Sacrifice is a powerful thing, and its power is bone-deep, soul-deep—it’s something we know at our core, at the level of ourselves that shapes and drives our instincts, whether we know or acknowledge it at the rational level or not. I said last week that sacrifice is central to worship, and that wasn’t just an Old Testament insight; paganism in all its many forms has always understood the same thing. Whatever god you worship, you must go with your sacrifice, with the blood you are willing to shed to appease and satisfy the god; then once you’ve done that, you can ask the god for what you want and expect to receive it.
Our modern forms of paganism, our various cultural idolatries, are less obvious about this, but they have the same understanding—you can see it in phrases like “you have to pay your dues”; those who worship the god Success, for instance, are expected to lay offerings of time and commitment on his altar, often accompanied by offerings of their marriage and children and other relationships. As I told our older kids last week in Sunday school, the old form of our English word “worship” was “worthship”—it meant to acknowledge someone or something as being of great worth; and the way you do that is by laying before the one you worship things which are also of great worth, to show that you value your god even more. You offer sacrifices.
But some might wonder if that’s still true in Christianity—we certainly don’t kill animals to keep God from striking us down; and haven’t we said over and over that we don’t need to earn our way into the presence of God? And yet, if we just remove sacrifice from the picture altogether, we get a bloodless faith and cheap grace. The Roman church long ago developed the understanding that the center of Christian worship is the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ in which they vicariously participate, but we don’t believe that—and in fact, this passage really rules that out—so what do we do with this?
The answer to this is really twofold. One we’ll come back to later, as Hebrews 13 tells us to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,” and calls good works and generous giving sacrifices which are pleasing to him. We no longer need to offer sacrifices in order to earn God’s love and approval, and we can no longer see them as levers by which we may compel him to do what we want him to do, but we do still need to offer them for our own sake. Part of the function of sacrifice in worship has always been, as I said a moment ago, to declare to those around us—and to our resistant selves—that God is this good, that he’s worth this much to us. If your praise to God is grudging or merely habitual, if your financial giving isn’t enough to keep you from spending everything you’d like to spend—if what you give to God of your money and your time and your energy isn’t a sacrifice and doesn’t really cost you anything—then that’s an indication that God isn’t your first priority, that there’s another god or gods in your life whom you worship more, because that’s where your sacrifices are going. As such, while we no longer sacrifice by commandment under the law, our willingness to sacrifice freely in gratitude for grace is still a meaningful thing.
At the same time, though, we must always remember that the old reason for sacrifice no longer applies. We should no longer be driven to sacrifice by fear, for God’s perfect love has cast out all fear. We should no longer be driven to sacrifice by the need to be worthy, to be good enough, for that was impossible for us, but it is possible with Christ, and he has done it. We should no longer be driven to sacrifice by pride, by the desire to show ourselves holier than those around us, for the work of Christ has shown us that we have nothing to justify such pride. And we should no longer be driven to sacrifice by the desire to earn our salvation, for our salvation has already been earned for us and given to us as a free gift; as we read last week as well, when Christ died on the cross, out of his never-stopping never-giving-up love, his will went into effect, and he passed on the greatest thing he had to give—his never-ending undying life—to us as our inheritance.
This is actually an interesting play on words in Hebrews, because in the Greek, “will” and “covenant” are the same word, diathēkē. A will is, you might say, a kind of covenant which only takes effect at the death of the one who made it, because only death makes the benefits of the covenant possible. Christ could not give us his life without giving it up himself; and so he did. And then, because he could not be the executor of that will and the one who put that covenant into effect while remaining dead, he rose again so that he could be both sacrifice and priest on our behalf.
In so doing, Jesus made us more than merely passive recipients or observers; in giving us his life, he united us with himself and made us his body and his temple. Hebrews doesn’t explicitly say this here, this truth comes mostly from the letters of Paul, but the author of Hebrews is clearly a disciple of Paul and is assuming Paul’s argument in making his own. That’s why we have this rather strange statement in verse 23 that “it was necessary . . . for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Is Hebrews saying that the heavenly throne room of God was polluted and needed to be purified? No, the “heavenly things” in view here are the members of the new spiritual temple of God—us, our souls, our consciences. This is hooking back to his point that the sacrifices of animals were not enough to cleanse the conscience—there had to be a greater sacrifice that could wash us clean from the inside out. Only the death and resurrection of Christ could unite us with him so that he could bring us with him into the presence of God as his people; only his sacrifice could wash away the stains and pollution in our consciences so that we could be united with him, and so that we could stand in his presence.
And he has done it, and he has done it once and for all; this is why he declared on the cross, “It is finished,” because there was nothing more that needed to be done and nothing more that needed to be added to it. We noted this last week, that Jesus didn’t have to enter God’s presence and then leave, and then do it all over again the next year and the next and the next, the way the old high priests did; but here the author expands on that, showing how ridiculous the idea would be. If Jesus’ sacrifice were not once and for all, if it were only good for a while, then he would have to keep dying and rising again and again—and that’s not how it works. With rare and temporary exceptions, people die once and that’s it, and so it must be for our Redeemer. We die once, by divine appointment, and then comes the final judgment; Jesus died once, by divine appointment, and then comes salvation for all his people. His sacrifice is eternal in its effects, reaching backward and forward in time and across all creation, but it is once for all in time; we do not re-enact it in worship because he doesn’t need to repeat it. We merely need to remember that it is by and through his sacrifice that we come to God, and to give thanks.
And because of this truth, we have a hope that will never fail us. Our politicians may promise us hope, but they can’t deliver; our self-help gurus and self-appointed experts may offer us hope, but their methods fall short. We may put our hope in our own efforts, but given enough time the market will crash, people will die, others will let us down, and we will fail. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” the world tells us, but eventually it will fly away again, and we can’t fly after it. We need more; we need Jesus.
And so we have this last line in verse 28, which I love; it’s easy for us to miss, but this connects right in to what Hebrews has been saying about Christ as our great high priest. On the Day of Atonement, when the high priest entered the sanctuary, all those gathered in the temple watched anxiously for him to come out, as the sign that God had accepted the sacrifice. When he did, they rejoiced. The apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus offers this description of one such day: “How glorious he was when the people gathered round him as he came out of the inner sanctuary! Like the morning star among the clouds, like the moon when it is full; like the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High, and like the rainbow gleaming in glorious clouds”—and in fact, it goes on for a while after that. This is the shadow of the glorious appearing of Christ; and one day, our great high priest will come out of the heavenly sanctuary and appear among us once again, just like this, to complete our salvation. This is our hope; this is the end toward which we worship; and our hope is sure because this is for us, because Jesus has done it, once and for all.