, is their last chance to show God that they’re repentant. So Jewish people rest and deny themselves just before its celebration because they believe that Yom Kippur is the last day on which they can convince God to change God’s judgment, if need be. For on that day, Jewish people believe, God seals the judgments in God’s book of life, at least for the next year.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 4, 2018
Hebrews 9:11-14 Commentary