It Is Finished

(Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 9:15-28)

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.

Worship and Redemption

(Leviticus 16:29-34; Hebrews 9:1-15)

When the Protestant Reformation finally broke loose after several false starts and began rolling across Europe, one of the things it brought with it was the practice of iconoclasm. Nowadays, the word “iconoclast” tends to be applied to anyone who merely snarks at the conventional wisdom, but back then, the word had a rather different meaning: iconoclasm was the deliberate destruction of statues, pictures, stained-glass windows, and other images in churches across Europe. Not all of the Reformers called for this or encouraged it; Martin Luther, for instance, eventually concluded that religious images and the use of the arts in worship were just fine as long as they were the servants of the gospel. Others, though, including John Calvin, considered that to be impossible, and argued that all images of any kind were violations of the Old Testament commands against the making of idols and must be destroyed. This is why the great historian Eamon Duffy titled his study of England through the Reformation period The Stripping of the Altars. The historical irony of this stained-glass window behind me, standing in a Presbyterian church, is truly nothing short of staggering.

Now, this might sound really bizarre to you—and in an absolute sense, I think Luther was right, not Calvin. However, remember what I said last week about reform movements—new structures by themselves mean very little; we’re used to the denominational structures that emerged from that period, but that’s not what the Reformers themselves were on about. Their focus was on cleaning away everything in the church that was obscuring the gospel so that people could come to understand that their salvation was in Christ alone through grace alone by faith alone—and so their primary target was the worship of the church. They understood that there is a connection between our worship and our redemption, but not the one that the church of Rome had been proclaiming; and if the statues and the windows and all that other stuff was drawing people’s attention away from worshiping Jesus Christ and hearing the gospel message, then however beautiful it might be, it absolutely had to go.

The problem the Reformers faced was that the people of Christendom were operating on something like a detached version of Old Testament worship: show up, watch the priest offer the sacrifice—not bulls and goats, but a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ—and simply from that, receive your allotment of grace to enable you to go out and be a Christian until the next time you showed up for Mass. They understood that our redemption comes through sacrifice and that that sacrifice is central to worship, but their understanding was passive in its essence. The Reformers sought to fix that by clearing the dead things out of the way and actually preaching the gospel, something which was not being done in most places at that time. This was a good thing; but with the human tendency to overcorrect, any good thing has its downsides, and so it was here. In this case, it was a swing to a more intellectualized religion—bloodless, if you will—that lacked that sense of the connection between worship and sacrifice, and thus worship and redemption; over time, that allowed for the development of the highly individualistic and self-oriented view of worship to which our culture is prone today.

In that respect, it’s instructive that the author of Hebrews continues to build his case for the supremacy of Christ by going on to talk about worship under the old covenant. In chapter eight, he’s pointed out that the priests of the law serve “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things”; in the first five verses of this chapter, he gives us a description of that copy—and specifically of its first version, the tabernacle which God told the Israelites to build in the wilderness to carry with them on their wanderings. It’s interesting that he uses the tabernacle here rather than the temple that was built later in Jerusalem; I suspect it’s because the tabernacle was clearly temporary, designed to be used only until something more permanent had been built to replace it. This underscores the author’s point that the whole system was temporary, merely preparing the way for its replacement when Messiah would come.

Of course, the tabernacle only had two rooms, while the temples in Jerusalem that followed it were much, much bigger—but at their heart were the same two rooms, the same small sanctuary. You had one curtain that kept out everyone but the priest of the day, who went in to the Holy Place to tend the lamps and the incense, and place twelve fresh loaves of bread on the table; and then after that, you had another curtain, and it kept out everybody. Only the high priest went through that curtain into the Holy of Holies, and only one day each year, and only under the strictest orders—once with a blood offering for the sins of himself and his family, and then again with a blood offering for the sins of the nation; and as I’ve told you before, somewhere along the line they started tying a rope around the high priest’s ankle, so that if he did something wrong and God struck him down, they could get his body out of there without having to go in themselves.

By this, Hebrews says, the Holy Spirit showed that the way into the presence of God had not been opened by the law. It was certainly better for the people of Israel to keep the law than not, but merely keeping the law—even true obedience to the law, not merely outward conformity—could not open the way to God; the veil remained outside the sanctuary, keeping out the people, and then again at the door to the Holy of Holies, excluding even the high priest from the presence of God. Why? Because the true barrier that divides us from God had not yet been removed—the barrier within ourselves, the barrier of our sin and idolatry. As we saw last week and as Hebrews emphasizes again here, the law could not remove that; and as long as that barrier remained, the curtain had to remain as well, for no one who has not been made holy can enter the presence of the most holy God and live. Under the law, even the holiest people could only worship God at a safe distance. For anything more than that, more was needed.

And then in verse 11, we get this: “But when Christ came.” When Christ came, he didn’t have to restrict himself to the earthly copy and shadow, he could go right into the real thing in the heavens, right into the presence of God; and he didn’t have to buy his way in with a sacrifice for himself, for he was already perfectly holy. Nor did he have to turn around and leave again, as all the priests before him had had to do; he could remain there to be the way for us, because he belongs there, because he is God. He entered the presence of God with his sacrifice, with the sacrifice he offered for us, and by virtue of that sacrifice—by the infinite virtue of his blood—he secured for us eternal redemption, purifying us eternally by his blood so that we might eternally come with him into the very presence of God. By his blood he removed the barrier in our hearts, washing away the stain of dead works from our consciences, cleansing us from all the things that defile us. By his blood we come before him; by his blood, we worship.

This is profoundly important: what Christ has become the way for us to do is something far greater than we usually think of when we think of worship. Worship isn’t just something we sit around together and do; it’s not just about the music we enjoy, or about hearing a sermon that makes us think, or about the time we spend together. It’s not something we can take lightly, as if it’s of no great importance whether we’re here or not. We are gathered in the presence of God; he is here with us, among us, within us, by his Spirit, hearing and receiving every word we say and every thought we think. The living God, creator of the universe, is alive and moving in this room; though the eyes of the flesh see painted walls and stained glass, in the Spirit, we stand in the company of angels, in the celestial Holy of Holies, before the seat of majesty of all being.

It’s a profound and costly gift, and we take it for granted. It’s interesting, I have many times heard people give thanks that we live in a nation where we are allowed to worship God without having to worry about dying for it, and that is indeed reason to be grateful; but how often do we stop to give thanks to Jesus that we can worship God without dying for it? The fundamental freedom to worship God in spirit and in truth doesn’t come from our Constitution, it comes from Christ. Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered, because it’s only through his blood, it’s only because he allowed himself to be butchered, that we can enter the presence of God.

We are always welcome to come to God, always, no matter what we’ve done, no matter whether we feel ourselves worthy or not—and I’ll tell you this much: it’s often those who think themselves most worthy who are least worthy, for exactly that reason, but they’re welcome anyway—we are always welcome, though we could never have paid for our invitation, because we didn’t have to; Jesus did, though he had to bear all the evil of Hell to do it. We are always welcome to worship God, no matter how unworthy, because of Jesus; we are only welcome to worship God because of Jesus, for we could never be worthy enough. Apart from him, the presence of God would be instant death for us, glory our unholy selves could never endure; because of him, to stand in the presence of God is life itself.

A Better Covenant

(Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 7:23-8:13)

The problem with reform movements and revolutions is that they don’t change people, just structures. Which makes sense, because structures can actually be changed relatively quickly without direct divine intervention—but structural change by itself really doesn’t mean much. I forget who it was who observed that there has never been a constitution that could withstand the people responsible for implementing it, but it’s true; words on a page are meaningless unless everyone is committed to abiding by them. Indeed, more than that, everyone needs to be committed to the principles underlying those words, not simply to twisting the words themselves however they need to in order to get what they want. If you change the system but people’s hearts are the same—even if it happens to be different people in charge—well, what you’ll get will be, as the old camp song says, “second verse same as the first, English version and a whole lot worse.”

Which is why it’s not enough for Hebrews to argue, as we saw in last week’s passage, that the priesthood of Christ is better because it has a better foundation; a better structure doesn’t mean much without a better leader. The author also has to show that Jesus himself is a better priest, and better suited to be a priest, than those whom he is replacing. He made a comment in that direction in the first part of this chapter, but here’s where he really dives in to make his case, and he says two things about that.

First, Jesus is a better high priest because he’s permanent. Human priests, like human pastors, come and go; some are better, some are worse, and whatever else may happen, all of them eventually die. This necessarily limits the work they can do; any minister who is merely human is temporary, and thus cannot offer permanent salvation. Jesus, by contrast, is eternal and immortal, and so he truly stands as our great high priest forever; he can offer us permanent salvation because no matter what, he is always there, interceding for us and drawing us to God.

Second, and most important, Jesus is superior in character to any merely human priest, because he alone is free of sin. It’s not just that he never did anything wrong, he never yielded to temptation in any way, even in his innermost thoughts; he never did the right thing for the wrong reasons, and never put his own desires ahead of the will of his Father in heaven. He faced every temptation, and never once chose to do anything except what the Father called him to do, and so he is perfect and perfectly good beyond even the imagined possibility of imperfection—he is perfect life incarnate, in whom all is perfectly right and as it should be. As such, he did not need and does not need to offer sacrifices for himself, because there was nothing of which he was even the least bit guilty; he could do everything for us. Equally, there is nothing in him that mars his work, nothing that could interfere, and nothing that could cause him to do less or worse for us than he has promised; because he is perfect, he is perfectly faithful.

Because of all this, Hebrews is able to declare without reservation that Jesus has brought us into a better covenant, one which is superior to the covenant made through Moses because it is the fulfillment and completion of that covenant. The Old Testament law set up a copy and shadow of the heavenly reality, preparing the way for Jesus to come and replace it with the reality; now that the reality has come, the copy is no longer needed. It has served its purpose—we must learn from it, but we no longer live under it. And if we can say that of the law of Moses, which was given directly by God to his people, how much more must we say that of all other human ideas, and especially religious ones? This isn’t to say that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is to say that we aren’t saved by behavior; it isn’t to say that there aren’t wiser and more foolish ways to live, but it is to say that we aren’t saved by human wisdom. It isn’t to say that human leaders don’t matter, but it is certainly to say that there is no salvation to be found in any of them, and that the best any of them can do is make things a little easier on the journey. Our salvation is in Christ alone, and we do not live by laws, principles, precepts, or rules; though we make use of all of them along the way, we live by grace, and grace alone.

The reason for this is made clear as the author of Hebrews quotes this passage from Jeremiah: outward law cannot change us, it can only change the ways that our sinful attitudes and desires express themselves. We might look better to the world around us—as long as they don’t look too closely, anyway—but we won’t really be any better. In truth, we might be worse. Law might only make us better liars, to cover up our sins, or better manipulators, to find other ways of getting what we want; or if we choose, as some do, to use the law to find our validation—if we choose to find satisfaction in keeping the law better than others so that we can feel superior to them—then the law can nurture spiritual pride, which is a subtle, deadly sin. The root problem is our tendency to idolatry, to direct our love, trust, and worship to people or things other than God, and the law can’t do anything about that, because the law is outside us and our idols are beyond its reach. Something else is needed if we are to become the people God made us to be.

This is why, back in the Old Testament, God repeatedly told his people that something new was coming. It’s why he promised through Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with his people which would give them more than just external laws to follow—it would be a covenant that would change them from the inside out, as God would write his law on their hearts and fill their minds with his truth, and enable all of them to know him, rather than having to approach him through the priests. It would be a covenant that would enable God to declare, “I will forgive their wickedness, and I will remember their sins no more.” It would be a permanent solution to human sin, and it would be a real solution, not just treating the symptoms by forbidding some things and demanding others, but healing the root disease in the human heart, replacing the rebellion and idolatry in our hearts with the truth and love of God.

This is the promise Jesus came to fulfill. He was the final prophet who proclaimed the deliverance God had promised from sin and death; he is the final high priest who offered the final, perfect sacrifice of his own life to pay the price for that deliverance, and who brings us into the presence of God to speak with him at the throne of grace; and he is the final king who has authority over all things because of the victory he has won. He has satisfied every requirement, and so he eternally guarantees God’s eternal covenant of grace with us; and because his sacrifice was of infinite value and the victory of his resurrection was of infinite scope, so the covenant he makes with us is infinite in its power and reach. There is no sin too big or too unimaginable, no sinner too great or too far from God, to be included and redeemed within this new covenant. This is the scandal of grace: it is truly free, and it is truly for everybody, no matter how unworthy. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, and all are welcome, if they will only come.

A Superior Priesthood

(Genesis 14:17-20, Psalm 110:1-4; Hebrews 7:1-22)

My grampa was a preacher with a really corny sense of humor. So is his second son, my uncle. I am the third generation, on at least one of those. With Grampa, one of the ways that showed itself was a real affection for bad Bible puns. Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible? Genesis 1, “In the big inning . . .” What did Jesus drive? A Honda—“The disciples were all in one Accord.” Who were the shortest people in the Bible? Knee-high-miah and Bildad the Shoe-height.

And then there was the one I never thought quite kosher: who’s the only person in the Bible without parents? “Joshua, son of None.” Because to that one, the author of Hebrews would rise up and say, “Wrong—it’s Melchizedek!” And while he’s sort of punning on this as well, he’s also trying to make a serious point. The high priests in Jerusalem received their position because they were part of the priestly tribe, descendants of Levi and of Aaron, according to the law God gave through Moses. Jesus wasn’t, so how could he be a high priest? And in truth, to be a greater high priest than those in Jerusalem, to be the high priest of a greater covenant than that given in the Old Testament law, wouldn’t he need a better claim than theirs? This isn’t the sort of thing we tend to think about, but to those steeped in the Old Testament, it was an important set of questions. Hebrews answers them by appealing to Psalm 110 and the story of Melchizedek.

It’s rather a strange one; in fact, the whole chapter is rather strange. If you go back and look at the first part of Genesis 14—this is after God has called Abram into the promised land, but before God has made his covenant with him and renamed him Abraham—war breaks out in the land. It’s rather confusing, because there are so many names, but some of the cities are serving the king of another city, and they rebel, and they lose. Among the losers are the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is a problem for Abram, because when he followed God to Canaan, he took his nephew Lot with him, and Lot’s been living in Sodom; when Sodom loses, the winners take Lot, his family, and all his stuff, as part of the spoils of their victory. Abram hears about this, takes all his servants, and sets off after those kings; he launches a night attack on them—quite a tricky one by the sounds of it; he would have made a good general—and he beats them and drives them off a long way north. It’s a remarkable victory.

On his way back home, he meets up with the king of Sodom, who’s understandably grateful, since Abram’s just gone out and won his battle for him; in fact, he’s so grateful, he heads north to meet Abram partway, in the King’s Valley, just south of Jerusalem. As Abram pauses there, something equally remarkable happens. The local king comes out from the city to the valley to play host, bringing bread and wine. He’s not worried about the presence of these armies; instead, he comes down among them to serve them, and to bless Abram.

This king is identified here in three ways, and we’ll look at these slightly out of order. One, he’s identified by his city, but by a shortened form of its name: he’s named as “king of Salem.” “Salem” is the Hebrew shalem, which is a form of shalom, which is the word for “peace”—and specifically used for the peace of God. “Jerusalem” means “city of peace,” but here the king is identified simply as the king of peace. Two, we’re given his name, Melchizedek, which means something like “my king is righteous” or “righteous king”—or, as Hebrews takes it, “king of righteousness.” And three, Melchizedek is named as a priest of God Most High. How that happened, we have no idea; indeed, we have no explanation for him at all—he just is. He blesses Abram in the name of God, and from the context, it’s clear that he also has Abram swear to take nothing from the king of Sodom except the necessary provisions for his expedition. Abram responds by tithing to Melchizedek, giving him a tenth of the spoils of his victory.

We have here, then, a completely unexplained person—we are told nothing of his lineage, or how he came to be here; he’s never appeared in the story before, and never will again—who is identified as a priest of the one true God, king of righteousness by his name and king of peace by his city, which will in the end be the city of God, who blesses Abram and to whom Abram bows and pays tribute. The founder of the nation of Israel acknowledges and honors him as priest—and in doing so, Hebrews argues, commits all his descendants to do the same. Thus Melchizedek stands as a higher authority and a superior priest to all the priests established under the law of Moses, which is yet to come; and this is confirmed in the declaration of Psalm 110, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the application of Psalm 110 to Jesus, the author of Hebrews finds his justification for declaring Jesus the greatest high priest and the guarantor of a better covenant than the old priests could offer. Like Melchizedek, Jesus received his priesthood not by inheritance under the law of Moses, but direct from the hand of God; he received a priesthood which existed before the law, which Abraham himself had acknowledged as superior, and he received it because of his perfect life and the perfect sacrifice which he offered, to do what the law could never do. The story of Melchizedek, coming at the very beginning of the story of Israel, even before God has made his covenant with Abram, is a sign that the law and the priesthood which are to come are not God’s final plan, but merely steps along the way; however great Abram is, there is someone greater. In Jesus, that sign is fulfilled, as God’s final plan is revealed.

And look at verses 18 and 19 of Hebrews 7: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” Now, that “useless” might seem rather strong—we may argue with individual laws, but typically we think of law as useful; and I think our standard assumption is that the people of the Old Testament were saved by the law, and now we’re saved by Jesus, and so the law was at least useful for a while. But consider that parenthesis: “the law made nothing perfect.” Perfection is what the holiness of God requires; only Jesus is enough for salvation because only Jesus can make us perfect before God, through his sacrifice on the cross. The law couldn’t do that, so ultimately, yes, it was useless. Its usefulness wasn’t real, only apparent.

The key here is a question Hebrews doesn’t elaborate on, probably because Paul had already done so in detail: if salvation came through the law, then what about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was given? The answer, Paul says, comes in Genesis 15, which declares that Abraham believed God, and God counted him righteous because of his faith; and we see it reflected here, as Abraham accepts the blessing and direction of the priest of God. The law did not, could not, save; its sacrifices were not sufficient for that purpose. The law simply provided a mechanism for the people of God to worship him, to bow to his authority and accept his will.

Just as the priests served under the law to mediate between God and his people, so the law in a broader sense served as a mediator: in the time before Christ had come to die for his people, the law and its structures mediated his sacrifice to them, offering them a way to express their faith in God, and their gratitude to him. It wasn’t the law that saved them; they too were saved by the sacrifice of Christ, they just didn’t know it yet.

In other words, even in the Old Testament, though the people of God were under law, they were still saved by grace, and were called to live by faith; you can see this all over the place, and especially in the prophets. Again and again, the prophets of God denounce the people, not because they aren’t performing the sacrifices and keeping the outward rituals of the law—they are—but because they’re doing so in the wrong spirit, for the wrong reasons. They think that simply doing the rituals is enough, and that if they just do them well enough, God will have to bless them—and that’s not the idea at all. In fact, that whole idea is paganism in a nutshell. God wants more; he wants their full devotion. He wants them to obey, not in expectation of earning a reward, but because they love him and trust him and are grateful to him for all he has done.

The supremacy of Christ, the supremacy of his high priesthood over all pretenders, is the supremacy of grace. We cannot please God merely by keeping laws, and we cannot live a good life merely by keeping laws. Looking good on the outside, keeping up appearances, measuring up, having success in the world’s eyes—none of that matters, none of that is what God is on about with us. The world is happy to play church dress-up and tell you that Jesus came to give you your “best life now,” that if you just follow the right rules you’ll be good enough to get everything you want—but that’s not the gospel, and that’s not Jesus.

We can’t be good enough, and God didn’t send Jesus so we can be; he’s about something far deeper than that. He’s about changing us from the inside out, making his love in us the deepest, most fundamental reality of our hearts and lives; he’s about teaching us to live by grace, to live in his love, both accepting it when we sin and when we fall short, and giving it to others when they sin and fall short. He’s about making us true Christians—not “nice people,” but little Christs.

The structure of Hebrews

In case anyone is interested, this is the structural analysis of Hebrews from which I’m working in this series; it’s not one I’ve seen anywhere else, it’s my own reading. I think the warnings are the key to understanding the structure of this book, which is mostly composed of triadic subsections, each of which makes an argument, applies it, and then warns the reader of the consequences of ignoring the message.

  • 1:1-14: Argument: Christ is superior to the angels

    • 2:1: Application: Take the gospel message seriously

      • 2:2-4: Warning

  • 2:5-18: Argument: Christ has been given authority over everything as high priest

    • 3:1-6: Application: Christ is superior to Moses and the Law

      • 3:7-19: Warning

  • 4:1-10: Argument: Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise of rest

    • 4:11: Application: Press forward to enter his rest

      • 4:12-13: Warning

  • 4:14-15: Argument: Christ is a unique high priest

    • 4:16-5:10: Application: We can approach God with confidence

      • 5:11-6:8: Warning

  • 6:9-20: Reassurance: God is faithful

  • 7:1-10:18: Argument: Christ is a better high priest of a better covenant

    • 10:19-25: Application: Live the faith fearlessly

      • 10:26-31: Warning

  • 10:32-11:40: Argument: Faith in Christ is worth keeping

    • 12:1-24: Application: The fruit of endurance is worth the trial

      • 12:25-29: Warning

  • 13:1-19: Closing applications: Life in the people of God

  • 13:20-25: Blessing and farewell

Soul Anchor

(Genesis 22:15-19; Hebrews 6:9-20)

Note: the title for this sermon was taken from Michael Card’s album on the book of Hebrews.

All of us, Isaiah declares, have gone astray, wandering away from God and off the path he set before us like a bunch of silly sheep who can’t see past the grass just beyond their reach; which means that all of us, frequently, need correction. We need our good shepherd to reach out with his crook, gently hook it around our neck, and pull us back the way we should be going. Which he does, by various means—one of those being, as we noted briefly a couple weeks ago, each other, and particularly through those whom he has called and empowered to lead the church. Correcting those who have wandered off the path before they can get into major trouble, not in order to inflict pain or make them feel bad but in order to help them get back where they need to be, is one of our responsibilities as Christians, and one which rests especially on Christian leaders; and it’s one which the Bible models for us extensively, because it’s the purpose for which a great chunk of the New Testament, including Hebrews, was written.

It’s a tricky thing, though, because we human beings are both resistant to correction, and prone to overreact, and thus to overcorrect—and overcorrecting can be just as bad as not correcting ourselves, and sometimes even worse. One good example of this comes from the aftermath of the Battle of Midway—when Admiral Kurita spotted a patrolling American submarine, he ordered an emergency simultaneous turn, 45° to starboard; one of his cruisers, the Mikuma, turned too hard, and the Mogami, in line behind her, plowed into her, flattening Mogami’s bow and breaking open Mikuma’s fuel tanks, leaving it vulnerable to be sunk by American dive bombers.

Trying to correct someone without overcorrecting them can be a fine line to walk, and it’s one that Hebrews takes very seriously. The author has come down hard on his audience because they need to understand the grave danger of their refusal to grow, and because he knows they’re resistant; but though he wants them to stop being so spiritually blasé, and so has used stark, grim language in warning them against their current, potentially fatal course, he doesn’t want them to overreact into despair and think themselves doomed, which would be just as fatal. Either one, really, would leave them focusing too much on themselves and too little on Christ, and thus heading in the wrong direction. The author wants instead to bring them back on center, back to focusing on Christ and putting their full faith in him, and so he follows this resounding warning with an equally resonant proclamation of the faithfulness of God and the sufficiency of Christ.

We read the first part of this last week, as the author declares his firm assurance that his hearers will not in fact fall away from Christ, that their salvation is ultimately secure because God won’t let go of them; but he goes further than that, in two ways. One, he grounds this assurance by reminding them of God’s faithfulness to Abraham; this sets up another reference to the story of Melchizedek, into which the author will finally delve in detail in chapter 7, and it also functions as a bit of a reassurance, I think, that the author isn’t asking these Jewish Christians to give up everything from their heritage. Indeed, the whole story of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people—including this story of God swearing an oath to Abraham, and thus in effect doubling the weight of his promise and commitment—it’s all still every bit as relevant and important as it was before; it just means differently than it used to, because the fulfillment and purpose of the Old Testament story has come in Jesus. Where the opponents of the church would have invoked Abraham to point to the Temple and the Law, Hebrews says no, Abraham points us to Christ. It all points to Christ.

God who cannot lie and who cannot go back on his word made a promise to Abraham which he ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, and this is why we have hope; indeed, where all other hopes will fail us in the end, here we have a hope set before us that will never fail. In Jesus, we need not worry about being swept away by the storms of life or capsized by their waves, for our hope in him is a soul anchor, a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul that holds us firm and steadfast where we need to be in the face of the worst life can throw at us. And notice why the author says this, because he connects it in to what he’s already said, and what he’s going to say, about the high-priestly work of Jesus: our anchor is secure because it isn’t hooked onto anything worldly, but onto the very throne of God.

In the temple in Jerusalem, the presence of God was understood to dwell in a little room right in the center, the Holy of Holies, which was closed off by a heavy curtain; it was the veil that protected the eyes of the people from the glory of God. Jesus, Hebrews says, has gone on our behalf behind the curtain, not merely of the earthly Holy of Holies, which is no more—at his death, the curtain split from top to bottom, ending this isolation of the world from the presence of God—but of the heavenly Holy of Holies, into the throne room of creation, the full celestial presence of his Father, and there he has anchored our hope to the very structure of the throne of grace. By the work of Christ on our behalf, the faithfulness and the character and the power and the glory of God are no longer a danger to us, they are the anchor and the essence of our hope. There is nothing greater, there can be nothing greater.

And notice, in verses 11-12, this is the reason he gives to encourage these Jewish Christians to press on, to hold fast to faith in Christ, and to live in the way of Christ. It isn’t ultimately “Do this or you’re going to Hell”—he’s certainly warned them of the danger of turning away from Christ, but he doesn’t want them motivated primarily by that warning, he doesn’t want them driven by fear. The warning is to help them see their behavior clearly and take it seriously, but their motivation for following Jesus should be positive, not negative. Nor does he push them with the language of duty and obligation; he doesn’t speak in the tones of command, or try to whip them along with the lash of guilt. He doesn’t threaten, or coerce, or cajole, or appeal to authority—whether his own or anyone else’s. These are all, every last one, popular tactics in churches all over the place, and probably in synagogues and mosques and centers of every other religion, too; but Hebrews uses none of them. Instead, he declares that he wants them to fully understand the hope they have in Jesus—which, yes, involves some effort on their part to do their best to understand it—and that he wants that to be their motivation to press on in the Christian life, to be imitators of God’s faithful people who have gone before them.

This is one of the key differences between the religion of the gospel and any merely human religion, even if that human religion uses the language of Christianity. Human religion is all about power and effort, command and control, bribery and coercion; it seeks, by one means or another, to make people behave in a certain way. It’s primarily about the outward self, because that’s what people can see. The gospel, by contrast, is first and foremost about our hearts, because God sees us as we are, all the way down, all the way through. It’s about shifting our deepest allegiances, freeing our souls from all the idols to which we’ve given ourselves so that we can give our allegiance totally and wholeheartedly to God; it’s about purifying and redirecting our deepest desires, the wellsprings of our motivation and conduct; it’s about setting us free from our fears and healing our distorted understanding of love. The gospel breaks the shackles of sin on our lives and changes the things that drive and steer us, changing what we do by changing why we do it and what we want to gain from it. The gospel says, “Fill yourself with the love and the grace of God, fill yourself with the full assurance of hope in Christ, and the rest will follow.”

Fallen Away

(Exodus 7:1-5, Nehemiah 9:9-21; Hebrews 5:11-6:12)

So a couple times now, the book of Hebrews has quoted Psalm 110 and the line, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” You might be wondering what that’s all about. Most likely, so were the people to whom this book was addressed. As such, you might have expected the author to move on and explain himself, because the Melchizedek reference isn’t obvious by any means; it’s going to take some unpacking, and it’s clearly important to where the author is going. But he doesn’t do that; instead, he gives them another warning. This is the fourth so far, but it’s the first of the two big ones in this book, and it’s fairly complex in its argument, so we need to unpack it carefully; there’s a lot that it’s easy to miss.

The key thing to remember is what the author has just been arguing, in the passage we read last week: Christ has fulfilled the core purpose of the law, he has completed in full, once and for all, the work that the priests and the sacrificial system could only do partially and temporarily, and so he has replaced the priests and their sacrifices. He is the final and greatest high priest who has offered the final sacrifice; nothing else is necessary, and nothing else accomplishes anything. The priests can continue offering their sacrifices if they want to, but those sacrifices are empty, meaningless, unheeded by God and outside his will—as indeed any human religious activities that are not centered on Christ are empty, meaningless, unheeded by God and outside his will. That may be the way things always used to be done, but it’s all served its purpose, and has now outlived it; God is no longer in it, and to the extent that the old sacrificial system now stands opposed to the worship of his Son, he’s actively opposed to it, and to all who maintain it.

This is, of course, a hard thing to hear; after all, this is an epistle to the Hebrews, to Jewish Christians who surely loved and valued their heritage and everything that went along with it. No doubt they understood the author’s point, at least to some degree; the question was, were they willing to accept all its implications? Were they willing to move on from their heritage, to accept that the law had fulfilled its purpose and the sacrificial system was no longer necessary? And in particular, were they willing to do so if it meant standing up to those who refused to accept that fact?

It seems clear that they were not willing; hence the author’s complaint in the end of chapter 5. “You’re going to have a hard time understanding this,” he tells them, “because your minds have become sluggish. You ought to be teaching this to others yourselves, but instead you’re making me go over the basics all over again. You’re refusing to act your age, you’re refusing to be mature—you’re acting as if you don’t understand all this, as if you still need to be treated as spiritual babies.” It’s not that they hadn’t been taught, it’s not that they didn’t know enough to know what was right, or what they were supposed to be doing; but they were sluggish, they didn’t want to actually do it, because they didn’t like the next steps they were supposed to take. They didn’t want to take the risk of faith, they didn’t want their friends who were still Jews turning against them; they had faced some persecution for Christ in the past, but if they bought in completely to what Hebrews is saying, they’d have a lot more to deal with, and they didn’t want that.

That’s why the author wasn’t able to just start off talking about Jesus as our great high priest, and why he can’t just plow right on and teach them about Melchizedek; it’s why he had to build up to that point with his other arguments, and why at every stage of his argument—including this one—he’s felt the need to offer a warning, to make sure his audience is taking him seriously and listening closely to what he’s trying to tell them. Clearly, though, he’s had enough of laying the groundwork, enough of talking about the basics; and in fact, he says, therefore, let’s press on to talk about the high priesthood of Christ. Why therefore? Because the problem isn’t that these Jewish Christians don’t understand this stuff. They understand it just fine. They just think they can get away with not committing to it, not living it out; they think they can keep one foot in the gospel and one foot in their old world—which in their case happens to be the world of Judaism and the Jewish law—and they’ll be just fine. In response, Hebrews sets out to show them how wrong they are, and why.

Now, the biggest part of that is coming beginning in chapter 7, where the author does exactly what he says he’s going to do and teaches them in detail about the high-priestly work of Jesus; when we get there, we’ll take several weeks to explore that, because he’s not kidding when he says it’s hard to explain. We’ll get there, and it’s worth it, but it does take some effort. First, though, he reminds them what they’re called to—“repentance from dead works and faith in God”—and lays out the consequences of turning away from Christ and that calling. Those consequences are severe; nothing less than salvation is at stake. It’s easy to slip into the mindset represented by the German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who once wrote, “I love to sin. God loves to forgive sin. Really, this world is admirably arranged.” The truth is very different. It is not that God loves to forgive sin; rather, he loves us and so he paid a horrendous price in the sacrifice of his Son in order that we might be forgiven. To sin casually is to take his forgiveness lightly, and to do that is to take the sacrifice of Christ lightly; and that is profoundly serious, and profoundly wrong, and not something God will simply brush off.

Now, it’s important to recognize that Hebrews here isn’t just talking about sin. There have been those who have tried to argue from this passage that any sin after conversion is unforgivable, and that’s just not the point here; this passage won’t support that, nor would that square with the rest of the New Testament. Rather, we’re talking about a very specific thing, one which is quite unfashionable to talk about these days: the sin of apostasy. This is the sin of those who are a part of the church—who have heard the gospel, who have seen its goodness and experienced its power, who have participated in its communion—and then have wilfully turned their back on it and chosen another way. Such people, Hebrews says, have deliberately chosen to crucify Christ all over again and to put him to public shame, and so for them, any return to repentance is impossible.

Now, does that merely mean it’s humanly impossible, or is Hebrews saying this is even impossible for God? Honestly, I don’t know. On the one hand, Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible.” On the other, Jesus also calls blasphemy against the Holy Spirit the unforgivable sin. We’re in one of those areas where Scripture doesn’t really give us a nice neat conclusion tied up in a white satin ribbon. But the argument here is clear, and it does parallel Jesus’ statement about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: if you reject the only means by which you may be saved, and the only way in which you can possibly repent, then you have nowhere else to go. Christ’s sacrifice was once for all, and nothing else is coming along to offer the same opportunity—if you decisively reject that, then you have locked yourself in a room with no windows and welded the door shut behind you, and there is no way out. There is no way but the One who is the Way, and if you turn your back on him, you have no way to go. Whatever else, this is certainly impossible by any sort of human effort or human choice.

There are those who have been arguing of late that our denomination is apostate; if you follow the news stories, you know why. For my part, I say it isn’t, for two reasons. One, I don’t believe a denomination, a bureaucratic and corporate structure, can be apostate, because it’s a thing. People are sinners, and commit sins, and we use many, many things to help us do so, but the things themselves are not guilty of sin. Two, it must also be said that what certain people, or certain collections of people, do is neither necessarily representative nor necessarily determinative of the denomination as a whole. General Assembly may well vote to reject the plain testimony of the word of God in any number of areas, but they aren’t the ones who decide; the presbyteries do, and so far, the presby-teries have swatted them down every time. What GA does gets the headlines, but it’s what the presbyteries do with it that matters, and that remains to be seen. So no, the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t apostate. But are we led by apostates? Are we led by people who have turned aside from the gospel to follow their own gods with their own laws? Ultimately, only God can judge that; but in some cases, there’s reason for concern. Which obviously means we must watch closely what they do and go carefully lest we be judged for following them, and believe me, we of the Session are doing exactly that.

The broader question that arises from this passage is, does Hebrews teach that you can lose your salvation? The answer is, if it does, it also teaches that you can only lose it once, and it’s gone forever—there’s no falling away and coming back and falling away and coming back—but I don’t believe that’s what’s in view here, because that isn’t where Hebrews goes with this. Rather, we see the author go on to express confidence that his readers haven’t fallen away from Christ, and aren’t going to, because God is faithful and their faith is real; like the field in verse 7, they have already produced real fruit. In Christ, they will escape the danger they face, the author has no doubt, because God won’t let go of them; but he still wants them to understand that danger and take it very seriously.

The truth is, we affirm the perseverance of the saints, that salvation is a work of God that we cannot undo, and that thus it’s impossible to “lose” our salvation; but nowhere does the Bible promise the perseverance of everyone we think is a Christian. Who are the saints? The saints are those who persevere. It’s why Paul stresses running to win, crossing the finish line, finishing well, fighting the fight all the way to the end; we can’t judge people’s hearts from the outside—we can barely judge our own. There are those who seem to run well for a while, but then they drop out, and in so doing, reveal that we misjudged them. It’s like Jesus says in the parable of the sower—it’s not just that the seed springs up that matters, it’s whether it can thrive despite the weeds, and whether the soil is deep enough to sustain the growth through the heat of the summer. And so Hebrews tells its audience, and us, not to get too impressed with ourselves, and not to take ourselves for granted; God is faithful, but we still need to keep running, to keep pressing on, to stay in the race, because we haven’t crossed the finish line yet.

The thing that makes this tricky is that it isn’t a matter of just working harder; this doesn’t boil down to “just grit your teeth and keep going.” That’s living by law; that is, ironically enough, one of the temptations we have to resist. In truth, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of folks who turn their backs on the church aren’t really turning their backs on the gospel, they’re turning their backs on that sort of “just do it” legalism; they aren’t rejecting Christ but a counterfeit, though that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get them to listen to the gospel. Following Christ, putting our faith in him alone, produces good works, but those good works are not the ultimate point, and our goal is not to get those good works by any means necessary; good works done in our own strength are like costume jewelry—they may glitter and sparkle on first appearance, but apply any pressure and they break. What God calls us to is, in truth, harder: to continue to live by faith, to continue to put our trust in the grace of God and the saving work of Christ, to continue to put to death our own egos and their demands for credit and attention, to continue to learn and accept humility and acknowledge that we are not enough, only Jesus is enough. It means setting aside the demands of our selves with our agendas and our plans, and letting ourselves be filled instead with the mind and the Spirit of Christ, that he would fill us and dwell in us, that he would mark out our way and direct our paths.

The Highest Priest

(Deuteronomy 33:8-10, Psalm 110:1-4; Hebrews 4:14-5:10)

As the author of Hebrews has been building his case for the supremacy of Christ, he’s been gradually zeroing in on his key point. All the way along, he’s had his eye on the Jewish law; as we know, one of the main attacks on the early church was from those who insisted that even after Jesus, it was still necessary to keep the whole law in order to please God, and the author is concerned that his hearers might give in to that attack. He doesn’t want them to go back to putting their faith in the law—which is to say, in their own ability to keep the law—and so he’s writing to strengthen their conviction that not only do they need Jesus, they need only Jesus, with nothing else mixed in.

Having shown Jesus to be superior to the angels who delivered the law, to all other authorities including the law, and to the Sabbath which is the law’s greatest earthly blessing, he now arrives at his central point, one he’ll focus on (from a couple different angles) through the middle section of the book: Jesus replaces the core of the law. He’s not merely superior to it as an authority, he’s superior to it in its very essence; what the law could never fully accomplish, he accomplished. The Old Testament law can never be understood in the same way again, because Jesus has fulfilled the purpose for which it was created. It’s still the word of God, we still need to understand it and learn from it, but we don’t live under it anymore; we live under grace, in Christ.

This may sound strange, because we normally think of law as something which is designed to compel and control behavior, to make people do certain things and not do other things; you can find a great many churches that preach the Old Testament that way. For that matter, you can find a great many churches that preach the New Testament that way. That’s a very common form of religion, because it’s what we human beings keep trying to collapse our relationship with God down to—if I do enough good things and avoid enough bad things, God will be pleased with me and will give me what I want. That’s a very common form of religion, but it isn’t the gospel, and it isn’t what following Christ is about; and in fact, it isn’t what the Old Testament is about either, or ever was about. The core purpose of the Old Testament law was to provide salvation from sin to the people of God by providing a means by which the price for their sin could be paid and the holiness of God could be satisfied. That means was imperfect, and could only be temporary, but it was the main reason for which the law existed.

This can be hard for us to understand, because as I’ve said before, we Protestants don’t understand priests. We don’t really know who they are, or what they do, or even what the whole priesthood thing is about—the whole idea is unfamiliar to us. One reason for this, of course, is that we aren’t Catholic (though a few of us used to be), and so we don’t have priests. We know the Catholic church across town has a priest, but for most of us, that’s just external knowledge, not a matter of experience; we know that the pastor there has the title “priest” and is addressed as “Father,” but most of us don’t really know what that means, because it’s never been a meaningful part of our lives.

That being the case, though, it needs to be said that even that would only get you so far, because Catholics don’t understand priests the same way the Old Testament did either. There are similarities, but also some very real and significant differences, and especially the whole sacrificial system—to my knowledge, no Catholic priest has ever sacrificed so much as a pigeon, let alone a cow. As such, even understanding the Catholic priesthood is of limited value in understanding the Old Testament priesthood.

To understand the central focus of this book and its argument, we need to address that, because Hebrews puts considerable effort into showing that Christ is the new and greatest and final high priest, that he has replaced the entire human priesthood and the whole sacrificial system which they served; to get a handle on why the author does that and what he’s really trying to prove, we need at least a basic grasp on what the priests did and why, and how the system worked.

To get the essence of that, look at our passage from Deuteronomy—this is from Moses’ blessing on the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came; look specifically at verse 10, and you can see the two parts of the priest’s work, and the two directions in which that work moved. First, “They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law.” This is the work of representing God to Israel, of teaching them the will and the ways of God and proclaiming God’s word to them, and this part of the job, we’re familiar with.

But then look at the second half of that verse: “they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” This is the work of representing Israel before God. The people of Israel couldn’t go directly to God to ask forgiveness, because their sin got in the way; they had to go through the priests. They would bring their offerings of animals and grain to the priests and the priests would then offer them to God on behalf of the people. Every sacrifice was a prayer, and it was a prayer you couldn’t pray yourself; the priests had to pray it for you. They were the only ones who were allowed to do so. They were sort of professional holy people—you might even call them professional pray-ers.

Now, this was the system the Israelites had, and it was better than anything anybody else had; it enabled them, however imperfectly, to pray, and to come to know and serve the one true God, and that’s no small thing. Still, it wasn’t enough. The most it could do was address the symptoms—the outward sinful acts, and not even all of them, and certainly not the sinful attitudes and desires in the heart that were the true disease; and even for the symptoms, all it could offer was an endless series of temporary fixes, not any kind of cure. It was like dialysis for someone with kidney disease, or insulin for a severe diabetic—it was enough to keep going, but the real problem remained. And of course, the priests themselves were sinful, too, and had to offer sacrifices for themselves as well as for everyone else; that wasn’t all bad, because it meant they could understand the sins and failings of those who came to offer sacrifices for sin, but it meant that their work was inevitably imperfect, just as the sacrifices they offered were by nature limited. Something more was needed.

That something more came in Jesus; but it’s important we understand that it was something more, not something different. It’s easy to lose track of that, since the whole sacrificial system is so foreign to our experience. You all can pray for yourselves and for each other, by yourselves or together. When you sin against God, you don’t have to come to me and have me pray for you in order for you to be forgiven—you can do that yourself. When you have a need, I’m certainly glad to pray for you, but God will take care of you whether you ask me to pray or not—his action isn’t dependent on me one way or the other. I’m not a priest, I’m just a pastor. Or rather, I am a priest, but only in the same sense as each of you is a priest, that all of us who belong to Jesus are called to be priests to each other in the name of Christ. We’re called to intercede for one another, to speak truth to each other, to encourage one another, and so on. But at the same time, our relationship to God doesn’t run through someone else, it’s direct, one-to-one.

That does not mean, however, that we don’t still have a high priest, or need a high priest, and it doesn’t change the fact that a sacrifice was necessary to make that possible. Nor, indeed, does it change the fact that we need a high priest who is one of us, fully human, and thus fully able to understand the struggles we face; or that to finally solve the problem of human sin, we also needed a high priest who was more than human, someone who could offer a perfect sacrifice, and one which was sufficient to pay the price for all our sin, not just some of it. Whether we knew it or not, all those things were necessary. Jesus didn’t change any of that. He simply fulfilled the requirements.

Jesus, Hebrews says, is our great high priest, the highest priest, who has done everything necessary for our salvation; nothing and no one else can add anything to his accomplishment. He fulfilled every requirement. He knows what it is to be human, because he is one of us; he lived as one of us in this world, facing all our struggles and all our temptations. He knows our desires and our fears, from the inside out, and you can be very sure that the Devil hit him with every temptation possible. Indeed, as we noted a couple weeks ago, Jesus was tempted far, far worse than any of us ever are, because at the point where we give in to temptation, he kept right on resisting. Whatever we’re dealing with, Jesus understands; when we go to him to ask forgiveness, he knows what we’re talking about, because he’s been there. At the same time, though, because he never gave in to fear or desire, he was able to offer a perfect sacrifice, untainted by sin; and because he was God, he was able to offer a sacrifice of infinite value, sufficient once for all to bring full and permanent salvation to all who trust in him.

Therefore, Hebrews says, “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We no longer need human priests to present our prayers to God, because we have Jesus, who is himself God, to do so. We pray, and the Holy Spirit carries our prayers to him, and he presents them to the Father, interceding on our behalf, pleading our case for us. When we pray, we aren’t praying alone, nor are we relying on our own merits and good works, any more than the ancient Israelites were; rather, Jesus prays with us and for us. We rely on his merits and his good work on our behalf. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name; indeed, this is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.

Which, if we really stop and think about it, should move us to awe. We’re used to it, so we don’t stop and think about it, but prayer is no small, safe, domesticated thing. Annie Dillard puts this brilliantly in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk when she writes,

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

This thing that we do—we run as children into the throne room of all creation and climb up into the lap of the King of the universe and tell him everything, in the absolute assurance that he wants us to, and he’s listening with care to everything we say; and we do so because Jesus makes it possible, because he has opened the door for us and he’s the one who lifts us up to the Father to be heard.

It’s a shame when we take that for granted, because it’s a wonderful gift; and more, because when we take it for granted, we take it less seriously, like it’s no big thing. And that’s a problem, because there are times when we need a big thing, and we know it. There are times when we’re desperately in need, or desperately afraid or worried, or when we really feel guilt and shame for our sin, and we truly need something big; if we don’t realize just how big a thing Jesus did for us, and how big a gift he gave us, then when we get to those times, we go looking for more. If we don’t really understand that our acceptance into the presence of God isn’t dependent on whether we feel worthy to be there, then on those times when we don’t feel worthy, we go looking for some way to earn our way in. And we don’t need to. We don’t need to go back to the law, we don’t need to find some way to measure up, we don’t need to add anything to what Jesus has done; what he has done is enough. Jesus is enough. There is nothing more.

There Remains a Rest

(Psalm 95:6-11, Psalm 127:1-2; Hebrews 4:1-13)

Sara and I have gotten a lot of congratulations (and the occasional snarky comment) since we started telling people we’re going to have another child, and the congratulations are certainly appropriate and appreciated; I think, too, they’re a sign of health in this community, because children truly are a blessing from God, which is something our society seems to understand less and less these days. In our growing individualism and exaltation of the self, our culture more and more focuses on the inconvenience and burden that children represent, and the way in which they make you vulnerable to hurt, and misses the sheer wonder of the opportunity to love and know another person. That’s the wrong focus, and it’s an ungrateful response to the abundant goodness of God; and six months from now, when I’m trying to function on four hours’ sleep a night in three pieces, I pray you’ll remind me of that fact.

In all seriousness, the lack of rest that comes with a newborn takes a real toll on Sara and me both; I won’t call it one of the hardest things about parenting because it’s such a short-term thing, but man, you really feel it while it lasts. We need rest; our bodies need it, and so do our spirits, and if we don’t get enough, it takes its toll. Someone was telling me recently about a couple Navy friends who had tried to join the SEALs, but had washed out, for different reasons—one because he discovered a severe allergy to poison ivy, as I recall; of course, they try very hard to wash people out, and only accept those they can’t get rid of. One of the ways they do that is through extended sleep deprivation, pushing people far beyond what their bodies can really handle to see if they break. One of the stories I heard was of a prospective SEAL standing in the forest, trying to use a tree to make a long-distance phone call; lack of sleep had fogged his brain to the point that he could barely think. We need rest for our minds and bodies to function properly.

The problem is, we know this, but various things interfere. There’s strong economic pressure these days, if you have a job, to work whenever they ask—especially in businesses that can let employees go and just have others work longer hours to make up for it. People wind up working long, long days, or seven days a week, or both, because they feel they have to in order to stay employed. Others work erratic schedules with no rhythm to them, no consistent time for rest, because those are the hours they can get. I remember doing that, back when I was searching for my first call, working as a relief chaplain at our hospital; I remember times when I was there at 3, 4 in the morning. There are a lot of folks for whom work runs their lives, while rest is largely an afterthought.

This is a problem in better economic times, too, of course; the desperation isn’t quite the same, but the opportunities for economic advancement are better, and the carrot works at least as well as the stick when it comes to getting the mule to move. Someone once asked the great tycoon Andrew Carnegie how much was enough, and he replied, “One dollar more”; it’s an attitude shared by an awful lot of people. It’s easy to figure that we can rest when we just achieve the next goal, whatever that next goal may be—but if we get there, there’s always another one just up ahead, and yet another beyond that, and always one more mountain yet to climb before we can really sit down and rest.

For the world, rest is dependent on circumstances, and I don’t say that’s entirely unreasonable; true rest, after all, goes with true work—God gave us work to do just as much as he gave us time and space to rest. He gave us both because we need both to flourish. Work without rest is unbalanced, bad for the body and the spirit; but rest without work is even worse, because those who refuse to do good work do not find good rest, but only a counterfeit that sickens the soul. Those who feel they cannot do good work find their rest blighted; you can really see that in our shut-ins, which is why I often need to reassure them that their prayers matter, and we treasure them. (In the first draft of this sermon, I wrote “if nothing else, they can pray”; Sara read that, and God started convicting her that for all of us, prayer is the first and most important work he gives us. I looked at her and wondered why God hadn’t simply convicted me of that, and the answer is of course that he believes in efficiency, and this was a two-fer: he fixed my thinking, and at the same time reminded me how much I need my wife. Which I knew, but it never hurts.) Whatever the work God gives us, we need to do it for our own sake; the need for rest arises with the need to work, it isn’t an excuse to avoid work.

The problem is, though, we don’t understand what rest really is, and where we truly find it. When we think about this through an economic prism, as the world does, we essentially think of rest as a reward, something we have to earn; that misleads us in two ways. One, we get work and rest out of their proper balance—either by yielding to that way of thinking, which produces overwork, or by rebelling against it, into laziness and sloth—and two, that leads us to define rest in purely physical and material terms. Rest is a day off, a vacation, a morning to sleep in, a time to go do something fun. Which is all good and necessary for body and spirit alike, but it’s not enough. If you’ve ever had a day off where you couldn’t get your mind off work, no matter what your body was doing, or a vacation where you came back more exhausted than you left because you were frantically busy the whole time, you understand that—rest isn’t just a matter of your physical circumstances, it’s a matter of the attitude of your mind and your heart.

This is an important reality, and it points us to what Hebrews is doing here in chapter 4. The author, in the warning that concludes chapter 3, has pulled this passage from Psalm 95—God’s people rebel against him in the wilderness, refusing to trust him, and so he bars them from the Promised Land; and how is that phrased? Not, “They shall not enter my land,” but “They shall not enter my rest.” It’s an interesting statement, and the author picks up on it to argue two things. First, he notes that this is God’s rest, and like any good Jewish teacher, he goes looking in the Bible for God’s rest, which he finds in Genesis 2:2—“God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” God’s rest is the Sabbath rest, which he commanded to his people in his Law.

What does that mean? It means to do as God did, to rest from all our works. It means laying down our own efforts, letting go of our striving, taking the burden off our shoulders and setting it down. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing—though there are times when that can be important—which is why it’s not supposed to be a legalistic observance, because it’s not physical inactivity that’s the main point; what matters more is the heart attitude of rest. Obviously, stepping aside from one’s job is necessary to this, but simply not going in to work is meaningless in this sense if you take your work and its worries home with you; if you’re still focused on your expenses and what you have to get done and how you’re going to pay the bills, if you’re still trying to carry your life on your back, then you aren’t experiencing God’s rest, and you have no true Sabbath.

The key here is the understanding we see in Psalm 127: what matters most isn’t what we do, but what God does. If it’s just your work, it’s going to collapse sooner or later, no matter your frantic efforts to prop it up; but if God is in it, you can leave it in his hands, and go rest, because you can trust that he can keep it going just fine without you.

Again, this is partly a matter of physical circumstances, because one of the ways God does this is by providing for us physically and financially. The promise of rest in the Exodus, after all, was entrance into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey where making a living would be easier than most places. One of the ways we know God is building this church is that he has provided us over the years with gifts of money that have enabled us to keep going and keep doing his ministry until, as I believe, the day comes when that ministry will bear fruit and we will have the people we need to be self-sustaining, and indeed to grow the ministries he has given us. More broadly, as he gave the Promised Land to his people, so he has given us the country for whose freedom we give thanks at this time every year; our constitutional protections and our economic strength make rest much easier than someplace like Haiti, or Iran, or Zimbabwe, or North Korea. The fact that we often turn them into new and creative reasons to stress out instead doesn’t change that. Our political and economic blessings are among the ways God provides for us, and we should always be grateful for them.

That said, we need to understand what Hebrews is telling us: that’s only part of the picture. These are gifts God gives us, but we must not focus on the gifts, because they aren’t enough; we need to focus through them to the one from whom all good things come, because more than the gifts, we need the giver. As the author points out here, if Israel entering the Promised Land had been enough to fulfill God’s promise of rest, God wouldn’t have needed to keep making the promise. There’s more, and better; there’s a truer, deeper Sabbath rest than anything merely physical; and that rest is found in Jesus. Jesus, as he is superior to all other spiritual powers, as he is superior to all other authorities in heaven and on earth, as he is superior even to the Law of God, so he is superior even to the greatest earthly blessing of that Law, the Sabbath; he is the true Sabbath rest, the final fulfillment of that promise.

Why? Because Jesus gives grace, and he gives it to us to live by grace. If we’re trying to live by our own efforts, we can never truly rest, because there’s always more that we urgently need to do; there’s always one more problem coming down the pike, and one more opportunity not to miss, and one more sin we haven’t beaten, and one more area where we need to improve. If it’s just us guarding the walls, then sleep is a risk we can’t afford. But Jesus tells us, it isn’t just us; we aren’t on our own in this. We keep trying to be big enough, strong enough, smart enough, fast enough, good enough, and the burden of needing to be enough crushes us under the weight of musts and shoulds and regrets; Jesus tells us we don’t have to be enough, because he is enough for us. All we have to do is what he gives us to do, and trust him for the rest.

The New Exodus

(Psalm 95:6-11; Hebrews 3)

As we saw last week, we’re into the second part of Hebrews’ argument for the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus Christ. In the first part of this section, which we read last week, the author argued powerfully that Christ has authority over all creation, having been given that authority by God the Father. The world raises an objection to that, what’s usually called the problem of evil: if all the world is really subject to Jesus, why don’t we see it? Why do we still see suffering?

The author of Hebrews acknowledges that indeed we don’t see all things subject to Jesus, at least not in the obvious way; we don’t see a worldwide political regime that acknowledges his authority and seeks to rule according to his will, nor do we see a world free of senseless tragedy, devastating illness, or natural disaster. Rather, we see a world where sin often seems to have the upper hand. Hebrews doesn’t try to pretend otherwise; rather, the author contends that while we don’t see obvious signs of Jesus controlling things from on high, instead, we see Jesus suffering with us, and at work in and through our suffering for our good, and the good of others. We don’t see him reigning as king, but we do see him exercising his authority as high priest to bring about our redemption, and to set us free from our slavery to sin.

Now, as I noted, the author’s ultimate aim in this section is to establish that Jesus is a higher authority than the law. Many Jewish Christians still kept the whole Jewish law, and often they tried to force other Christians to do the same; they believed that even if you worshiped Jesus as Lord, you still needed to keep the whole law in order to be saved. The goal of the author of Hebrews is to convince his audience that this isn’t true, that they are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone—and indeed, not only did they not need the Jewish law, but that if they put any of their faith at all in the law, they would be turning away from Jesus. As C. S. Lewis would later put it, Christ plus nothing equals everything—but Christ plus anything equals nothing. Hebrews wants to make sure we hold fast to Christ alone and so end up with everything instead of nothing.

To that end, having asserted the absolute authority of Christ over everything, the author turns to apply that by showing that Jesus is superior to Moses, through whom God gave the Old Testament law. He doesn’t in any way disparage Moses, but affirms him as a servant of God who was faithful in all God’s house, someone who is worthy of glory for doing the work God gave him to do, and doing it faithfully; Moses deserves the honor he receives, and there’s no need to diminish him. Actually, that Moses was indeed a great man of God is part of Hebrews’ point: even as great as Moses was, Jesus is greater. Come up with the greatest, most admirable, most important person you can find—it doesn’t matter who, Jesus is greater.

The argument here is simple: like Moses, Jesus was faithful to God, but Moses was only God’s servant, Jesus is God’s Son. Moses was faithful in God’s house, which is worthy of glory and honor, but Jesus is faithful over God’s house, which is worthy of far more. Moses is a servant in the house; Jesus is its builder and the one who has all authority over it, and he has been completely faithful in all that the Father has given him to do.

Then in the second half of verse 6, we get this interesting transition: Christ is faithful over God’s house, and we are his house. We’re moving away from the cosmic reality of Christ as the one who is above all the angels, who made the whole world and has authority over all of it, to focus on Christ as the one who has authority as high priest over the household of God, which is his people. There are several reasons for this shift, some of which we’ll get into as we go further into the book; in part, though, it’s part of the comparison of Jesus to Moses. Hebrews isn’t just saying that Jesus is greater than Moses because he made the world and Moses just lived in it; that wouldn’t really be to the point. Rather, Hebrews is saying something much more relevant: yes, Moses was a great leader of God’s people, but in this way, too, Jesus is greater. He’s worthy of more glory than Moses not just because of his work as creator and sustainer of the world, but because of his work here on earth.

Now, the interesting thing here is that the author actually goes on to make that argument in his warning section. You may remember, if you were here two weeks ago, my talking about the three-part sections of this book—first, the author presents an argument for the supremacy of Christ, then he applies it, and then he warns you what will happen if you turn away from Christ—and beginning in verse 7, we get the second warning of the book. Once again, he starts by quoting one of the Psalms, Psalm 95, which is a telling choice, I think. It starts by giving praise to God as Savior, then as the creator of all things and the God and King above all other powers; then it makes the transition and says, “Let us worship him specifically as our God, for we are his people.” This is the same shift we see in Hebrews. And having made it, we get this passage which the author of Hebrews quotes, which references the Exodus in warning us not to harden our hearts against God.

At first glance, it seems like a jarring change—but when you stop and think about what the psalmist is saying, it really isn’t. Israel affirmed God as the rock of its salvation—why? Because of the Exodus. The Exodus was the defining event of Israel’s history and identity; it was during the Exodus that he gave his people the Law, and it was through the Exodus that he established the corporate relationship with his people that would set the terms for their national existence from then on. And here’s the key: the Exodus was God saving his people as a people from slavery to a power which they could never have overcome, then leading them out of exile in a far country and back to the home which he had promised them and prepared for them.

Underlying this warning in Hebrews, though the author doesn’t explicitly come out and say it, is the understanding that Jesus came to lead the people of God in a new and greater Exodus. That was something God had promised through his prophets, as a consequence of the exile: though God had punished them by sending foreigners to conquer them and drag them far from home, he would raise up a leader who would bring their exile to an end and return them to Jerusalem. Those promises were fulfilled at the most basic level when Cyrus of Persia decreed that the Jews were free to go back to their own land, but there was much in them that was not fulfilled; even though they were back in Israel, the Jews were still a conquered people, and the throne of David was still vacant. Over time, they came to the conclusion that in some ways, they were still in exile, and still needed God to send his Messiah to bring about the new Exodus which he had promised long before. This, says Hebrews, is exactly what God did in Jesus.

Of course, as we’ve noted before, the problem was that it didn’t look like what people expected; it wasn’t a political victory, and it didn’t result even in political freedom for Israel, let alone a politically and militarily powerful Israel that could bring the Gentiles under the rule of God’s law. It certainly didn’t produce anything that looked like the promised messianic kingdom. So if we do not see everything subject to Jesus, then what is it we see? Hebrews answers that by saying, what we see is Jesus leading a new Exodus, not out of earthly slavery to an earthly government, but out of the far more oppressive and far deadlier spiritual slavery of all human beings to the power of sin and death.

This is a profound thing: Jesus has inaugurated God’s ultimate work of deliverance, that of all his people—now expanded to include all the peoples of the world, not just Israel—from all that has been set wrong in his creation, and all the effects of that blight. This is no mere partial solution, quick fix, or treatment of symptoms; this is the healing of the whole disease, right from the root. However, as the language of Hebrews acknowledges, it is a deliverance which is still in process. God through Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, but they didn’t simply cross the border into their own land—he led them out into, and through, the wilderness. He took them into a period in which they had already been delivered, but their deliverance was not yet complete; they were already out of slavery, but not yet experiencing everything he had promised them. They were living in between. God had promised them a new home, he had begun the process of getting them there, but they had not yet seen it.

It’s out of that reality that the warning comes, both from the psalmist and from the author of Hebrews. God took his people out into the wilderness, and they promptly started complaining, and finally rebelled; as a consequence, he kept them there for an extra forty years, until that rebellious generation had died off. His people wouldn’t put their whole faith in him to take care of them, because they didn’t really believe that they would see the rest which he had promised them; and so God judged them, and they didn’t. Instead of focusing on God and his promises, they focused on their circumstances and difficulties, and when push came to shove, they believed in their circumstances more than in God. God said, “Go into the land, and I will give you the victory,” but their eyes said, “Those enemies are too powerful for us, we’ll lose”; they trusted their eyes over God, and refused the gift. They refused their promised salvation, out of unbelief and fear.

The concern driving the author of Hebrews is that some of his readers are being tempted to make the same mistake. We are in the wilderness, and so we do not see all things subject to Jesus; we are halfway home, in between the land of slavery and the land of promise, and all the promises Jesus has made to us are already assured, but most of them are not yet fulfilled, though we have started to see the fulfillment of many of them. The road through the wilderness is not an easy one—that’s why the Israelites kept thinking that maybe they’d be better off going back to Egypt, forgetting that slavery was even worse than the challenges of freedom; it’s easy to start to wonder sometimes if we’re really getting anywhere, and if it’s all really worth it. It’s easy to start to think that maybe that glimmer off to the left there is actually an oasis, not just another mirage.

In response, Hebrews tells us to learn from history. To those who held fast to God, he was faithful; those who trusted that God would do as he promised saw his promises fulfilled. Those who did not, did not. If we’re faithful, we can be absolutely certain that God will be faithful; but unbelief is its own punishment, because however difficult the road may be to which God calls us, it’s the only road that will get us where we need to be, and the only road he’ll help us walk.

Of course, “just have faith” and “just keep going” are both easier said than done, and sometimes by a long way; which is why we have this interesting statement in verse 13, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We need one another. We need people to walk alongside us, to listen to us, to encourage us, to tell us we can make it; we need people we aren’t willing to disappoint, people we really don’t want to see us fail. It’s one of the key things that makes Alcoholics Anonymous work. If we try to go out there and just be strong, if we try to be Nike and “just do it,” we probably won’t; we’ll probably fall for lack of support, and there will be no one to help us up. But if we go together, we have the support of others to keep us from falling, and to help us get up and keep going if we fall anyway. We need each other.

And we need to encourage each other while it’s still called “today.” It’s easy for us not to do that; it’s easy for us to figure we have time, we can do it tomorrow. But you know, it’s always “today” when you actually do what needs to be done or say what needs to be said; we don’t live in “tomorrow,” we only live in “today.” If we try to hand things off to the future, when the future becomes the present, will we do them then? Or will we just kick them down the road again? And what if the future we imagine never comes? What if we actually don’t have time—what then? We don’t have tomorrow, we can’t count on it or control it; we just live in “today,” one day at a time, never knowing when this might be the last “today” we have. We only know what we can do now, and we have no assurance of any kind that we’ll ever be able to do it again; we need to take the opportunities we have while it is still called “today” to give others the encouragement they need from us, because we may never have those opportunities again—and who knows what may be lost? There are those who are gifted in this way, to whom seeing and seizing those opportunities comes naturally, and there are those of us who are much more likely to miss them; but gifted or not, this is something we’re all called to do, to actively look for chances to encourage those around us to follow Jesus, to trust him, to hold fast in their faith, in the assurance that however rough the road may be, he will bring us through the wilderness safe and sound, and into the promised land at last.