The Dobby Effect (Hebrews 9:6-10)

Humans have an innate need for punishment.  Perhaps ingrained from childhood, we tend to view our guilt as deserving of pain.  It’s only been recently that contemporary psychology found a name for it.  The Dobby Effect—named for the self-punishing Harry Potter character—refers to our tendency to “atone” for misdeeds by seeking either avoiding pain or avoiding contact with those we’ve wronged.  Researchers at the University of Brisbane conducted a study to confirm this.

62 volunteers were split into three groups.  Two groups were asked to write about a time they “rejected or socially excluded another person.”  The third group wrote about normal social interactions.  Afterwards all participants received questionnaires to measure feelings of guilt.  After that, some were asked to immerse one of their hands in ice water, while others in warm water.  Following that, guilt feelings were re-measured.  I know this is a bit confusing, so let’s try and summarize in a table:

GROUP 1: Wrote about excluding someone GROUP 2: Wrote about excluding someone. GROUP 3: Wrote about normal interactions
Guilt questionnaire given Guilt questionnaire given Guilt questionnaire given
High feelings of guilt High feelings of guilt Nominal feelings of guilt
Hand immersed in ice water Hand immersed in warm water Hand immersed in ice water
Much lower feelings of guilt High feelings of guilt Nominal feelings of guilt

Not only did the ice water make guilt parties feel roughly half as guilty as their counterparts, they also tended to leave their hands in the water substantially longer than those who wrote about normal interactions.  The lesson is clear: guilt makes us seek out punishment, and the act of punishment seems to have a relieving effect.

According to one of the researchers, these forms of self-punishment send “a signal by which a [wrongdoer] shows remorse to his or her victim when there are no other less painful means available, such as giving a bunch of flowers.”

Yesterday we re-discovered the Israelite temple as a symbol of Eden’s beauty.  But because of sin, many of the temple’s elements—particularly the curtains that segregated the outer courts from the Holy of Holies—reminded worshippers that their sin resulted in both physical and relational distance.

Now, the writer of Hebrews turns from the general to the specific, describing the activities performed in the temple—that is, the sacrificial system.

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6-10)

Sacrifices were not unique to Israel, nor were they unique to the days of Moses.  The earliest sacrifices go back to the pages of Genesis 4, where outside the garden the first family learned to worship God by offering sacrifices.  Sacrifices likewise became an occasional part of the life of Abraham and his descendants.  It was only through Moses, some 1500 years before Jesus, that sacrifices became codified into a system of atonement.

The writer of Hebrews alludes to this elaborate system, which largely defines man’s relationship with God under the “old covenant.”  We note at least two things: (1) the need for a priest and (2) the need for sacrifice.  Though the nature and exact purpose of the sacrifices varied (Leviticus records as many as seven different types of regular sacrifice), the allusion made here is to Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement that we discussed last Friday.

Yet as unique and significant as that day may have been, the writer of Hebrews ultimately concludes that these rituals deal with external things—and never truly man’s inner conscience.  So wait—so why was the system ever in place at all?  The sacrificial system served as an elaborate—and bloody—object lesson, a lesson that pointed toward the need for a once-for-all sacrifice in the future.  In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham says:

“The sacrificial system therefore presents different models or analogies to describe the effects of sin and the way of remedying them.  The burnt offering uses a personal picture: of man the guilty sinner who deserves to die for his sin and of the animal dying in his place.  God accepts the animal as a ransom for man.  The sin offering uses a medical model: sin makes the world so dirty that God can no longer dwell there.  The blood of the animal disinfects the sanctuary in order that God may continue to be present with his people.  The reparation offering  [i.e., the “guilt offering”] presents a commercial picture of sin.  Sin is a debt which man incurs against God.  The debt is paid through the offered animal.”

But Wenham would later note that “Christ’s death…made [the sacrificial system] obsolete…It is no longer necessary to attempt to compensate God for our failure by bringing a ram or a lamb to the altar.  Our spiritual debts have been written off in the sacrifice of Christ.”

Think about it.  Isn’t the Dobby Effect really just another form of selfishness?  After all, it has more to do with alleviating personal guilt than addressing the brokenness to begin with.  If you wreck my car, I might appreciate that you’re sorry—but I’ll still demand you pay the debt of repair.  What about things where a simple “I’m sorry” won’t do?  How can we repair trust?  Remorse can’t reverse the effects of infidelity and betrayal.

Something similar is going on here.  A sacrificial system may have allowed many devout Jews to feel a sense of relief.  But now they’re hearing that such rituals can’t fix the real problem—the problem that goes deeper and darker.  Only a perfect sacrifice can produce true atonement, true purity.  This is the point our author is building to.

If you’re skeptical regarding the Christian faith, I understand.  My gentle challenge to you is to evaluate how justice can ever coexist with a society of radical individualism.  If morals and ethics are (largely) man-made, do we not have the freedom to unmake them?  Why, then, does guilt universally persist?  And why does our education and our technological advances not help us move beyond such feelings?

If you seek to follow Jesus, this passage raises another challenge.  Do I trust in God’s forgiveness through Jesus, or am I still trying to bring a sacrifice?  Do I still think of Christian virtue as “being really hard on myself?”  Perhaps you’re in a season where you’ve experienced the need to “get really serious this time.”  While there is value in a life of devotion, you can’t turn your spirituality into means to an end.  Jesus is the end of all such means.  The pain we bring on ourselves can melt into sweet, sweet joy.  Spirituality, therefore, transforms from a quest to earn God’s approval into a glorious state of affairs where we finally learn to rest in God’s approval.

 

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First Things (Hebrews 9:1-5)

Compromise has its distinct advantages.  For the original readers of Hebrews, the cultural collision of values presented them with a binary choice.  They could soldier on, keeping the faith in a faithless world—only to endure the ridicule and shame of their friends and neighbors.  Alternately, they could abandon their faith, sliding backward into the culturally acceptable traditions of Judaism.  The letter to the Hebrews arose from the fact that many opted for the path of least resistance.

Today’s world is no different.  No one wants to be labeled a “fanatic.”  So yes, we may admit to being Christians, but we make sure to clarify that surely we’re not one of those Christians—you know the type: either flaunting their moral superiority or trying to cram religion down everyone’s throats.

Such attempts say more about us than we realize.  As much as we might try to justify ourselves for “defending the Christian message,” it’s really our own reputations that we’re trying to shield.  That’s not faithful confidence; that’s pride.

If the writer of Hebrews were working in our day, he might publish a helpful guide on how to navigate a post-everything world.  It would probably contain very helpful suggestions on how to communicate your faith and how to understand cultural objections to it.  Don’t get me wrong: such books are incredibly valuable.  But they don’t necessarily address the question of “first things.”  What do we mean by “first things?”  We speak of those core beliefs that give rise to all others.  Beliefs we live for.  Beliefs we would die for.

So the writer of Hebrews turns his focus to Jesus.  He exalts the person and work of Christ as if to say: This is the standard to which you are called.  This is the standard by which you are measured.  All other matters are secondary.  Therefore Hebrews 9 continues the exaltation of Christ by further developing the idea of Jesus as the true and better high priest.  While previous sections focused on what a priest is, these sections focus on what a priest does.  To that end, the writer of Hebrews begins by describing the symbol-laden architecture of the Hebrew Temple.

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Hebrews 9:1-5)

The Jewish temple—and the mobile tabernacle before that—had an essential function.  Like every other major culture, the Jewish people understood their temple as the location where God uniquely dwelled.  If you could have walked inside the temple, you’d see a wide array of symbols and images—all designed to invoke the concept of a garden.  Well, not just a garden.  The garden, to be sure.  The Garden of Eden was the one place where man was able to directly interact with God.  Yet when sin entered the picture, this garden was lost, defiled, and man was disbarred by the flaming sword of God’s angels (called cherubim).

The temple was designed to evoke similar imagery.  Man would be reminded of his deepest purpose: to connect with God.  But the series of barriers—designed to maintain a separation between man and God—reminded God’s people that their sin kept them at a physical and relational distance.  So much so that no one—save for the yearly entry of the high priest—could enter the “Most Holy Place,” where God’s glory had historically been specifically manifest in a great cloud.

The rest of the architecture contained the “furniture” that was used in Israel’s sacrificial system.  The ark of the covenant contained the broken tablets of God’s law—but also, we’re told, the staff of Aaron and manna.  If you paid attention in Sunday School, you might be aware that nowhere in the Old Testament does it specify that the ark contained anything other than the tablet fragments. Further, the ark is described as in front of the temple curtain—not behind. So what’s going on here?  A non-Biblical text (2 Baruch 6:7) suggests that prior to the destruction of the second temple (in 70 A.D.) an angel of the Lord came and removed the ark from the Holy of Holies.  It’s possible that both Hebrews and Baruch share a similar source of interpretation.  What this means for temple worship is unclear—especially since the passage of time caused temple worship to evolve and change.

What remains clear is that man’s truest purpose is found in temple worship.  We’ll expand on this in the coming days, but for now we can conclude with one basic idea.  What were you made for?  This question is easy to ask about our car—it was made for driving.  Tools are made for building, speakers for listening, books for reading…you get the idea.  But ask the same question about man and, well, you won’t get a straightforward answer.  An ancient writer once famously said that “man is the measure of all things.”  But that can’t possibly be true.  Man is deeply broken, deeply flawed, indelibly stained.  To measure oneself, to continually reinvent oneself—these are the ill-fated attempts of a creature ignorant of either purpose or destiny.  Guilt and shame hover over us like a low-grade fever.  What if things could be different?  What if we were truly made for more?  What if we could find purpose, find meaning, find solace not in the meanings we invent for ourselves, but in the truth and beauty and goodness found only in God.  We were made to love, to be loved, and to worship.  Discovering this purpose is the first step toward radical joy.

What is Atonement? (Leviticus 16)

“I was feeling insecure,” sings John Lennon.  “You might not love me anymore…Oh I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’m sorry that I made you cry.  Oh my I didn’t want to hurt you; I’m just a jealous guy.”  Regardless of motivation—jealousy, pride, what have you—guilt is a universally human emotion.  Mark Twain once quipped that “man is the only animal that blushes.  Or needs to.”

Guilt and shame comprise what psychologists call “moral emotions.”  They represent negative evaluations of self in response to embarrassing situations or—perhaps more often—in response to the violation of social or moral codes.   What is the difference between guilt and shame?  In a 2007 article for The Annual Review of Psychology, guilt and shame are distinguished by three criteria:

  • The nature of the offense. As we’ve noted in the past, some “rules” are cultural in nature.  So some social violations may elicit shame without guilt.  But other rules appear to be universal in nature—appearing in a wide variety of cultures and traditions.  Could it be that maybe God’s laws are indeed universal?
  • Guilt tends to focus on one’s own self-evaluation (“did I do something wrong?”). Shame tends to focus on the evaluation of others (“how many people saw what I did?”).
  • Guilt tends to focus on the behavior (“I did something bad”). Shame tends to focus on the self (“I am bad”).

All of this is simply contemporary research (re-)stating what God’s word takes as obvious: that there are standards and—if violated—they can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.  But rather than shame being elicited by the evaluation of self or others, our shame runs much deeper.  Why?  Because Christianity insists that we stand guilty before an infinitely good and righteous God.

In Hebrews 9:22 we are told that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  The writer is speaking of something called atonement—the way that God deals with man’s sin.  But to fully understand this we have to strip back some of the layers of culture and theology to understand what this word meant to the first century people.

WHAT IS ATONEMENT?

The word atonement comes from the words “at” and the Middle-English word “(one)ment.”  The word—meaning “to make one” helps us picture the healing of the relationship between man and God.

But as you might have guessed, the word has deeper meaning when looked at in its original Hebrew forms.  The Hebrew kippur can have a range of meanings—such as “cover over” or even a “ransom payment.”  But in relation to sin both of these definitions fall short.  The word’s Akkadian roots are often used to mean “to wipe away,” “to purge” or “to cleanse.”  When the word is used for “forgive,” it is paired with the related Hebrew word “to blot out” (cf. Exodus 32:32).  Therefore to “atone” means “to wipe away,” or “to make clean.”

Ever notice the deep connection we make with guilt and “dirt?”  When we do something wrong, we feel “dirty.”  When we are violated and ashamed, we likewise feel “unclean” or “contaminated.”  If you’ll pardon the extreme example, it’s no accident that a rape victim’s first impulse is to take a shower.  Sin leaves us the same way—in need of purity, in need of atonement.

For Israel, this atonement was symbolized in the elaborate system of sacrifices that came to define the people of God.  And every year the people would corporately celebrate The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  The Day of Atonement can essentially be broken down into three distinct components: (1) purification for the priest, (2) the sacrifice of a goat, and (3) the driving away of a goat.

FOR THE PRIEST

Recall that the Temple/Tabernacle was the one place where God’s presence was understood to uniquely reside.  This meant that priests would typically not enter into the holiest place behind the curtain, for fear that such audacity would result in a swift death.

The Day of Atonement was a bit different.  In Leviticus 16, we read that on this day one priest would represent the nation by performing these priestly duties:

3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.  He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:3-5)

11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. (Leviticus 16:11-14)

You understand what’s happening so far, right?  All of this was simply to ensure that the priest was worthy to perform the priestly work on behalf of the people.  Why?  Because only a worthy priest could hope to offer an acceptable sacrifice before God.

FOR THE PEOPLE: PROPITIATION

Notice in verse 5 that two goats were involved.  The first would be killed:

15  “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Leviticus 16:15-19)

What’s happening here?  The blood of the sacrifice represented the eradication of the people’s guilt.  The blood re-consecrated a holy place that had been defiled by sin.

In Christian theology, we might see this as akin to something called propitiation.  It most literally means “to make favorable.”  In context it means that God—though deservedly angry over your sin and mine—has been appeased by the shedding of blood.  Our guilt has been absolved.

FOR THE PEOPLE: EXPIATION

What about the second goat?

20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)

What’s going on here?  By going into the wilderness, this second goat represented the removal of the people’s shame.  So powerful was this image that the people feared the goat would return (!).  To solve this problem, a series of volunteers waited in the wilderness to drive the goat onward, eventually sending the goat over a cliff.  And here’s where it gets interesting: according to ancient Jewish teachers, they would soak two strips of cloth in blood.  One strip they kept in their camp; the other they tied to the goat’s tail.  It was said that when the goat went over the cliff, the strip of cloth at the camp would go from being stained blood-red to pure white.  The ancient peoples understood the significance quite well: that this action literally purified the stains on the human soul.

In contemporary theology we call this “expiation.”  It’s the act of being made clean before God.  And here’s why it matters for modern psychology: just as guilt deals with actions and shame deals with attitudes, so too does propitiation deal with guilt before God while expiation helps us deal with the shame we feel over our own sinfulness.

A TRUE AND BETTER JOSHUA

In Zechariah 3, Zechariah describes a vision of what appears to be the Day of Atonement.  Recall that on that day the high priest would have to adorn special holy garments.  In Zechariah’s time, priests were sequestered for a week to prevent them from coming into contact with anything unclean so that they could perform the ceremony undefiled.  There was even a set of ritual bathings, after which time the priest would emerge wearing pure white robes.

But Zechariah witnesses the high priest Joshua wearing “filthy robes” (Zechariah 3:3).  The original Hebrew seems to suggest that he is actually covered in excrement.  He is expected to be clean, to bring purity to the nation.  But in God’s eyes, all the rituals and duties do not truly cleanse the stain.

We need a true and better high priest.  We need a true and better Joshua.

You might already know that “Joshua” is the English version of the Hebrew Ye’shua.  And the Greek version?  Iesous.  Jesus.  Jesus is the true and better Joshua.  He is the true and better high priest who brings a true and better sacrifice—his own flesh and blood.  And through the cross we find our guilt eradicated and our shame wiped away.  Our consciences, like our moral records, can be made clean again.

The New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-13)

Yesterday we talked about how the Old Testament sacrificial system was sort of like a credit card system. When you purchase something with a credit card, it is good enough to secure the transaction. It is a real purchase. But a day will have to come when a final and perfect transaction takes place with real money from an account that possesses the proper currency for there to be a final consummation of the transfer.

So it was with the Levitical system. The blood of bulls and goats was sufficient for the remission of sins, though they always looked forward to an actual and final payment – a payment in time by the blood of Christ on the cross. All of this will yet be elaborated upon in greater detail in upcoming chapters.

Now in chapter 8, the former system will be called the old covenant, whereas Christ will be spoken of as initiating a new covenant.

A covenant is essentially an agreement—a “promise” made between two parties. In the OT, God was always the initiator of that promise, but if man wanted to experience the blessings of that promise, he would need to abide by the stipulations of the covenant—that is, Israelite Law. And that was the problem and the challenge. Man could never live up to it. We could say that the Law revealed sin and the sinful condition, and it gave remedies that when trusted in faith were temporarily sufficient – though always looking toward a permanent solution yet to come.

Jesus, and his priestly work and sacrifice, was that solution; and it was therefore superior, as was written in 8:6 – But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

The writer is arguing that God anticipated all of this. It is not as if Jesus was a surprise, and now his followers were claiming, “Hey look, this is better; join us!”  No, it was anticipated as something to someday arrive and written about in the Jewish Scriptures by the prophet Jeremiah – who is quoted in verses 8-12 …

8:7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

Jeremiah served and wrote in a difficult time in Israel’s history. The northern kingdom had been taken into captivity, and the southern kingdom of Judah would soon fall to the Babylonians. Jeremiah would personally witness all of this. And he writes to the people to tell them that there will be a better day … a day when Israel would be God’s people again in a true and better way.

But you might say, that is for Israel, so what has that got to do with me today? Well, the full answer to that is a theologically complicated one about which volumes have been written.

Condensing it to a paragraph, it means that there will be a national day of salvation (eschatologically) for the nation of Israel, that, until that time yet comes and since Christ has paid the price, others may spiritually experience it in grace through faith in the once-for-all work of Christ. This is the fulfillment of the universal promise to Abraham that all of the world would be blessed through his offspring – specifically through the blood of Christ. And in the time from Pentecost until the coming of Christ for his own, this is called The Church.

Yes – The Church Age – this is the big thing that God is doing in the world right now; he is building it to completion as the bride of Christ. And just as the Hebrews were encouraged to not be stupid and toss off the real work of God for the obsolete former and temporal order of things, we should be challenged to not forsake the very program and institution that God is working through in the world today. There is nothing temporal, nothing of this world, that is greater than the building of the church.

Do you believe that? Do you flesh that out in the values system of your life? The writer is going to challenge this very subject in chapter 10 as well.

The True and Better High Priest (Hebrews 8:1-6)

The presidential election cycle truly kicked off this week with the first announcement of one who is going to seek the highest office in the land. This is a selection process that ends with the one person who will represent all of us before the other nations of the world. If we don’t like the person who gets this job, we can complain and be sad about it, but after eight years at the most, he will be gone and another will take his place. It is all a big deal; we desire the very best representative.

And so it makes sense that we should desire the very best representative before the Creator God of the universe.

There was an old covenant, or agreement, between God and man that set up a system of priests to represent mankind before God. But, like presidents, these guys came and went. It would certainly be better to have a less transitional, changing and imperfect system than this! How much better it would be to have a permanent system with a perfect priest who never dies! And beyond that, how much superior it would be if this priest were not “far” from God on the earth, but rather with God in heaven itself! Now that would be cool!

And so the author, in setting up this entire argument and scenario begins in chapter 8 of Hebrews by saying that such a priest in such a system and in such a place truly does exist …

The High Priest of a New Covenant

8 Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,2 and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

3 Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4 If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6 But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

As we preach and teach through these and other passages, you surely note a pattern of conversation from us where we say that something is the “true” this, or the “true and better” that. Well, you can see that this phraseology comes from the Scriptures as in verse 2 today … “the true tabernacle.”

We tend to think that this life is the real world, the real life – that which casts shadows into eternity. In fact, it is the other way around. Eternal life is real; God’s work is the true reality, and it casts shadows into the earthly realm.

The entire earthly tabernacle / temple system was a shadow of the true tabernacle = the intercessional ministry of Christ in the presence of God in heaven. Moses was given commands to be very precise in the way he constructed the tabernacle, because it taught eternal truths in

every last detail.

Everything about the work of Christ is superior to the familiar experience of the readers of this letter, who, by the way, could still go to the temple and see the high priest doing his endless deeds. The temple had not yet been destroyed by the Romans, as it would be in 70 A.D.

Illustrations of these sorts of truths are always a bit shallow, but let me try this…

I am not a car guy. I dislike cars. I don’t care what they look like or if they are new or old, I just want them to work. I despise anything to do with repairs and maintenance. And getting gas, along with being a nuisance and annoyance, is simply terribly expensive.

But there comes a point where turning up the radio in the hopes that the clickity sound in the engine will fix itself becomes a lost cause, and I have to get the dumb thing to a garage. And after a while (in my case like 250,000+ miles), the car simply has to be replaced.

So imagine there was a car that you could receive freely at no cost to yourself, one that recharged itself freely on daylight. Beyond that, it never breaks down and needs repair. And it never gets old and needs to be replaced. Wow, who wouldn’t want that!

Jesus was like this new and better vehicle – a truly dependable priest in the very place to “truly meet our needs” (7:27). This too is the resource we have in Christ, and tomorrow we will talk about the terms of this new, true and better covenant.

The End of Credit Card Debt (Hebrews 7:23-28)

Those of you who know my family and my sons know that one of them owns a landscaping company. I help him by doing much of his bookkeeping and that sort of thing. It is a dirty business – literally, it is. Not much about it is clean, but rather it involves dirt, rocks, sand, mulch, etc.

Ben has a lot of problems with keeping his credit cards functional. They are constantly exposed to all the abrasive ingredients of his business, and before long, they won’t work anymore when swiped. We are forever ordering replacements. In fact, a new one came in the mail today.

The sacrificial system of the Old Testament Law was a lot like this. It constantly had to be repeated over and over. The sacrifices were seemingly endless. There were the daily sacrifices, and of course the one big event on the Day of Atonement (check in Friday for Chris’ article on this). It was a dirty and bloody business.

And not only that, there was the issue that the priests themselves were as sinful as the people whom they represented before God. Before they could do the job for others, they had to offer sacrifices for their own sins. As proof that they were not categorically any better, they kept dying off and others had to take their place. This was repeated for centuries.

There will be more detailed discussions on this theme later in the letter, but the writer closes the Melchizedek section with these summary thoughts …

23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Let me ask you this:  What would you rather have, an endless supply of credit cards that demand continuous payment of the debts you run up on them, or an inherited custodial account of limitless positive credits to cover your debts? Well, of course you would choose the latter. (And of course this does not mean that it is right to sin that grace may abound! That’s a Roman’s discussion and devotional for another time.)

And that is what we have in the work of Christ. Jesus was a better priest from a superior order. He was permanent and therefore does not need to be replaced. His payment was a once and for all final payment. And his eternal life with the Father positions him to intercede for us and guarantee our presence with God forever … saving us completely as we have come to God through him.

So if you were a recipient of this letter and read this argument, would you want to go back to the Levitical system of sacrifice?

And as a modern-day reader of this letter, seeing what God has done for those who trust in Him through Christ, why would you want to trust in anything else? And why would you not be daily grateful for the debt of sin being paid on your behalf, even before you were born?

You’re Messing with my Categories! (Hebrews 7:11-22)

If you think about it, we all work with categories and pigeon holes. When we are learning something new or meeting a new person, we want to place that knowledge or that person within the context of what we know.

For example, when I randomly run into another person who serves as a pastor, I know that I go into pigeon hole mode – I’m asking questions about what church or denomination they are in and where they attended seminary, etc.  I’m working in my mind to get them categorized into such columns as conservative/liberal, charismatic/non-Pentecostal, denominational/independent, Calvinist/Arminian, or traditional/contemporary.

The entire argument of the writer to the Hebrews about Jesus as a high priest was totally messing with the categories of this historically Jewish group of young Christians.  Accepting Jesus as the king of kings, the Messiah, was one thing, and it at least made sense. His genealogy as given in Matthew and Luke affirmed his rights to this – being from the kingly tribe of Judah.

But seeing Jesus as a spiritual high priest! That was categorically earth-shaking. Those from the tribe of Levi (Levites) were priests, and the high priest had to come from the family of Aaron and be affirmed with certainly through ancestral records.

In the previous section, the writer affirmed the superiority of a priest of God named Melchizedek over the historic priesthood of Levi, as ultimately realized through the generations of Aaron’s family. Jesus did not have this pedigree; but the argument is that he had the better connection to the higher order of Melchizedek. God declared this in the 110th Psalm – clearly recognized by everyone as looking forward to the Messiah – where it says that he would be a priest like Melchizedek. The basis of this was not ancestral but rather was founded completely on the character of “an indestructible life.” The earthly Aaronic priests would come and go (as will be written about in chapter 10) and clearly had sin issues of their own … Jesus was of an entirely different categorical character.

So if a new priest and category now is in effect, and it is the final and perfect version of such, the old order and system of things has therefore now expired and is of no continual need of service. So, as this writer says, the old order is “useless,” and returning to it would be foolish. Rather, “draw near to God.”

And all of this is guaranteed by God by his own swearing of an oath that these things are true and final and forever.

Jesus Like Melchizedek

11 If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. 13 He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared:

“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”   

18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.

20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath,21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:

“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’

22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.

Because of these great truths, we have had our own categories entirely messed with. We have gone from strangers with God, to now being his family. We have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light… from sinners to saints!

Thank God the categories were messed with!

This priest is better than that priest – Hebrews 7:1-10

Sounding again like a broken record, remember what we have been telling you about the background of the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. These were new believers in Jesus who were from a Jewish background, who were now getting abused by the world around them for their faith, and who were considering going back to their roots.

One of the warm memories of their past was the high priest of the nation – a person whom they could see and experience. But the writer will essentially say to them here, “Why go back to that when you have a better, true and eternal high priest in Jesus?”

So the unspoken question the writer anticipates from his readers is how it could be that Jesus is a better high priest. In fact, how could he be a high priest at all? They knew he came from the wrong lineage to be a priest.

So the writer is going to tell them that Jesus is from a better category of priests – that of the order of Melchizedek, not of Abraham > Isaac > Jacob > Levi >>>> Aaron >>>> generations of Levites in the family of Aaron. This is an argument about who is greater: the Levites, or Jesus and Melchizedek?

Armed with yesterday’s devotional and historical explanation of Genesis 14 and the story of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek, you are ready to begin today in Hebrews 7 …

7:1 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.”3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.

The writer here is not saying that Melchizedek was without parents; he is not (in my opinion) saying that he is some spiritual being such as even a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. Rather, there is no record of his parents or his beginning or ending. By comparison, the priests in Israel had very, very strict dictates about family and lineage before they could qualify for the high office of representing the people before God. So, Melchizedek was LIKE a Son of God in that regard, and there is not a record of any end point to his role as a priest.

In a time where there were few in the world who had descended from Noah who remained faithful to the one true God, (like Abraham) Melchizedek was one who did and who was God’s man in the place of his ministry – Salem … later Jerusalem. Everything about him pointed forward toward Christ; he was what is called a TYPE of Christ.

And he was pretty amazing …

4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. 6 This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

Yes, quite an amazing guy! So amazing that Abraham – the man among all men whom God had chosen to work specifically with his family that in the end the entire world would be blessed through the work of Christ – yes, Abraham paid tithes of honor to him. This acknowledged that Melchizedek was seen by Abraham as the superior servant of God.

Coming in the other direction was a blessing of Abraham by Melchizedek. Take my word for it here that the sense of the word “blessing” that is used in this text has the connotation of something that is done with ongoing and lasting results. All the great things that had come through Abraham and his lineage – all of the way down to these Hebrews reading this letter – had roots in this blessing. This was true because it was all in the flow of what God was accomplishing.

And to bolster the argument further, the writer says that Levi and all of the priestly order that were to follow were themselves paying tribute and honor to Melchizedek!  What?  How?  Levi was not yet even born!  But the writer says that he was “in” Abraham when this homage was done.

We will come back to more on Abraham and Melchizedek next week. But let me finish with a next-step theological reference … stick with me – it’s not too deep, and when understood, it is a precious truth.

When did you become guilty as a sinner before God? Was it when you committed your first sin? Nope – all that did was prove you are what you already were – a sinner.  Did it occur at the moment of conception … you know, as David said, “in sin my mother conceived me”?  Nope. The actual moment was when Adam sinned in the garden. But hey, you might say, “I wasn’t alive then; I wasn’t even there!”  Yes, you were there – in Adam … just as Levi was “in” Abraham.

But here is the awesome truth. When were your sins paid for and forgiven? When you trusted in Christ?  Not exactly; that is simply when it was applied. You were “in Christ” on the cross when he paid the debt for sin, and “in him” you have his righteousness applied to your account that erases the debt with the payment and application of his perfection.

1 Corinthians 1:30 – It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

The Story Behind the Story Behind the Story – Genesis 14:1-24

Today we are going to take a field trip outside the book of Hebrews and go all of the way back to the first book of the Bible and into Genesis chapter 14. Actually, I am going to reference chapter 13 as well.

All of this is necessary if we are to understand the story in Hebrews chapter 7 on how Jesus (of the tribe of Judah, not Levi) was a worthy high priest. And the story behind this story is to understand who this fellow named Melchizedek really is from the history of the Old Testament. And the story behind that story, which is behind the story of Jesus as a priest, is to know how it is that Abram and Lot encountered this person some 2,000 years before Christ.

Abram, who would later be called Abraham – so let’s call him that today – was called by God out of the area of the cradle of civilization to go to a place of God’s leading. He travelled there in obedience, along with this wife and his nephew Lot.

Abraham settled and lived a nomadic life in the Promised Land, though he never really owned anything other than a place of burial. But he lived peacefully among an Amorite group, surrounded as well by various people groups and cities and small kingdoms.

You may recall that as his clan of servants and herds prospered (along with Lot and his possessions of the same), the herdsmen of each quarreled with one another about grazing lands. In Genesis 13, Abraham offers Lot the first choice as to which direction to separate off from one another; and Lot makes the self-enriching choice to take the better land, though it came at a cost of being near a morally wicked group of people in a city called Sodom.

In ancient cultures, more dominant people groups and kings would extort tribute payments from lesser groups – in other words, “give us what we demand from you or else we will come wipe you out.” The early portion of Genesis 14 is a rather tedious listing of kings and peoples of antiquity. Here is the story in a sentence: A group of five kings from the Babylonian area (modern day Iran) demanded and received tribute from four kings in the Jordan Valley – the latter of whom got sick of it after 12 years of such servitude and refused to pay, which led to a mega-battle.

14:1 – At the time when Amraphel was king of Shinar,[a] Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goyim, 2 these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). 3 All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea Valley). 4 For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.

5 In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim 6 and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. 7 Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazezon Tamar.

8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim 9 against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.

So, since Lot lived near Sodom, he was caught up in the battle that ensued, which went against Sodom and Gomorrah. And Lot was carted off by the bad boys from the East, along with all his possessions.

10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. 11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.

When Abraham hears about all of this, he puts together a coalition of his servants and others of the Amorites around with whom he lived in peaceful alliance. He goes after the five kings of the East, whips them with a mighty spanking, and brings back Lot and others taken captive from Sodom (along with a significant cache of possessions).

13 A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

Abraham meets two kings who are totally different in every way. Bera, the king of Sodom, offers him the treasures captured as a reward, which are refused. Melchizedek, the king of Salem (as in what would later be JeruSALEM), blesses Abraham. However, Abraham pays tithes to Melchizedek, honoring him as his spiritual superior.

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

So who exactly is this Melchizedek guy – the one whose name means “king of righteousness?”  Some believe he was a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. This is possible, though I lean away from that viewpoint. He was certainly a great man of stature before the Lord – recognized by Abraham as God’s man who was truly connected to the one true God.

The point of the passage and its reference in Hebrews (referring also to a passage in Psalm 110) is to say that Abraham saw Melchizedek as a greater person before the Lord. Abraham was the lesser, honoring the greater … and as we’ll see later, Abraham’s unborn great-grandson Levi was essentially paying tithes to Melchizedek as well. More on that next week.

An application for today is to see the great faith of Abraham. He had a promise from God that he and his family would be blessed. He did not take it upon himself to seize the best land. He did not take from the King of Sodom the great wealth offered him; Abraham rather believed in the promise of God that what was unseen was greater than what was visible. And this will be the story behind the story for Hebrews 11 as well. But let’s save that for a few weeks later.

But think of this story of Abraham when you hear our kids sing the theme song of the children’s musical program this Sunday. It is the BIG IDEA of what is a “Game Changer.”

Faith, facts, and history (Hebrews 6:13-20)

What distinguishes fact from opinion?  The question came up recently in an op-ed piece which highlighted something from the common-core curriculum for second grade.  The curriculum made the distinction as follows:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested and proven.

Opinion: What someone, thinks, feels, or believes.

What do you think?  For the op-ed columnist, Justin McBrayer, this division between “fact” and “opinion” has only contributed to our children’s inability to ask and answer moral questions.  Why?  Because, McBrayer notes, the definitions above create a false division between fact and opinion.  Can’t opinions be informed by facts?  And can’t our interpretations of facts be influence by our opinions?  Granted, the teaching was aimed at second graders, but McBrayer was able to stump his son:

Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”

Him: “It’s a fact.”

Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”

Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”

Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

The blank stare on his face said it all.

(Justin P. McBrayer, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts,” in The New York Times, March 2, 2015)

For many, faith occupies the broad realm of “opinion.”  It’s something we believe, sure, but it’s hardly something we can test or prove.  Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have built a cottage industry from accusing religious believers of being “deluded” and believing in spite of the lack of evidence.  You’ve surely heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  It’s a mythical creature concocted by atheists to mock religious belief—after all, you can’t disprove the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster any more than you can disprove God.  Though atheists remain a small minority, many apply such similar reasoning to say that no religion can really “get it right.”  Right?

But this confuses the whole issue.  If you study philosophy long enough, you can eventually convince yourself that it’s impossible to know anything (!).  We might, after all, just be plugged into a giant computer like in the movie The Matrix.  But obviously, some things are more reasonable to believe than others, right?  Ah, there we are.  Knowledge and faith might better be placed on a larger spectrum—one in which yes, some beliefs have greater warrant than others.  There may be greater warrant for believing in God than a Flying Spaghetti Monster, and there may be warrant for believing the words of Christ are true.

For Christians, this saves us from turning faith into a flying leap into the dark, or reducing Christianity to blind faith.  Instead, faith rests on the secure promises of God.  These aren’t opinions formed by feelings or personal thoughts, but a promise made from God to man long ago.  So the writer of Hebrews now turns to the story of God and Abraham:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose,  he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which lit is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,  having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:13-20)

You recall the story?  In 2000 B.C., God reached into human history to save a man named Abram.  Do you recall what Joshua would later say?  He said: “your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2).  Abram’s family worshipped other gods—presumably the moon gods prominent during that era.  So if God saved Abram—later giving him the name Abraham—it wasn’t because of the purity of Abraham’s devotion but because of God’s great blessing and promise.  And if you read Genesis, you get a glimpse of how God sealed this promise:

7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.   (Genesis 15:7-10, 17)

What’s going on here?  In context, such practices reflected the magical rituals of Akkadian civilizations.  But the symbolism here is striking.  It’s as if God is saying: “If I fail to keep my promises to you, then let me experience the same fate as these dismembered animals.”

When the writer of Hebrews draws from this tradition, he’s telling us at least two things.  First, he’s reminding us that—like Abraham—our salvation has always been something God accomplished for us, never by us.  Second, he’s reminding us of the unchanging promises and character of God.

So when we consider the nature of faith, we must therefore remember that we aren’t basing our lives on the fearful uncertainty of spiritual speculation.  Instead, we rest on the certainty of God’s amazing promises.  Our beliefs are anchored in historical encounters with a living God—all of which ultimately point to the greatest encounter of all, Jesus, the true and greater high priest.  This is what forms an “anchor” for the human soul—all other forms of spirituality and thinking only reflect the person asking the question.  Christian faith anchors us, secures us, and gives us hope.