Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hebrews 9:24-28 [10:11-18] Commentary

Digging Into the Text:

I imagine that by this time, you preachers out there might be getting a little burned out with Hebrews and its priests and sacrifices and temples, and worried the congregation may feel the same way. Some commentators think that Hebrews is not so much an epistle in the usual sense, but a long sermon, which we are then breaking down into our 15 or 20 minute segments. That’s what makes it so hard for preaching. In a single sermon you expect to move around a single point from different angles, which is what the writer of Hebrews does. In multiple sermons, this might seem a bit repetitive.

The fact is that this text and last week’s (9: 11-14), while there are some new aspects, revolve pretty much the same ideas– earthly and heavenly sanctuary, Christ’s perfect and complete sacrifice. So I have a suggestion to make that might help, unless you feel that the lectionary is as inspired as the scriptures it divides into sermon-size segments.

The suggestion is to add a part of next week’s reading 10: 11-18 to the reading this week. If you’re afraid this might take away some punch from next week, notice how the text works rather than the chapter and verse divisions. Heb. 10: 11-18 actually rounds off and powerfully summarizes the whole argument that’s been developed from 4:14. Then at 10: 19, the writer (preacher) really begins the application portion of the sermon with the words “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence….” And here begins a really new section which applies the meaning of all the foregoing material about Christ’s High Priestly sacrifice to the life of the church.

So, that’s what we are going to do here, and those of you who want to stick with the lectionary as it is, can drop out when we enter the new section.

Hebrews has already been introduced to the two main ideas elaborated here: 1. The earthly sanctuary as a copy or type of the heavenly, and 2. The Day of Atonement as a type of the event of Jesus’ death on the cross. How much you discuss them now depends on how much you have dealt with them already.

One element here that might be worth exploring further is that Jesus now enters the heavenly sanctuary “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Here Hebrews picks up the theme with which it began. Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who has been made one with his human brothers and sisters.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (2: 14-15)

The wonderful truth here is that Jesus’ ascension, or as Hebrews describes it, his entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, means that we enter there with him. He is in God’s presence on our behalf. Too often, Christians conceive of the ascension as a sort of escape from the trials and degradations of this world. Hebrews wants us to understand that he ascends to the heavenly sanctuary, the dwelling of God, as our personal representative before God’s throne.

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered with the blood of bulls and goats to sprinkle on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. He did this while the people waited anxiously outside. There was a sense of danger attached to this entrance into the place of absolute holiness. Would the High Priest emerge unscathed, or would the sacrifice be unacceptable and the High Priest die on the spot?

In Christ’s ascension, Hebrews tells us, we do not wait anxiously to see whether the sacrifice is acceptable. Now referring to the sacrifice of the cross, it says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to bear the sins of many.” The cross of Christ is the one perfect and complete sacrifice for sin. It was ordained by God in eternity and willingly carried out by the Son as one of us.

And now, through Christ’s ascension, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God is not just an historical event, but a cosmic event, ratified and celebrated beyond the times and tides of human history at God’s throne. John pictures the celebration in Revelation:

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from[b] every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving[c] our God,
and they will reign on earth.”

So, we are not like the ancient Israelites anxiously waiting to see if our High Priest appears once more or is destroyed. We do not have to wonder if the sacrifice is enough to cover us. We are confident that Christ’s sacrifice is perfect and complete, and, therefore, we “eagerly wait for him.” to come from the heavenly sanctuary to save us and the whole creation in a final and complete victory over sin and death.

The writer [preacher] of Hebrews offers an analogy. “Just as it is appointed for mortals to die once and after that the judgement, so Christ, having been offered up once, to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Mortals die once, not many times, and upon their death they will appear before the judgement seat of God. But Jesus, our human brother has died once and for all, and In this one death he deals with finally and completely with sin. In his death sin is not only judged it is removed. So, when he appears it is not to deal with sin, that is, it is not to judge, but to save from judgement “those who eagerly wait for him.”

Notice also the way in which the instigation of this once for all sacrifice is described. It says that Christ was “offered up once to beat the sins of many.” Offered up implies that it was at the instigation of someone else. So, on the one hand Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to bear the sins of many,” and, at the same time he was offered up once.” Both are true, and both are necessary to understand the atonement.

The Son was “offered up” by the Father. Some have seen this as a form of “child abuse.” God punishes the Son, even as the Son begs for release in the Garden of Gethsemane. At the same time, the Son willingly offers himself: “not my will, but your will be done.” The atonement is a movement of love in which the whole of the Triune God is deeply committed and involved.

If you choose to include 10: 11-18 as suggested, the extent of Christ’s one sacrifice is stated even more powerfully. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God….’” Notice the three words or phrases that characterize Christ’s sacrifice: “single”, “for all time,” “he sat down.”

One offering is enough for sin, and not only for single sins, but for sin through all time, past, present, and future. The image of Jesus seated at God’s right hand further accentuates this. You only sit down when all the work is done. The servant always stands ready to do more, but the Son has done it all in the offering of himself, and he sits.

With this emphasis on the judgement having already taken place in the death and ascension of Christ, it may be important to notice a caveat that appears later in Hebrews, in a section not covered in the lectionary readings. It comes after next week’s text in which the writer/preacher urges the congregation to continue to meet together for mutual encouragement.  “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (10: 26-27)

This is one of the periodic warning texts in Hebrews that seem to almost contradict the main point. The writer/preacher wants to make sure the congregation knows that Christ’s sacrifice does not cover heedless, willful sin. There is no cheap grace here. Grace is for the ones who eagerly await his appearing.” Hebrews teaches, as do Jesus and Paul, that those who put their trust in Christ will also follow him in obedience and commitment. As Jesus puts it, “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Matt. 7:16)

That doesn’t mean, of course, that they will no longer sin but that in their continuing sinfulness. they continually confess their sins and seek to put it behind them. (I John 1: 2: 1-2)

Preaching the Text:

1). Preaching is a larger aspect of our pastoral care than we think. Most pastors have had the experience of someone from the congregation coming to see you and telling you that they just cannot feel forgiven. Guilt and shame continues to ravage their hearts and minds. It may not necessarily stem from some particularly heinous act, but from a more general sense of unworthiness, of lostness.

These people, known or unknown to you, are a primary audience for this sermon. They need to hear, again and again, the simple but staggering gospel message that each and every sin, including theirs, has been dealt with once and for all on the cross.  Think of them as you preach this Sunday.

2). Related to the continuing sense of guilt above, Christians sometimes have the idea that guilt is the natural habitat of Christians. We’re supposed to feel guilty because God always has his eye on us. They expect to be whipped with guilt by the preacher as though that’s their job. The Bible, however, speaks of the destructive power of guilt in Psalm 32 and elsewhere. Guilt does nothing to prevent us from sinning, but has the opposite effect of making us more likely to sin. That’s because we naturally act out who we are, and if our identity is of a guilty person, that’s the way we will act.

The identity we have in Christ through our baptism is that we are redeemed, and that our sins have been dealt with once and for all. Our call is to live out of that identity.

3). If you have Holy Communion this week (which, I think belongs in Christian worship each and every week according to the pattern of the Scripture and the early church) we have a tangible, sacramental affirmation of this text. According to John Calvin and the Reformed churches, as well as many others, receiving the body and blood of Christ actually feeds us with the once for all sacrifice of Christ. According to these tradition, the preaching of the word proclaims forgiveness and the sacrament confirms it.

The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way in Q and A 75:

Q. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?

A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.


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