God Dies

Biblical Christianity is totally different than all other religions. Every other religion teaches us to earn our way to God. Christianity is the only religion that teaches that God came to us. Other religions require man to die for God, Christianity has God dying for man.

We began this week of studies by talking about the reality of sin and its consequences that have extended to all mankind. There is no doubt that this is felt innately in the human soul. The natural sense is that there is a God … with a sense of resident guilt that this God has been offended by our sin, and thereby an additional sense that one has to do something to earn one’s way back into God’s graces.

And I began today by saying “Biblical Christianity,” because this feeling that one has to earn his way back to God has even corrupted various branches of the tree of those generally identifying as “Christian.”  A study of their doctrinal systems reveals that a person must do this and that to gain merit with God. But the Scriptures teach there is nothing we can do to gain merit. Our good works will always fall short of paying the bill; and teasing out that concept further we could say that our fleshly good works are a currency that is not accepted by God as payment for sin. Only the perfect sacrifice would do, and since no man is perfect, only a God-man would suffice.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

When we were at our worst, God gave his best for us.

1 John 3:1,16 – See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!  …  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

Yesterday we referenced the annual Day of Atonement in the Old Testament sacrificial system. On that day the high priest was to go into the most holy place, behind the curtain. Therein was the Ark of the Covenant with Law on the inside and a covering called the mercy seat. On this day only could he approach it and not fear death within what was seen as coming into the localized presence of God. He first went in and sprinkled blood as a covering (atonement) for his own sin. His second trip inside was with the blood of a goat that was sprinkled to make atonement for the sins of the people. A second goat – a scapegoat – had the sins likewise pronounced over it, but rather than be sacrificed was led away into the wilderness, never to be seen again. This symbolized the removal of sin.

Jesus, the true high priest, is spoken of in Hebrews as coming but once into heaven – the true tabernacle – not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own perfect blood, thus making atonement for all mankind.

At the moment of Christ’s death, a great earthquake shook the ground. And the curtain in the Temple that separated the most holy place was ripped into two pieces from top to bottom, exposing the interior. The final price had been paid, once and for all. God died that man might live.

Hebrews 9:11-14 – But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

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Why Did Jesus Have to Die? (Hebrews 9)

As I set out to speak a few words on this theme today, I hope that you are all really, really interested in this topic! The reason is because in just a couple of weeks, beginning on March 2nd, the next sermon series of six parts will be called “In My Place: Why did the cross have to happen?”  And doing that is a decision made after this devotionals schedule was previously set in place with this title today.

So we will be delving into this essential question in great depth in the coming weeks, leading up to and finishing on Easter Sunday. But let’s take a quick shot at answering this question today. Obviously the quick answer is because of imputed sin that is on all of our accounts that we are unable to pay for ourselves.

But let’s talk first about what is real and what is a copy, or something temporary. We think that the physical things of this world are real; they are material. But spiritually speaking, the real stuff and the real reality is in heaven. Our worship, old and new, is a copy of that which is truly real. So the work of Christ on the cross in dying and paying for sin is not a copy of the Old Testament sacrifices nearly so much as they are a shadow of the true and better payment by Jesus – the perfect lamb of God.

The writer to the Hebrews picks up this theme …

Hebrews 9:11 – But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

So the work of Christ was not the shadow cast by the sacrificial system of the Old Testament era. Rather, the whole complicated rituals of atonement through animal sacrifices were a foreshadowing of the true event at the cross and before God in heaven itself. The Mosaic system was effective (“efficacious” is the word we would use in theology) for that time. But the real payment was that of the cross. The passage continues …

Hebrews 9:13 – The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

The argument here is to say something like this. “If animal blood sacrifices of the old system worked to cover for sin (and they did), then how much better is the blood of the perfect, fully human, sinless Son of God, presented before God Himself (and it is)!”

Allow me to use my old and well-tested illustration. When you buy something from the store with a credit card, you have made a sort of “payment” that was effective for a period of time. You successfully carry the product out of the store and it is yours. But a day comes when a full and final and better and truly real payment has to be made. You get the point. That final payment was necessary to be made with real financial resources.xnx_q_scucu-jametlene-reskp

And after discussing some more details about the earthly “copies” of the OT system, the Hebrews writer continues a bit later in the passage …

Hebrews 9:23 – It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25 Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

The real payment!  Made by the perfect high priest. Made in the real place. He did it once – not having to enter once for himself and his own sins, and then another time for the people. And he did it once for all – not ever having to be repeated again and again. The final NECESSARY payment was made.

The application is in the passage as well. Our earthly death and termination is not the end. There is salvation for those “who are waiting for him” – meaning those who have trusted in this payment rather than their own good deeds for eternal salvation.

You gotta love Hebrews!!  If you’re new to TSF and these devotionals, there is an entire series of 46 writings called “Endure” that you can read through the whole book.

Paying the Debt

Do we need forgiveness?

By now, we’ve already established the sheer magnitude of the problem of sin—both Biblically and psychologically. The question we might be faced with is why we can’t simply overlook it. Move past it. Get over it. After all, if even the Bible emphasizes that we’re all sinners, can’t we just accept this truth and move on?

Thing is, there are some things in life we just can’t move past—nor should we, really. A friend of mine told me the story of why he and his fiancée ended things. He’d been away on business—the ministry, actually—and didn’t see her for a few months. When he returned, he discovered that she’d moved into the apartment of another man. Their relationship was over. He was devastated.

More significantly, though, he was left with something psychologists occasionally call “emotional debt.” He still loved her. The relationship had ended with the abruptness of a car wreck, but the sheer momentum of his love was propelling his heart forward even now, scraped raw against the tarmac. But his fiancée, well…she had already moved on. She wasn’t hurting—at least not as bad as he was. So all—all—of the hurt, all of the betrayal, all of the sudden raw loneliness lay on his shoulders to carry. This was a tremendous debt.

What do we usually do when we experience this? We try and manage that debt by spreading it around. We talk badly about that person. We “warn” others about them—though this is usually just a form of gossip. We let ourselves stew and fester over the past. We fantasize about their downfall—or, alternately, we fantasize about surpassing that person’s success, and inciting their jealousy.

So what happens if we don’t do those things? Then that emotional debt is ours and ours alone to carry.

And that hurts.

Now what if we were the ones who did the offending? And what if the person we offended was not just another sinner like us, but the infinitely good and righteous character of God himself? I’m cautious not to start applying terms like “emotional debt” to an infinite God (as if we God fits into our psychological categories), though there are plenty of places in Scripture when God’s grief comes welling up like a rejected lover thumbing through a tear-stained wedding album.

“I have fond memories of you…how devoted you were to me in your early years.  I remember how you loved me like a new bride; you followed me through the wilderness, through a land that had never been planted.  What fault could your ancestors have possibly found in me that they strayed so far from me?” (Jeremiah 2:2-5, NET)

If there is to be true justice, if there is to be a sense of wrongs being put right, then this debt must be paid.

The Bible describes this in the language of something called “atonement.” Atonement is the finished work of a blood sacrifice. What does it mean to “atone?” Eugene Merrill of Dallas Seminary does a wonderful job of helping us examine the deeply-storied meaning of the Hebrew word kaphar. Merrill says that if we dig through the related words in Akkadian and other ancient languages (similar to how we might look at Latin roots of English words in the dictionary), we find a lot of language that emphasizes not merely covering over sin, but blotting it out entirely. Wiping it clean.

We find this meaning in an unlikely place—the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32. Though used as part of God’s larger, spectacular plan to fulfill his promise to Abraham and establish his people, Jacob got his start as something of a con man. After cheating his brother out of the family inheritance, he went on the run. Now, he was about to be reunited with Esau, and that was a scary prospect. So he sent a whole series of material gifts ahead of him. Ever the shrewd manipulator, he was trying to “buy off” his brother with material gifts. Here’s what the text of the story says was going through his mind:

For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Genesis 32:21)

If you were to read that in the Hebrew, you might notice that the text reads something like “I will atone him” or—if we paraphrase—“I may wipe his face clean [of anger].” Atonement, we see, is deeply relational.

God established an elaborate system of sacrifices used to shape his people’s relationship with him—particularly in the area of the cleansing of sin. The writer of the letter of Hebrews says:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)

Naturally, we hear the echoes of the Old Testament law, here:

11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Leviticus 17:11

Blood would be the means by which God’s people made atonement for their sins.

Now, if you’ve been in church for a while, you might know that each of the sacrifices meant something very specific. But, as Leon Morris points out in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, if we fast-forward to Jesus’ day, the first-century Jews had blurred the system so that every sacrifice made was thought to remove sin.

Such language must seem shockingly barbaric in the walls of today’s sanitized sanctuaries. Why would animal sacrifice be such a major part of worship for such a long period of human history?

Because it’s gross.

See, I have this theory. You know those awful videos they show you in Driver’s Ed? The ones where they show the bloody aftermath of drinking or texting while driving? They’re almost cliché, really. We’re numb to it. But what if we showed cars running over animals. Dogs. Cats. Pets. That sort of thing. The cuter and fluffier the better. We can watch teens text and drive, then watch puppy guts get splattered along the roadside. I guarantee you this would be infinitely more effective than the footage they show now.

If that horrifies you, that’s the point. Sin is as offensive before a holy God is as blood is before a people who treasure their animals. Granted, a sacrificial lamb would probably not have tugged at the heartstrings as much as a family pet, but the unblemished, male lamb would have been quite valuable to the family. And now the worshippers would watch it bleed to death. It’s as if God is trying to remind us, This is your sin. This is your filth. This is your shame. This is the price of atonement.

As before, we need to let this sink in. We need to let this haunt our imaginations and turn our stomachs. We need to be horrified by a God that is so ferociously holy that he demands blood from the people that have incurred such an impossibly massive debt.  Hear the cries of the lamb. See its blood flow in crimson streaks. And let your own tears flow at the knowledge of God’s plan to remove the debt, to cleanse the stain—to bring healing, to bring relationship.

Good Fridays, Unintentional Sins, and Cussing Pastors (or: “You had ONE job!”) (Hebrews 9:23-28)-

Let’s all collectively agree that this kind of thing could only happen to me.

If you missed our worship service last Sunday morning, then let me fill you in on what happened.  And even if you made it to our morning service, let me try and clarify what happened.  We were working our way through Hebrews 9—just as we’ve done this week.   When speaking of atonement, I was using the terms “shame,” “sin,” and “guilt” essentially interchangeably.  Except at one point all three words attempted—of their own free will, it seems, so I can hardly be blamed—to come out of my mouth at once.  But of course, they couldn’t have merged into some random, culturally-neutral word like “walrus” or “megaphone.”  Oh, no.  Instead, I ended up saying something that most people heard as an expletive.  To quote Jerry Seinfeld: “You were like a Red Fox record.”

In the moment, the internal dialogue that always runs in my head kicked into overdrive.  So I kept going—not because of any conscious choice, but because I literally couldn’t process the sheer number of things going through my mind (including abject horror).

So let’s you and I be clear: it wasn’t intentional.  I know, I know; everyone told me that “the word” fit the context perfectly well.  But trust me; that was never in the manuscript.  And even though Paul uses its Greek equivalent (which we usually translate as “rubbish” or some less-edgy word in our English Bibles) in Philippians 3:8, I tend to think this is one of those cases where shock value loses its effectiveness when shock exceeds the value.

So if you were there—or even if you weren’t there—and you find this sort of language offensive, I truly am sorry.  And if you were hoping this was some new turning direction toward a more in-your-face style of ministry, then I’m sorry to disappoint.  I won’t pretend to never using harsh language, but I’d generally prefer to avoid the label of the “cussing pastor,” thank you very much.

Honestly, the biggest thing—at least for me—was the fact that the whole morning felt tainted.  Sure, people know me for my sarcastic jokes and the bizarre combination of pseudo-intellectual and aging punk-rocker.  But preaching is…well…it’s really kind of doing what John the Baptist once said of himself and Jesus: “He must increase,” he said, “and I must decrease” (John 3:30).

You had ONE job.

One job: to exalt Christ and try not to get in the way.  One job: to communicate clearly so that others might have their minds sharpened and hearts softened by the gospel.  One job, and with one word I felt I’d managed to divert focus away from Jesus and onto myself.

Sure, we all have bad days.  But chances are when you have a bad day at work it doesn’t go on Youtube.  I laughed about it later, but you might imagine how this sort of thing tends to eat at you if you let it.  Because I found myself thinking later about just how much this dovetails with the whole concept of guilt and shame—even that whole thing called the “Dobby Effect” we looked at earlier.  See, I wasn’t bothered because people yelled at me—because nobody did.  I was almost bothered because everybody found it so funny.

Why?

And here’s what God showed me: that in that moment my Savior wasn’t Jesus but my own performance record.    That’s wrong, and that’s toxic.

Had I thought fast enough, I’d have diverted our attention to Hebrews 9:7, which speaks of “unintentional sins.”  Yes, sin can be deliberate, but sin can also include the things we do by accident or drift into when our eyes stray from God.  All of us do it.  No one drifts into holiness.  Our natural inclination is toward self-interest.  I realize now that my “unintentional sin” wasn’t being a “cussing pastor,” but my ongoing temptation to bow down to an idol of performance.

And to think: this all began when our ancestors decided to bite into the lie that eating the forbidden fruit would make them “like God.”  Man had ONE job.  And he blew it.  And so did we.

Thankfully, God’s ultimate plan was for transformation and healing.  What began in a garden defiled would be made whole in a garden restored (Revelation 21-22).  Israel’s temple symbolized this hope, though as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, this hope is ultimately—and only—embodied in Jesus:

23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:23-28)

Do you understand what the writer is saying?  It’s easy for human priests to enter earthly temples.  Jesus went into heaven itself.  He stood before God to intercede for you and me.  The judgment we rightly deserve for sin—intentional or unintentional—fell on the Savior’s shoulders, so that you and I might be clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

That’s what Good Friday is fundamentally about.  It’s the day we observe and remember the sacrifice of Christ.  The day that he hung from a scandalous piece of wood, the day when a curtain of darkness hung over the sky, and the rain pelted the earth like God’s own sorrow.  One of my favorite sermon quotes from Tim Keller focuses on the contrast between the first Adam and Jesus:

“In the Garden, Adam was told, ‘Obey me about the tree—do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die.’…God said to Jesus, ‘Obey me about the tree’—only this time the tree was a cross—‘and you will die.’ And Jesus did.”  (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, pp. 10-13).

Jesus had ONE job.  And he succeeded where everyone else only failed—though it literally cost him his life.  Because of this sacrifice, when he entered the heavenly places, his perfect record of obedience got “transferred” or “credited” to our account.   What’s that do for us?  Well, for one thing, it destroys pride.  Pride can laugh at others—in fact it excels at it.  But pride can never laugh at itself—in fact to do so is to destroy it.

Not all our failings are laughing matters.  But this Good Friday I am thankful for a church family that responded to their cussing pastor by responding with grace and understanding rather than offense and condemnation.  And I am hopeful that we see God’s grace in action—that our dependence would be on “the old rugged cross,” a far more stable source of comfort and security than our frail reputations.

Are you a bit of a screw-up?  That’s ok; I’ve been there.  Probably will be again.  So let’s you and I trust Jesus together.

He’s the One who does His job.

 

 

What good is doctrine? (Hebrews 9:15-22)

Friends often tell me that they’ve long struggled to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with that of the new.  For them, God always represented a harsh judge, someone who would hold your feet to the fire (literally) when you did something bad.  Jesus, by contrast, was something of the “other parent.”  When things went poorly, you could count on the embrace of Jesus’ loving arms.  It was an image that was often reinforced by stale Sunday School pictures of Jesus, complete with soft feathered hair and always absent-mindedly petting a sheep.

In 2013, Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan captured a nation’s attention with a cover story for Newsweek Magazine.  The cover read: “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.”  Sullivan rightly sees Christianity in a state of crisis.  His solution?  To move away from “theological doctrines of immense complexity” to return to the “simple ethics of Jesus.”  For Sullivan, what you think about isn’t nearly so important as how you live it out.  On the surface, this is refreshingly commendable.  But press deeper, and you begin to realize that when we recast Jesus as a social visionary, we bend his message into something that suits our own agenda—including an angry indictment against capitalism.

What is the common thread here?  When we fail to comprehend Jesus’ message and purpose, we fall in love not with the real Jesus but our own portrait of him.  For some it is the consoling figure holding a lamb.  For others it’s the hipster Jesus who came to overthrow capitalism and corporate greed.

And, frankly, both visions of Jesus are much more socially acceptable than the image found in orthodox Christianity.  Sin?  Bloodshed?  I don’t want a Jesus who offers mercy; I want affirmation.  I don’t need forgiveness; I need empowerment.  I don’t require transformation; I demand acceptance.  But all of those things only betray a failure to understand our most basic problem: our problem is sin.

A number of years ago, a magazine asked readers to write in a response to the question: “What’s wrong with the world?”  G.K. Chesterton famously responded with two words: “I am.”  I am what’s wrong with the world.  So while it’s comforting—or even fashionable—to blame capitalism, greed, religious abuse, racism, sexism, etc., we can’t escape the fact that sin is both systemic and individual.  The darkness that enshrouds our culture dwells within my heart—or at least it would if not for the transformative power of the gospel.

So in Hebrews we continue looking at the life-giving doctrine of atonement—that means by which God eradicates sin and guilt through the blood of Jesus.  It is Jesus that fulfills what all the former sacrifices could not:

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:15-22)

Do you understand what this is saying?  Purity—of both heart, places of worship, everything—comes through Jesus.  The author makes reference to the sprinkling that occurred through Moses at the inception of the covenant through Moses (that is, the arrival of the Law).  But we may see this as fitting into the larger framework of the sacrificial system.

Do you recall our discussion on the Day of Atonement and the two goats?  One was sacrificed; the other was driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing away the nation’s sins.   On the cross, Jesus embodied both of these meanings—and we even attach specific words to these achievements.

  • Propitiation: This word—meaning to “render favorable”—refers to the way that God deals with our actual sin. In this sense, we can say that propitiation also deals with our guilt—our negative feelings about our actions.
  • Expiation: This word—meaning “to cleanse”—refers to the way God deals with the defiling effects of our sin. In this sense, we can say that expiation deals with our shame—our negative feelings about ourselves.

Are these complex doctrines?  Sure.  But do they have specific benefit?  Absolutely.  First, they help me deal with my own guilt and shame, and in that sense can be said to be psychologically beneficial.  But they also help me see the love, justice, and mercy of God all at the same time, for which reason these doctrines can be said to be spiritually beneficial.

If you follow Jesus—or at least try to—there is an important lesson here.  Too often we don’t come to Jesus because we feel we have to “clean ourselves up” first.  Think about it: have you ever avoided entertaining guests because you felt your house was a mess?  You didn’t want people to see the dishes in your sink, or the laundry piles in the hallway, or the crayon marks on the walls.  So you avoid people.  Well, we do the same with God.  We want to make sure we deal with our own shame and guilt first, and then we can feel “spiritual” enough for God.  But it doesn’t work that way.  In fact, the old covenant reminds us that our attempts to fix externals only results in more bloodshed—and more mess.  I don’t clean myself up to come to Jesus.  I come to Jesus to get cleaned up.  I don’t repent so I can come to Jesus.  I come to Jesus to help me repent.  When we get this backwards, we turn God into someone bent on rewards and punishment.  When we understand the gospel properly, we see that these dry, complex doctrines only serve to maximize our joy.

Why blood? (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Why all the blood?

One objection you might have to Christianity is this peculiar focus on blood.  Sure, it may have been excusable in the era of the Old Testament.  After all, these were a primitive people, right?  Surely we can move beyond this.  But no, in the world of the first century, the cross of Christ emblemizes the devotion to Jesus.  In the second century, a writer named Tertullian wrote that “at every forward step and movement…in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”  You might recognize this as the origin of “crossing oneself,” tracing the shape of the cross in the air above your face and chest.  Yet when Mel Gibson’s Passion film was released in the early 2000’s, film critics were mortified.  One critic even dubbed the film “Jesus chainsaw massacre,” while others complained that the film focused too graphically on the manner of Christ’s death rather than the teachings of his life.

Perhaps this is a good point.  Of all the sermons Jesus ever preached, of all the miracles he ever performed, of all the acts of love, compassion, generosity, humility—the symbol of the Christian faith is an instrument of torture and disgrace.  Why?

First, we must understand that for Jesus, his death was not a tragedy, but a victory over sin and death (cf. Colossians 2:15).  Second, Jesus was no unwilling victim. “No one takes my life from me,” he says.  “I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).  But most significantly, the blood connects us to the understanding of both life and sin.

Leviticus tells us that “life is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).  This lent a sense of reverence to rituals involving sacrifice and death.  But blood disgusts us as well; I know people who faint at the mere sight of blood.  So, in an indirect way, the sacrificial system was God’s way of saying: Sin is as disgusting to me as blood is to you. 

When the writer of Hebrews describes the sacrificial system, he reminds us of both the necessity and inadequacy of bloodshed.  Necessity—because “without blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).  Inadequacy—because no animal sacrifice could possibly pay the infinite debt against God.

So the writer says:

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

The temple system is “handmade” (v. 11).  It is finite, only a symbol of man’s true purpose for relationship with God.  The blood of animals might have granted priests access to an earthly temple, but we could never possibly hope to stand before the actual living God and expect mere external rituals to save us. No; we needed something more, something that would purify us so that we could move beyond the superficial nature of the temple system and into fellowship with God alone.

Growing up, I hated “church clothes.”  I still hate dressing up, frankly (try and look surprised).  Coming from a more traditional church, I grew up with khaki pants and button-up shirts (always neatly tucked in, mind you), uncomfortable shoes and the occasional necktie.  Sunday afternoons were great; they represented the longest span of time before the next time I had to put on my church clothes again.  I think a lot of people feel that way about religion in general and probably Christianity in particular.  Religion seems like a lot of work, a lot of effort to put on our Sunday best.  Our sacrifices get repeated week by week by week—not to mention a host of activities such as Bible studies, small groups, and church events.  Don’t get me wrong, we do those things for a reason.  But the reason isn’t so you and I can look good.  In fact it’s quite the opposite.  When we come to Jesus, we can’t possibly dress ourselves up enough to impress him (I can hear God saying: “Armani suit?  You know I made the Orion Nebula, right?”).  Instead we come with what rags we have, because in our transparency, in our authenticity, we are given fine linen to put on, to be clothed in his righteousness alone.

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.

 

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’s so Good about Good Friday? (Hebrews 9:11-28)

I’ll admit that it seems odd that a day of somber remembrance of death bears the name of “good.”  What makes it good? You may have heard it said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” Easter – the Resurrection is so big, it engulfs everything. We cannot think about the weekend without knowing the big picture. But beyond that, Good Friday is so good because, in terms of our studies in this series, this is THE DAY that the final payment for sin was made. The humiliation of Christ opens the door for the exaltation of our Savior, including all the benefits of his righteousness that accrue to all who trust and believe.good friday

So today’s reading has the writer to the Hebrews telling them that Christ was a priest beyond the order and function of any priest ever in Israel – beyond Moses and certainly beyond the current sinner occupying that position in Jerusalem at the time of his letter. Those guys went into an earthly tabernacle – appearing twice before the ark to sprinkle blood. They first had to atone for themselves, since they were sinners, and then a second time as representative of the people. Christ, however, made his appearance, not in some place of human construction, but before God himself. And he appeared once (since he was sinless), and he came not with animal blood, but with his own human blood as our perfect sacrifice for sin. There is an argument made here from the lesser to the greater. It is saying that, if the old system made the worshipper ceremonially clean on the outside (and it did!), then how much more will the blood of Christ make the worshipper clean all the way through (and it does!). The writer also again reiterates that Christ did this one time – not year after year after year. Indeed, it could be summarized by the use of actual “cross words” … IT IS FINISHED!

crossesThe middle section of the reading today might give you a bit of trouble (vss. 16-22). Let me illustrate this: I have once been the executor of a last will and testament – of my last surviving parent, my mother. Among the necessary documents for the will to be attested as true and able to be enforced was the actual certificate of death. This may seem very obvious, but, for any will or testament to go into effect, there must be the death of the one who made it. Even if we know we are written into someone’s will, we cannot go out and use those resources and claim them as our own – the person must first die. And so, for us to inherit and lay claim to the benefits of salvation, it was necessary for a death to take place … done of course by Christ, through which we become the beneficiaries – inheriting the cross words benefits of atonement, propitiation, expiation, redemption, reconciliation, etc.

So, for us this is a good day, though a very sobering one. We invite you to come worship with us tonight at 7:00 if you are in the Tri-State area.

Hebrews 9

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

16 In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, 17 because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. 18 This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. 19 When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. 20 He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” 21 In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. 22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

23 It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25 Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Cross Words:

Ransom – this is in our passage today in verse 15. There is a sense in which Christ has paid a ransom for sin. It may be said that our condition from the curse of sin thereby enslaves to it. A wrong way of the use of ransom is how some will teach that this is the summary of the death of Christ – that he was paying a ransom to Satan to release us. No… that is giving Satan way too much authority.

Noon and Eloi – At the death of Christ, darkness descended on the land for three hours as it says in this passage from Mark 15:33,34:  At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

puzzle day 10

Credit Card Salvation (Hebrews 9:1-10)

I have really been afraid that in the recent days of this devotional writing project I’ve gone a bit too academic on everyone – I have somehow gained a reputation for that. So, to balance it out a little bit, let me begin today with a quote from my boys’ and my favorite movie of all time – “Dumb and Dumber.” We contend that there is a quote from that 1994 classic that fits just about every life scenario, so let me prove it today! Harry and Lloyd have come into possession of a briefcase filled with money, and over the course of the movie they spend it all, keeping track of it with slips of papers – I.O.U.’s.  And at the end, when the briefcase gets back to the rightful owner’s hands and he opens it to find nothing but hundreds of slips of paper, he says, “What is this? What is this? Where’s all the money?”  And Lloyd answers seriously, “That’s as good as money, sir. Those are I.O.U.’s. Go ahead and add it up, every cent’s accounted for. Look, see this? That’s a car. $275 thousand. Might wanna hang onto that one!”  

We have come to understand paying for things on credit. From Wimpy in the comic strip Popeye telling everyone “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” to our federal government running up a spending debt of $16,000,000,000,000.  Perhaps charging things to another account and another day is innate, as last week my three-year-old granddaughter quietly downloaded $380 worth of books on her mommy’s Kindle reader.

Credit cards are convenient; they work long enough to successfully purchase something in the short term, but a day of final payment is inevitably going to come.

The last three days we have read Leviticus chapter 16 which detailed the institution of the Day of Atonement. It was a single day of the year of salvation for the nation of Israel – as the blood of a goat was sprinkled over the broken law and the scapegoat was sent off to the wilderness to symbolize the removal of sin. But as we have already spoken of in this series of devotionals, a final payment to truly and fully forever remove sin would have to be made by one of the same substance – man … that the blood of bulls and goats was insufficient. In essence, the Old Testament payment was like a credit card charge – good for the moment, but ultimately in need of a final payment by the real thing.

So in today’s reading, the writer to the Hebrews begins to tell his readers how the work of Christ is greater than this long-standing Day of Atonement thing that had been going on year after year. In fact, his main point is that since it had been going on repeatedly, that very repetition illustrated that it was a weak system of credit … as it says in verse 9 the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.”  And the following verse makes it clear that they were temporary things until a new order could be established – the new covenant in Christ, expressed in the message of the Gospel.

These readers of the book of Hebrews were mostly Jewish people who had come to recently trust in Christ; they were getting beat up for their faith; and they were beginning to doubt to the extent of going back to a system where at least they could see and talk to an earthly priest. And the writer is combating this by saying, “No, don’t go back to a lesser, temporary system. The new system has now come through the work of Christ. You have a better high priest who is in a better place – in God’s presence.” Understanding this helps us understand why the same writer said to the same people:  “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  (4:14-16)

Hebrews 9

9:1 Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2 A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lamp stand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4 which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

6 When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7 But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. 9 This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

More “cross words” on the puzzle …

Sin – Yes, the issue that made the mess that made the cross necessary.

Truth – The message and work of the cross is the #1 truth in the world. That is why Christ is so hated and why the cross is such a symbol of fury to people around the world who are enslaved by Satan’s lies.

puzzle day 9