Preached March 25, 2012
St. John 8:46–59a
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We live in a time that is in some ways very parallel to the time of Christ and the Apostles, and in other ways it seems very distant from those times. I suspect that in actual fact, the two are almost identical in most important respects, even though we see them as very different. Let me focus your attention for the moment on the matter of sin, and the awareness of sin.
The ancient Hebrews seem to have been quite aware of sin. The prophets were constantly reminding them of their sin, even though they tended to wander away from God, so maybe they were really no more aware of sin than we are today. It is just that we read the words of the prophets in the Bible that gives us the sense that they were being constantly reminded and thus must have had a constant awareness of sin.
In Jesus time, the Pharisees had reduced the keeping of the Law of Moses to a matter of keeping 613 specific points of the Law. They thought that if they managed to keep all 613 of these points, then they would be without sin. Jesus exploded that myth quite thoroughly when he pointed out that their legalism was just that: legalism, and does not satisfy the intent and spirit of the Law at all. Thus even the most scrupulous Pharisee, one who obeyed everyone of the 613 laws without fail every day, was still found to be a sinner in the eyes of God.
This new teaching of our Lord Jesus most certainly did not win Him any friends among the Pharisees. They wanted to kill Him. They had thought that they were perfect, free from sin in the eyes of God. Now Jesus comes along and very clearly convicts them of sin, whether they are willing to admit it or not. They know in their hearts that they have been found out. They are sinners.
This is what the Law of God does when rightly understood. It shows us that we are sinners. We cannot stand before the face of God. We cannot save ourselves. All our good works, all our pride, all our wealth, all our learning, all our accomplishments here on earth count for exactly nothing in the eyes of God. We are condemned sinners.
Now the Jews had been dealing with this problem for a long, long time before the coming of Christ, ever since the giving of the Law at Sinai. They had been offering burnt offerings to God, and sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrificial animals and with the ashes of the burnt animals for the forgiveness of sins. The first references to this go back to the period of the exodus (Lev 4:26, Lev 4:35, Num 15:25, Num 19:9). This was while the people worshipped in the movable Tabernacle. The practice continued after the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, and there are numerous references to bringing sacrifices to the Temple where these sacrifices would be offered as holocausts for sin. In the Jewish system, just once a year, the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, to renew the reconciliation of man with God, but only the high priest and only once each year. The cleansing achieved through the ordinary holocausts and the sprinkling with blood and ashes did not really open the way to God directly for ordinary men, but only indirectly through the actions of the high priest. This was the Jewish understanding of how we deal with sin, and the Jews acknowledged the need to deal with sin because they recognized the reality of sin in the world.
Today is Passion Sunday, a day when we focus particularly on our Lord’s sacrifice of Himself for us. How do we see this in the light of what has been said about sin and also about the Jewish understanding of how sin is dealt with?
The Scripture material just ahead of our Lesson for today describes the things we have just been discussing, the dispensation of mercy under the Old Covenant according to the Temple worship of the Jews. But then our Lesson begins by announcing the coming of Christ, Hebrews 9:11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;
Now this is St. Paul, writing to Jewish Christians probably under persecution, and his overall goal is to show them how Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, how He is in fact the Messiah, and how Christianity is superior in every way to Judaism. He wants to show that Christ fulfills all the roles of prophet, priest, and king, and so this announcement is a part of St. Paul’s message.
St. Paul is saying that now, Jesus is the new high priest, the one who continually renews the connection between God and man; we are no longer dependent on an ordinary man to serve as high priest who can only go into the Holy of Holies once a year. Jesus comes to be both the priest making the sacrifice, and also the spotless sacrificial lamb to be offered up in that sacrifice, something far beyond the capabilities of any ordinary human high priest. He is an high priest of good things to come, referring to freedom from the bondage of sin, the release from the power of sin, and the true restoration of mankind as sons of God. He works by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands referring to Christ’s own body, His own perfect body, without spot or stain of sin and not made by human hands because of His extraordinary virgin birth.
Hebrews 9:12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, he carried the blood of the sacrificial animal in a bowl to be sprinkled on the altar. The sprinkling with blood was understood as a part of the purification rite. St. Paul tells us that this is not what Christ does at all since He carries his own blood in His own veins as he goes to the Cross to die for us, not the blood of some animal sacrifice. And it is with His own blood, shed for us, that He enters into the eternal Kingdom of God to prepare a place for us. That place is prepared for us because He has purchased our redemption by the sacrifice of Himself for us.
Hebrews 9:13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: This is a reference to the action described in Num 19:2–9 that describes the ritual purification of a person, according Jewish law. Remember how very far back in Jewish history this reaches, back during the period of the exodus!
Hebrews 9:14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? We can see St. Paul at work here, reasoning with the Jews, pointing out to them that if the blood of a slaughtered animal had any benefit at all, think how much more benefit there is in the blood of the Son of God! And Jesus does this in an eternal, complete, and perfect sacrifice, as opposed to the Jewish sacrifices that must be repeated year after year. The result is to purge your consciences, that is, to completely clear them, of sin, in order that you may serve the living God. The repeated sacrifices of the Jews never enabled them to do this, but the sacrifice of Christ does just this. This is the message that St. Paul is sending.
Jumping slightly beyond our lesson for the day for just a moment, consider Hebrews 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. The Jews recognized something that we rarely, if ever, understand today, namely the need for blood in a sacrifice for sin. This whole concept is very, very foreign to our modern way of thinking, so much so that we have real difficulty grasping the full significance of the fact of the shedding of Christ’s blood for us. The ancients were much more attuned to this idea than we are today. If you think about it, we are much more likely today to do something like release a pair of doves and call it a sacrifice, but this is no sacrifice at all by Biblical standards. Think back throughout the Old Testament to all the references to making sacrifice; every time, it involves the shedding of blood. Recall when Abraham took his son Isaac up on the mountain, he was prepared to slay Isaac when God provided the ram caught in the thicket instead. There are countless other examples, but they all involve the shedding of blood. This is why there is the on–going emphasis on the one hand on the blood of bulls and goats and on the other hand on the blood of Christ, but without shedding of blood is no remission.
Returning to our text for today, Hebrews 9:15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. The verse opens with the phrase, And for this cause, meaning to make an effective atonement for sin. This is a reference to the answer the reader is expected to have supplied to the question of the previous verse.
The word testament as used here seems to cause some problems for the translators, several saying that it ought to be covenant instead. The point being that a testament refers to a will and thus requires no mediator. Instead, Christ has said that He is to be the Mediator of a New Covenant, a new arrangement for handling sin. This is a one–sided arrangement, but it does require a Mediator to put it into effect. It is put into place by the death of Christ on the Cross, by His sacrifice for us. It replaces the Old Covenant, which was also a one–sided arrangement, put in place by God himself.
The final phrase reads, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. Christ does all of this, He makes this effective atonement for sin, for those that are called, in order that thy may receive an eternal inheritance. There is that phrase, they which are called, which we have heard before. Who are those who are called? This has come up in connection with Christ’s teaching in parables, and why some understand and some do not. Do you recall the phrase, Many are called but few are chosen? There is an almost mysterious quality to the Gospel of Christ. Why is it that some men hear it and respond and take it into their hearts, while others hear the same words and cast it by? I don’t know, but we are reminded of the parable of the seed that is sown along the path. Some falls too close to the path and is trodden under foot. Some falls on rocky soil and springs up quickly but soon withers. Some falls among weeds and is choked. But some falls in good soil and bears one hundredfold. Strange as it seems to us, it does seem clear that the eternal Kingdom of God is not the final destiny of all men by any means, and God certainly forces no one. So that brings us back to they which are called.
But for those who are called, the reward is an eternal inheritance, to spend eternity with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. There is nothing more to be desired than that. Just as Jesus Christ was the answer for the Jewish Christians, so He is the answer for all people today. Without Him, there is no salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.