Sunday, September 29, 2019

We Have an Altar (Ezra 3.1-10)

In early 1987, just after we moved into this building, a few of us went to warehouse in downtown Detroit that was filled with old furniture and we furnished the offices for a pittance. One item of furniture for which we paid $100 is the library table in my office around which the staff and elders have always met. It has needed refinishing for a long time, so I bought some paint remover and cleaned off the top. I found it very difficult because of the number of layers of varnish, the darkness of the varnish, and some of the damage to it that had been done through the years. After two thorough goes at it, you could for the first time see the beauty of the solid oak wood underneath. The top needs one more cleansing you can tell, but there I stopped this summer and haven’t had time to complete it.

I want you to use that image to consider the state of the Christian faith in the United States. The wood is the faith, the true faith, the substance of what true Christians both believe and seek to live. The varnish, in this case, is more like a covering that people put on to make the bare wood look good, but in reality it just covers up the beauty of the wood. The varnish is cultural Christianity. During the last two centuries, the unrelenting attack of secularism has, with each generation removed a layer of the varnish. In our day, the final layer is being stripped off and cultural Christians, who have no real heart commitment to Jesus Christ and his gospel, have stopped pretending — I know what that’s all about; 

I came from generations of cultural Christians! May it be that the beauty of the true faith is revealed again.

In our day, the veneer of ‘religion,’ which at one time was quite thick and obscuring, is almost gone. We find the wood is beautiful but the table is smaller than we thought, damaged a bit, and in need of restoration.

The passage just read to us is about the restoration of true worship. Let’s talk about that.

The book of Ezra opens and spends the first six chapters telling the backstory. Ezra doesn’t appear on the scene until eighty years after the book opens. But we’re in the part of the backstory where the first returnees from Babylon have gone to Jerusalem. After getting settled, they begin to do what they were sent for: they begin the rebuilding of the temple. All that we read about in this passage is the restoration of the altar of sacrifice and laying of the foundation of the temple. After this, building will stop for about twenty years before the temple is completed.

The spiritual leaders of the nation (represented by Jeshua and his kin) and the political leaders of the nation (represented by Zerubbabel who is in line for the throne of David and his kin) take the lead first in re-building the altar.

Now what is the altar? The altar is what is called in books of Moses “the altar of burnt offering.” The altar in the temple was to be made of bronze but we know that was not required for sacrifices to be accepted — it could be made of earth, meaning, just stones piled up on which wood could be placed to either cook or burn up a sacrificial offering. But the stones had to be in the rough state, they could not be shaped by a tool in any way. This passage implies that they simply made a stone altar which would have been relatively easy. Their purpose was to re-start the worship of God by offering sacrifices.

Now the first and most important thing to understand about this is that  under the old covenant, the focal point of worship was the great altar of sacrifice in the courtyard outside the holy place. When God instructed them how to build the tabernacle (the moveable ‘tent of worship’) and later the temple, it was all constructed around the altar. The message was loud and clear: The holy God can only be approached through a sacrifice. Sin must be atoned for. So, with the peace or fellowship offering, the worshipers brought their sacrifice to the priest, he offered it on the altar, and they partook of the meal signifying both God’s acceptance of them as worshipers and their fellowship with God in worship.

In other words, the altar was a place of sacrifice of atonement for sinners AND a place of fellowship for redeemed saints.

This restoration of the most basic element of worship is what we read about in verses 1–7. This occurred in the seventh month, the month of Tishri (which fell approximately during the September/October time frame). That month started with Rosh Hashanah (the civil new year) following on the tenth of the month by the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and then by the seven day Feast of Booths in which the people lived in temporary shelters with their children to recall their ancestors' days in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The returning exiles gathered together from the outlying villages to Jerusalem and rebuilt the altar. They immediately began to offer the daily offerings, morning and afternoon, sacrifice of one lamb. They skipped the Day of Atonement (probably because there was no Holy Place and ark of the Covenant for the High Priest to enter and sprinkle the blood). Then at the Feast of Booths beginning on the 15th of the month they began to observe all the regularly prescribed and voluntary offerings of the sacred calendar.

  • Their worship was commanded by God
  • They had not had a temple for nearly seventy years — thus no sacrifice and no public worship.
  • And now, they made the first step to the re-establishment of the worship of the true and living God according to the way he commanded worship to take place.

Now what connection does that have with us? Is there anything that we can learn or think about by reflecting on this event from about 536 BC?
Here’s what we need to ponder:We also have an altar that is the focal point of our worship: that altar is the cross. Let me show you the verse that says this.
Hebrews 13.10: We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.
The book of Hebrews is a letter in the New Testament in which the writer lays out in detail the comparisons and contrasts between the whole system of worship under the old covenant — with temple, priesthood, and sacrifice — and the worship of God through Jesus Christ. At the end of the letter, he draws to a conclusion the whole message of the book and he uses these words to summarize it.

True worship under the old covenant took place when the people of God gathered in the temple around the altar and offered sacrifice. It may be that the house church of Jewish Christians in Rome to which the letter was written had been told by their Jewish relatives and friends, “How could you forsake the system of worship given to our ancestors with a priesthood, and a temple, and a sacrificial system for something that has no altar?” Here is the writer’s answer: We do have an altar.

Now, there’s no question that the writer here is speaking metaphorically of the cross as an altar. He’s not speaking of the cross as a literal piece of wood. Pictures and symbols of the cross arose about one hundred years after the death of the last apostle. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have a wooden cross in back that has sometimes been placed on the platform. But, I am rather puritanical about that and I’m reluctant to use any physical representations in worship… except for the God-ordained symbols of the New Testament: the water of baptism, the bread, and the cup — those are the only physical elements God himself has told us to use to point to spiritual realities.

And, he’s not telling us to call the table on which the elements of the communion are placed at the front of the church “the altar” as in some churches. The table in the New Testament is consistently called “the table” or “the Lord’s table,” and it is not a sacred piece of furniture like the great altar. It is a simple table we set in our midst on which to place the elements. Calling the table an “altar” didn’t happen for well over one-hundred years after the death of the last apostle.

No, when he refers to the altar, he is referring to the focal point of worship under the new covenant. Just as under the old covenant, the focal point of worship is the altar of sacrifice, we too have altar that is vastly superior: the cross on which the Savior died.

What does it mean for us to restore worship today? It means to again make Jesus Christ the focal point of worship — the God-man who came for the purpose of dying for our sins:
Mark 10.45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
That was his whole purpose: to give his life a ransom for many. The cross represents the whole life and ministry of Jesus; it even represents the empty tomb from which he rose from the dead. The cross is Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, powerful to save all who come to him.
  • Our altar is the place of sacrifice.
  • Our altar is the place of fellowship.

Cultural Christianity focuses on other things: Jesus as social justice warrior; Jesus as great moral teacher; Jesus as the champion of the oppressed. And he’s all those things and more. Only they aren’t the central focus. Jesus the Savior is the central focus; everything else only finds its place with that at the center.

My friends, how far the church has wandered and is wandering from that central truth today. Why? Because when we hold up the central focus of the gospel, people say, “You Christians are so exclusive! All you focus on is sin! Why are you so intolerant?” It frightened us. But we need to stop being afraid! 
  • But we had better ask God to raise up leaders who point to the cross and call for repentance and faith!
  • We’d better find ourselves in our church saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
  • We’d better stop pining for the good old days when more people spoke well of Jesus and went to church on Sunday… because the good old days were mostly a thin veneer of religiosity.

That’s the first part of the passage. In the second part, the writer tells us that, after they re-established the focal point of worship, they undertook the rebuilding of the temple around the focal point. 

Beginning in verse eight, we read that the people under the same spiritual and civil leaders, began to rebuild the temple. All this passage really describes is the re-laying of the foundation stones that had been torn down.

Under the old covenant, a building was necessary to conduct the worship of God. When I say ‘necessary’ I mean commanded by God. Here’s what you need to know: True worship under the old covenant took place when the people of God gathered in the temple around the altar and offered sacrifice.

It appears that, at the laying of the foundation stones, the leaders led the people in a penetrating experience of worship. They apparently used Psalm 136 as the song of celebration. That song is a responsive song in which someone sang the verses, and all the worshipers responded after each line with the words, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” That’s called antiphonal worship, and in a large group, it can be quite moving.

Having re-established the altar, they now seek to re-establish public worship. What is public worship? Public worship is what takes place when God’s people gather together to praise God from their hearts around the focal point of the sacrificial altar. This is both something that true worshipers find to be instinctive AND at the same time, it is something that must be taught and we must learn to experience it.

An additional note to this passage is that, though all the worshipers responded from the heart, there were mixed emotions among them:
Ezra 3.11–13:  And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
Worship isn’t always filled with joy. Sometimes we worship out of grief, sometimes out of bewilderment. Sometimes out of pain. Sometimes out of joy. But true worship involves bring our hearts to God in acknowledgement of his grace.

How does that relate to us now? Let’s use another two verses from the same passage in Hebrews 13.
Hebrews 13.15–16: Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
True worship now takes place when the people of God gather around Jesus Christ with their hearts given to God and offer a sacrifice of praise. True worship under the new covenant does not require a building, though we naturally in times of peace and prosperity, build places where we can gather to worship God. But worship involves coming together around the focal point, the cross, and bringing our hearts to God. And this passage says that we also offer a sacrifice. Not one that adds to the sacrifice on the altar of the cross — that’s God’s sacrifice for us which we rejoice in — this is a sacrifice that we bring to God when we come to the crucified and risen Savior, now at the Father’s right hand, and we offer a sacrifice of praise; then we leave to do good and share what we have with those in need.

A commentary I read this week by William Lane put it this way: “Authentic worship consists in the praise of God and in a shared life of love.”

I meet Christians today who don’t see any need for public worship. “I can worship God on my own,” they say. Well, of course you can. But that’s private worship. And as important as it is, the Bible also stresses public or corporate worship when we bring our hearts to God along with others and offer the sacrifice of praise.

You see, we need today, in our rapidly declining culture, to stress two things.
  • First, we must re-establish the altar — the focus on Jesus Christ who died for our sins to justify us and rose from the dead to save us.
  • Second, we must re-establish public worship — meeting to praise God and learn to live a shared life of love. 

The pastoral staff went on a retreat this week from Sunday evening through Tuesday evening. A family in the church let us use their house in Tawas. We spent most of the time talking about our hearts: What the Bible says about the heart, the natural deceitfulness of the human heart, the cleansing of the heart in conversion, and what it means for us to guard our hearts. Over two days, different ones shared their experiences, their pains and joys in relationship with God. We sang and prayed together.

At the last meeting, I led a discussion on how we can help the people of God in our local church to focus wisely on their hearts. We discussed how bewildering modern life is for people (including us who were on the retreat), how difficult it is to know how to respond to a culture that is giving up on the thin veneer of faith that held for so long. How a proper focus on the heart might impact Children’s ministries, Student Ministries, preaching, music, small groups, and so forth.

When we concluded I asked people how they were feeling. Most of them said, “I felt really good until this discussion. Now I feel depressed. The weight of what we’re involved in as leaders in the Christian movement has come back with a vengeance.

I felt kind of bad. I like it when people feel good. So, I pondered for the rest of the week whether the retreat was good or bad. Yesterday, I thought I ended on the wrong note. Today, I think we ended on the right note.

Like most of you, I waver on whether the present generation is a good time or a horrible time to be a Christian. As the culture slides into anti-religious chaos, we can either see the present time as the entrance into a new age of persecution, brainwashing, and martyrdom OR as a new opportunity for life-changing ministry. I suppose, in a sense, it’s whatever we chose to make it.

Like the desk in my office, the thick and crusty veneer of decades of cultural Christianity and vague spiritually have been wiped away like paint remover removes old varnish. What lies beneath is the real thing in all of its beauty and vulnerability. “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” We need to display, individually and in our worship, it in all its life-changing power.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Feast of Fellowship (1 Corinthians 10.16)

What happens when Christians celebrate communion?
  • Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” So, is it simply taking a look back and remembering something significant, much as we might look at pictures of our wedding day and remember an important event?
  • When we take communion, does God do something inside of us? If he does, we is it he is doing?
  • And when we celebrate communion, is our experience of worship different than what we may experience when we, say, read the Bible and pray on our own at home, or when we sing and pray with a group? Or, is it just the same thing only in a different form?

What happens when we celebrate communion?

I’d like us to take a look at one verse from what was just read to us. 1 Corinthians 10.16:\
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
The meaning of the celebration of communion is too large a subject in the New Testament to be covered in one passage. But this is an important one of those passages that gives us some significant insight into its meaning.  In order to dig out some of the riches of this verse, we’ll have to look at their context in the whole letter. In chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul begins to answer some questions that they asked him. He deals first with their questions about marriage — the kind of questions that would come to mind for people converted to Christ from a completely non-Christian, pagan, background. Then, he opens chapter eight by segueing to a new question: “Now concerning food offered to idols.” We are left to discern what exactly the question was, but it seems to have been something like this: Is it permissible for Christians to eat food that has been offered in sacrifice in idols’ temples. Now, unlike marriage, this is not a question any of us have agonized over recently, but Paul spends three full chapters on it! He uses it as an occasion to look at how to deal with the gray areas of life.

I have been to ancient Corinth twice. Above the city and looking down from a lofty height are the ruins of the temple Aphrodite on a mountain called the Acrocorinth. You enter the ruins of through a pagan temple and other temples are found in the city as well. The temples in the Roman Empire served as community centers as well as places of rather degraded worship — a meat market would be adjacent to the temples where meat that had been offered in sacrifice but not eaten by the worshipers was available for sale. Paul’s answer to their question was not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but was multifaceted:
  • First, he says in chapter eight, there’s no reality to idols. There’s no real Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth or Zeus on Mount Olympus. There is only one true and living God! Therefore, in and of itself the meat sold in the marketplace is not tainted in some way and dangerous to eat. So, if you go to someone’s house and they serve you meat, you don’t even need to ask where it came from; you won’t be harmed by eating sacrificial meat.
  • But, chapter nine, there are matters of conscience. Some Christians may be offended by the mere thought of eating something offered to an idol. So, be careful! While it’s permissible to eat such meat, you should never offend another Christian or cause him or her to stumble by eating in front of him.
  • And, finally, in this passage he notes that, while there is no reality to false gods, there is very real demonic influence behind all idolatry and he says in verse 20, “I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

So, his answer is this: “Don’t eat in idol’s temples! Do not go to worship services at the temple and share in the sacrificial meal because that will make you companions of demons.”
That’s the context in which this verse is found. Again, verse 16:
1 Cor. 10.16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
This is the only place in the New Testament where the order is reversed — first the cup and then the bread. That may be because he is going to compare the celebration of communion to what goes on in idolatrous worship. Among the pagans it was the pouring out of a bowl of wine on the sacrifice that received more attention than the eating of bread. But whatever the reason, the New Testament makes it clear that the proper order of celebration is the bread first, then the cup, just as in the Passover meal.

Note the word ‘participation’ which is also used twice in verse 20. This is the key word in the verse and the passage. The word used here (you may have heard it if you’ve attended on Bible teaching before) is the word koinōnia. It is most frequently translated ‘fellowship:’
Acts 2.42: [Concerning those who believed in Jesus and were baptized on the day of Pentecost] “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (koinōnia), to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
1 John 1.3: [John is describing his experience of being with Jesus during his earthly ministry, and he says,] “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship (koinōnia) with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
This word is translated in different ways in this verse we are exploring: Communion (KJV and others, which is where we get the use of the word communion to describe the celebration of the Lord’s Supper); sharing (NASB), participation (ESV, NIV), fellowship. All of those are legitimate but it basically means experiencing the reality or the enjoyment of a relationship. I think ‘fellowship’ communicates that best.

This passage tells us something about both of those experiences of fellowship — with Christ and with other Christians.

First, this verse tells us that in the celebration of communion, we have fellowship with Christ himself in the benefits of his death.

Now, what does it mean for us to ‘have fellowship’ with Christ in the celebration of communion.
Well, sometimes people reflect on how Christ is present in the bread and cup, whether he is physically present in the bread, or spiritually present, or absent. But that’s not really covered in this verse. That answer must come from other passages and they tell us that Christ is not present in the bread or the cup itself, but spiritually in the act of Communion. To make the bread and cup themselves contain Christ in some way is to confuse the sign for the thing signified.

No, this verse focuses on the fellowship that a believer has with Jesus Christ in the act of sharing in the elements of communion. It is a celebration of peace that is vertical.

Perhaps verse 16 is not that clear on the fellowship of the believer with Christ but in the context it seems to be very clear. He says in verses 19–20:
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? (No, he’s already said there is no reality behind idols.) No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.
The parallelism is clear: If, in pagan worship of false gods, the participants are having fellowship with demons, then, in the same way, one who rightly worships Jesus in the Lord’s Supper has fellowship — the enjoyment of the relationship — with Jesus himself.

This raises the question, “Is the enjoyment of our relationship with Christ in communion any different than what we may have when we, say, read the Bible and pray on our own at home?” I’ve noticed this is sometimes asked by people who don’t want to think that a church meeting isany more important than their own private experience. And other times, it’s asked by people whose background seemed to make communion a mystical or saving experience and they want to avoid that idea.

Let me try to answer that question with an illustration. I want to be very careful here to avoid any sense of coarseness but this is the direction that the Bible, in all it’s teaching about this covenant sign, seems to point us.

Imagine a married couple with children who go out to dinner alone on a date night. And imagine that they enjoy their themselves. After dinner, over coffee say, they express to each other their love and appreciation — he tells her of his delight in her as a woman, a wife, and a mother. He appreciates her warmth, her nurturing and giving spirit, and her strength. She expresses her contentment in him as a man, a husband, a father — that he is steady, sacrificial, strong, and tender. For a few minutes they are free from all the concerns of life — small slights are forgotten, responsibilities are set aside, and they speak freely without any obligation. They have one of those all-too-rare occasions of real devotion, the kind that strengthens and builds a relationship.

Imagine that they then go home and, later, they engage in the act of marriage — the physical expression of their love and the confirmation of their marriage covenant. When they delight in each other in that way, is it any different in character from their conversation over dinner? Well, certainly the form of the expression is different; but is the sense of loving and being loved any different? I would say no, though the experience of it is.

Now, I’m speaking in ideal terms, and reality often falls short of the ideal. But, I think you understand the point.

Is there any difference between reading the Bible and praying alone in a meaningful, heart-engaging way and celebrating communion with brothers and sisters in Christ? I can only tell you that the Bible seems to indicate it is that kind of difference. Not a difference in what is going on — both are “fellowship” (koinōnia). But one is more verbal, more cognitive and the other is more emotional and ‘sensual’ in that it involves more of the senses.

Now, this fellowship we have with Christ is both objective and subjective. By objective, I mean that regardless of what we “feel” on any given occasion of celebrating Communion, the Bible tells us that, “Since we have been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5.1). The believer is one who knows that God has taken away the barriers of through the death of Christ on the cross. By subjective, I mean that it also impacts our “feelings” and that happens to the degree that we enter into it with the reciprocal attitude of submission and worship.

So, first, this verse says that in the celebration of communion, we have fellowship with Christ himself, especially in the benefits of his death which is what establishes our relationship with God and gives us peace.

But, the passage makes it even more clear that in the celebration of communion, we not only have fellowship with Jesus but we also have “fellowship” (koinōnia) with each other. The first is vertical — fellowship with Christ our heavenly King and Bridegroom. The second is horizontal — fellowship with those in the family of God with whom we share in this experience.
How is this shown in the passage? In three simple ways:
  • First, note the emphasis on ‘we:’ “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break….” In this action, we are doing something together. This is not an action any individual is to do on his own; it is distinctly a ‘church act’ in which a gathered group of confessing Christians share in the bread and cup.
  • Second, note verse 17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Communion is a living picture of the solidarity of the body of Christ.
  • And, lastly, this idea is rooted in the very concept of ‘the covenant signs,’ which I think are better terms to use for baptism and the Lord’s Supper than either sacrament or ordinance. All biblical covenants have signs that represent the covenant. All the signs have a direction that is pointed to both God and to the worshiping community. Baptism, experienced only once in a person’s lifetime, is the entrance into the believing community in a formal sense. In it, the gathered church rejoices to hear a person declare his or her discipleship and the disciple rejoices to know the acceptance of the church as a fellow member of the body of Christ. Communion is the same. We have fellowship with Christ and with each other.

Again, this horizontal fellowship is both objective and subjective. Objectively, God has already created unity in the body of Christ — he has erased all previous barriers under the old covenant of race, family heritage, knowledge of the law, and so forth. Now, he accepts people from every ethnic group, nation, language, gender, and station in life freely through faith alone in Jesus Christ. This is true whether we experience it or not.

But for a local church, it is the subjective aspect of this fellowship that is most important. Our unity and the removal of barriers between us must be reflected in the church’s serious concern to promote peace and harmony among its members. “So far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people” Paul wrote in Romans 12. This is hard work. But without that work, communion is just bare sign, emptied of its significance.

But, when it reflects our intention to live in a way that promotes peace and reconciliation, then it is a sign filled with power. Then the peace that Christ created by his cross becomes a powerful reality in the life of a congregation of the people of God shining as a brilliant light into a community.

That’s just some of what these words mean. They are words that ought to fill us with a sense of both privilege and responsibility as we come to the table today:
1 Cor. 10.16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Recall the Former Days (Hebrews 10.19-39)

This morning we conclude a series in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. You might wonder how we can conclude a series at about the two-thirds point of the book, so let me explain. Through the years of my ministry here, I have frequently broken longer books into parts and preached through the parts in yearly series — I preached through Genesis for five years every fall. That’s what we’ve done with this. We preached through Hebrews 1.1–4.12 in 2018, this year through 4.13–10.39, and, Lord willing, we’ll finish the letter next summer.

Last week, Devin mentioned that the first half of chapter ten is the high point of this part of the letter, where the writer draws to a conclusion the whole discussion of the high priesthood of Christ. The subject that the writer introduces in 4.13 is the assertion that Jesus is better than the Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the first high priest of the entire Old Testament system. But, the subject is not merely the priesthood but all it stands for: the covenant, the law, the sacrificial ministry. All comes to a conclusion in Hebrews 10.1–18.

So you might think of this as an anti-climax, but it isn’t really. It’s a ‘joint’ in the writer’s sermon, a transition from the high priesthood of Christ to the final topic, an extended appeal to show loyalty to Christ through persevering faith. As in the entire letter, the movement of the letter is organic rather than pedantic

This passage has three parts: An exhortation, a warning, and an encouragement. So, notice how he begins, the passage just read to us:
(verse 19) Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…and (verse 20) since we have a great priest over the house of God.
He’s drawing from the conclusion he has just made. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice and his priesthood, therefore…

Then, he identifies three blessings and responses, each marked by the words, “Let us...”
  • (verse 22) “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” In other words, continue to worship God both individually and corporately.
  • (verse 23) “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” In other words, steadfastly maintain your public testimony to Christ on the basis of God’s faithfulness.
  • (verse 24) “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, (25) not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” In other words, continue to meet together for worship and encouragement.

That’s the response to be made. It’s meant to move them past some of their impediments — their failure to worship, their fear of publicly continuing to stand for Christ, their failure to meet for encouragement and admonition. He wants them to persevere in their testimony to Christ.
Then, the warning, verses 26–31. The warning is very similar in tone and purpose to the one in chapter six that we spent three weeks on. It essentially says that if you abandon your reliance on the gospel of Christ you will reveal that you are a counterfeit Christian. “If we go on sinning willfully,” verse 26, is not referring to just any kind of sin or moral failure; in the context of the letter, it is referring specifically to the sin of abandoning Christ. Apostasy. Ceasing to believe in Jesus and declaring yourself to no longer be identified with Christ and the church. And he uses a lesser to greater argument: If apostasy under the old covenant led to physical death, then under the new covenant it must lead to eternal death. Turning away from the gospel is turning from God’s final word spoken in Jesus, his Son. Such a person is not just turning from the teaching of the law; he or she is regarding the blood of Christ as common blood with no redemptive significance. The whole discussion, just as in chapter six, rests on the Bible’s teaching that continuance in the faith, persevering in believing the gospel, is the mark of genuine Christianity.

The last paragraph is an encouragement. Just as in chapter six, the writer is not content to leave us with a warning. He is convinced that those reading this letter are true Christians. The work of God in their salvation is powerful and effective. So, he says, remember how you lived in the past when you first came to Christ and recapture your confidence in the benefits of the gospel. And he ends with these words:
(verse 39) But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
The passage as I said is a hinge. Note how he ends with “those who have faith.” The next chapter will pick up with these words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That will open the final part of the letter. So, you see, the whole little section is a movement from the previous topic — the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ — to the last section — faith as the means of receiving the promises of God.
“Recall the former days,” he says, “when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
With those words he reminds the reader of his main teaching: Perseverance in the faith is the mark of genuine salvation. Temporary faith is not saving faith. Going with Jesus for a time — like high school — but not being married to Jesus for a lifetime is not saving faith. Saving faith continues by the power and promise of God. It’s persistence despite whatever you face in life is an indication that the work of God in you is real.

This segues the readers into the final extended application of this message in the last part of the book which underlines that loyalty to Christ is the proper response to his great redemption.

Now, let’s think for a minute about this message. Let’s back up and consider the whole letter, the point of which is summed up in a sense right here. Here’s how our contemporary world thinks about the Bible:
Up here you have the biblical world of this writer. He wrote to a small house church made up of Jewish converts to the Christian faith in the city of Rome around mid-first century, in the first generation after the death of Christ. He wrote to people who were immersed in the teaching of the Bible — particularly the Greek version of the Old Testament called ‘the Septuagint.’ That world was long ago and far away; in reality, the precise conditions to which he wrote can never be repeated because we can never re-start the Christian movement.

Now, our contemporary fellow-citizens of this world tend to see these two worlds as having nothing to do with each other. You can study the biblical world but only as a way of studying history to see what they thought and did. But, there is no relevance to our world; how could there be? They are worlds apart. In the same way that Homer (who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey) is interesting and tells us about the ancient world but has no connection to us, so the Bible might be interesting (if you have any interest in history) but it has no connection to how we live now.

The Bible, however, doesn’t claim to be simply a book of history even though it contains a record of historical events. The Bible claims to be a revelation of God for human beings of all generations. In fact, the writer of this letter to the Hebrews is reminding the readers about certain events and facts from the Bible written between 1,500 and 2,000 years before their time in ~60 AD AND he assumes that it has some relevance to them to which they need to give attention.

In other words, he sees the two worlds like this:
He sees that the text of the Bible, in its original context, had a clear meaning. But that meaning was rooted in an historical situation. For example, in the first part of the letter, he draws from passages of the Old Testament that are rooted in the period of time in which Israel wandered in the wilderness of the Arabian peninsula — after they left bondage in Egypt and before they entered the land of Canaan. He knows that the situation of his readers, 1500 years later in a large cosmopolitan city like Rome, is nothing like that of their nomadic ancestors wandering with their flocks and herds through the desert. He knows that the words were spoken to their ancestors and not to them. He knows that the temptations faced by their ancestors as well as their acts of obedience or disobedience to God cannot be repeated in exactly the same ways for the simple reason of 1500 years of distance physically, socially, and in language, and culture. BUT, he assumes that what the text originally meant has some relevance to the people of his day.

Perhaps a thinking person today says, “Listen, no historical event has any direct relevance to us today. World War Two, for example, for which the last of the combatants are almost gone, tells us nothing about today. It might, they admit, show us how certain actions between governments and armies can lead to peace or disaster but even that is hard to see because the precise historical situation can never be repeated. So, you Christians who want to use the Bible as some kind of guide for life, are simply special pleading — you want to treat the Bible as something more than it is.

Well, that’s not entirely true. For example, the fact that blood circulates through the body, pumped by the heart and carrying oxygen to even the capillaries of the body was discovered in 1500 BC in Egypt. Apparently, they had a few things wrong, but in the main, their understanding of that was accurate and is the basis for medical advances through the centuries. Modern medical science, you might say, is built on it. So, the ancient world has relevance for some things. But, they modern thinker pushes back, that is something that every generation can test empirically, or scientifically. Yes, we accept that it was discovered in 1500 BC but that’s not why it’s true.

Okay, let’s take philosophy. The basic philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle  and their heirs from approximately 500 BC until 100 BC covered the most foundational human thinking about the categories of philosophy. For example, how do we know whether or not we truly exist. All of philosophy has been built on what they wrote. I don’t mean, no one ever disagrees or that - philosophical thinking hasn’t advanced. Of course, it has. But, quite simply, the modern world assumes a direct connection between the ancient world and the today when it wants to.

Now, the Christian accepts as a worldview foundation that God has revealed himself in an objective way in the Bible. And, we see in the Bible not simply a record of events from the past (though it is that) and not simply the reflections of people about God and their experiences of God in the past (though it contains some of that as well) but an authoritative word from God. And, in order to tie together the ancient world and the modern world, people like this writer or people like us sitting here today are convinced that the Bible contains principles that have application to all people at all times.

The writer sees the situation in this way:
The connection between the biblical world and the modern world is based on the principles that the Bible contains that have direct application for today. Those principles may be difficult at times to ferret out. Or they may at times be very simple.

Simple example: The Eighth Commandment — “You shall not steal.” That commandment is actually presented in principle form so that we don’t have to give much thought to how it applies. If it were presented like our laws today it would not be presented as a principle but as a specific command that would then have to be drawn out into all of the specific applications — You shall not steal your parent’s car, your wife’s purse, your neighbor’s lawnmower. But this is presented as a universal principle: You shall not steal. So, if I ask the question, “Is it wrong to cheat on your income tax?” the answer is simply “Yes!” Cheating on your income tax is simply one way in which a person can steal.

But, unlike the Ten Commandments, most of the Bible is written in the concrete world to which it originally came, so we have to think about what principle is embedded in a command like, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk,” which is repeated four times in the law of Moses. I don't think anyone definitively knows what that means! So, it is not easy in every part of the Bible to extract principles. 

So, how do we think about this letter to the Hebrews and particularly about this short little section that is clearly a segue between two parts of the letter, a section that contains an exhortation, a warning, and an encouragement.

One thing we have to do is to look at the forest rather than the trees. We have to draw back and see the big picture. For example, if we think of the particular context of this letter, it is evident there is little connection between the original readers and us: Culture, language, experience, religious background are all quite distant from each other. But, it we take a backward step we see that the writer assumes that the connection between his readers and those in the wilderness is that they were each the people of God in a covenant relationship with him that had both blessings and responsibilities. And the connection between us and the first century readers is the same — we are meeting consciously as a people of God in covenant relationship with him through Jesus Christ; the other barriers drop away because we know that we too have to think about our responsibilities and privileges under the new covenant just as they did.

We are not a group of people under severe persecution. When the writer says, “Recall the former days,” and goes on the speak of imprisonment, loss of reputation, loss of property that doesn’t directly describe us. But, we too, especially in our day can see on the horizon what it may mean for us in the future to show loyalty to Christ — we read about the attitudes towards Christians help by a growing number of people in our society. And, we too, find ourselves drawing back from conversation at the water cooler or while  getting our car fixed; a drawing back that we wouldn’t have felt twenty or thirty years ago.
So, the principle is the same: Loyalty to Christ is the proper response to the magnitude of his redemptive accomplishment. When we begin to grasp the significance of what Jesus did on the cross our hearts are captured, our minds are enflamed with understanding, our emotions are humbled before him with gratitude. And the only way to respond is to give ourselves to him in faithful discipleship.

How do we nurture that experience of the magnitude of his redemption?
  • Reading and reflecting on the Bible
  • Participating in the celebration of Communion…like next Sunday
  • Reading good books about the gospel
  • Talking with others about their experience
  • Worship — real worship of God

Those are the only ways.

I spent some time this last week reflecting, at age sixty-five, on my life and ministry. I was nineteen years old when I came to understand the gospel and I trusted in Christ. For me, at that time, the forgiveness of sins was the primary way in which I experienced the gospel. I wasn’t much of a sinner by this world’s standards; in fact, my sin involved more self-righteousness than moral decadence but as I began to reflect on the Scriptures God made my sins insurmountable by my own self-efforts.
But, humanly speaking I lost nothing by becoming a Christian. My parents weren’t pleased for a few years but then I started a church and it kept going and they got used to it. When I was first following Christ at university, if I wanted to talk to someone in the dining room, I did it. People may not have agreed with me; no one ever yelled at me or took me to court or even complained to the dorm officials.

Forty-six years later things are quite different aren’t they? I can only say the message of this passage is more important than it was back then. Performance driven music, attractive but shallow messages, and big programs will not prepare the next generation for the challenges they will face. We must give each other and the next generation the resources they will need to show the kind of loyalty to Christ that will be demanded.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Nothing but the Blood (Hebrews 9.11-28)

Of all of the objections to the Christian faith today, one of the most dangerous is the accusation that it is a religion of blood with roots in paganism. This is probably one that you don’t think of and that is just the problem. This one is the most threatening because is it coming from within the Christian faith itself. The fact is that most of the mainline Christian denominations — that is the historic denominations that came out of the Reformation five hundred years ago — have adopted a liberal theology. In their new understanding of things, God’s love is understood to mean his acceptance of us. He is not angry with sin and he has no demands of human life. Therefore, to assert that God required blood atonement, that is the offering of his blameless Son on the cross — as Christians used to say — in order to satisfy his wrath against sin, is a pagan concept.

All of these denominations, however, have chosen not to say that openly. Instead, they continue to use the words of the historic liturgies, and the words of scripture itself, even though these words seem to point in another direction. What they do is reinterpret the words to mean something different than people have traditionally understood.

If you listen carefully, this is what is being said this morning in many churches — the label on the bottle doesn’t matter. It may be Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, even Roman Catholic. They say things like this:
  • Christ’s death on the cross didn’t pay for sin, as though God were some bloodthirsty tyrant; it simply released God’s love for the whole world.
  • Because God’s love is released, he now accepts everyone as they are; all obstacles to his acceptance of everyone have been removed.

In this new view, the Christian religion, is about God’s radical acceptance of us. All we need to do is accept ourselves for what and who we are. After all, God accepts us; he’s not trying to transform us because his acceptance is unconditional in Christ.

As a writer of the last century once wrote in description of these ideas: 
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (H. Richard Nieburh)
That viewpoint, which is relatively new, only about one-hundred years old, is so widespread that many do not realize that it is not the historic Christian faith. It is not what is written in the historic confessions of the churches, it is not what scripture teaches. It simply is not what those who went before us believed.

That new viewpoint — the idea that Jesus was not a substitute for sinners and for their sin when he died on the cross — is very widespread. So widespread that it is even being spoken in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. 

The chapter just read to us is scripture’s answer to that idea. This chapter contains the word ‘blood’ more times than any other chapter in the Bible outside of Exodus and Leviticus which describe the sacrificial system in detail. In our paragraph this morning, ‘blood’ is used eleven times. And to underline his point, the writer uses the word ‘sacrifice’ twice, the word ‘death’ twice, and the word used in the Old Testament to describe the ritual procedure of sacrifice, ‘to offer,’ three times.

So, our question today is this: Is it possible to give up the concept of blood atonement and still have anything that corresponds to biblical Christianity? Or does the love of God so trump the holiness of God that his love can be conceived as being merely ‘acceptance’ without conditions, without any expectation being placed on the individual human being? Is the idea of satisfying God’s wrath against sin the same thing as the pagans in, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey, offering sacrifice to Zeus, or Apollo, or any of the other pagan gods? In other words, is blood atonement a pagan idea?

Notice in your Bible how this little section is titled, “Redemption Through the Blood of Christ.” And note how the text of this section is divided into three shorter paragraphs: Verses 11–14; verses 15–22; and verses 23–28. In this text, we see two things: The first two paragraphs show us two things the blood of Christ accomplished for us and, the last paragraph shows us how we are to respond to it. So, two accomplishments and one response.

The writer begins by drawing a parallel between the ritual of the Day of Atonement, which he describes in some detail in verses 1–10, and the ministry of Christ. The Day of Atonement is described most clearly in Leviticus 16. It was one of the yearly festivals in the Old Testament calendar of worship. It fell in the fall of the year, this year on October 8–9. The Day of Atonement is the only day on which the Old Testament worshipers were to fast. It is also the day on which the high priest offered a sacrifice, first a bull for himself and his relatives of the priesthood, and then a goat for all of the people. He was to take the blood in a basin from the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard, walk through the Holy Place, past the veil that curtained off the inner room, the Most Holy Place, and there in the semi-darkness of that room which contained only the ark of the covenant, he was to sprinkle some of the blood in a prescribed manner on the top of the ark, on the cover that was called ‘the mercy seat.’

In a real sense, the entire sacrificial system was summed up in this ritual. On that day, any sins that had not been atoned for by sacrifices and offerings throughout the year, were presented before God on behalf of all the worshipers. They waited out in the courtyard expectantly for the high priest to emerge from the inner sanctuary. When he appeared, they rejoiced: God had accepted atonement for the people for one more year.

What the Day of Atonement accomplished was a reprieve. The worshipers were consecrated, so to speak, for one more year of service.

Then, verse 11:
Heb. 9.11-14But 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) 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. 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, 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. 

The first things we learn about the blood of Christ is that it has accomplished definitive cleansing and restoration. Unlike the annual reprieve brought about by the yearly offering of the blood of goats and calves, he shed his own blood and secured “eternal redemption.”

Remember we have said that the sacrifices of the Old Testament were ‘provisional.’ What that means is that they were offered as a temporary stand-in for a later reality. Just as you might be allowed to graduate from college provided you turn a paper after graduation that you were unable to turn in because of sickness, the Old Testament worshipers who looked to God’s promise of final redemption through the ‘serpent-crushing offspring of the woman’ (Gen. 3.15) experienced true and full forgiveness just as we do today provided the Messiah offered the final sacrifice later. When Christ died, he secured that provision.

But our forgiveness has no provisional clause: The final sacrifice has been offered and we who look to Christ alone have that true and complete forgiveness.

The Day of Atonement also illustrated another reality of the new covenant: Access to God was severely limited due to his intense holiness. The high priest alone went into the room with the symbol of God’s footstool on which he placed his feet as he ruled from heaven. The worshipers never even saw the room — they only entered symbolically in the person of the high priest who represented them. But Jesus Christ, our high priest, has entered the true presence of God in heaven itself and he has opened access to us as well. We experience true restoration to fellowship with God. Of course, we have this spiritually only at this time; we will have it physically in the end. But we are invited to take advantage even now of the reality that in Christ, God’s presence is opened to us.

Through Christ’s blood, we have complete cleansing — not just yearly consecration to service but cleansing of the conscience — and restoration to God.

Now, why was the blood of Christ required for that to happen? Why does the writer say, “not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood?” (v. 12) Why does it say, “the blood of Christ…purifies our conscience…?” (v. 14).

Well, like most of the Bible’s teachings, it goes back to the beginning and to the nature of sin. When God placed our first parents in the garden, he entered into a covenant of works with them. They were given a probationary test: All of these things I have created are yours and for your benefit; the only prohibition is that you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen. 2.17). To violate God’s representative command was to rebel against the Creator. It was a rebellion that could be paid for only by death. In our terms today, the first sin was a capitol offense, one that required the death of the perpetrator.

In other words, sin is a rebellion against the holy character of God, a rebellion that requires death. The sinner himself can pay the penalty but then he is lost forever. An animal can be offered in place of the sinner, but only symbolically, because even the Old Testament taught that it was impossible for the blood of sacrificial animals to take away sins. Or a substitute can be found, but he must be one who represents both humans and God, a God-man — then atonement could be made. And it may not be merely a natural death, but a substitutionary and violent death. The need for blood atonement is built into the biblical story from the beginning.

Only blood could give to us definitive cleansing from sin and complete restoration to God.
Now, the writer goes on to tell us another thing the blood of Christ accomplished, and it is this: The blood of Christ established the new covenant. 

The blood of Christ established the new covenant.

Verse 15 reads:
Heb. 9.15: 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.
This speaks, as I just mentioned, of Jesus offering the sacrifice that the Old Testament saints looked forward to. By his death, he met the provision they awaited and all they experienced and anticipated became real for them. Then he goes on and explains that the very establishment of a covenant requires a death to occur.

Note that there is a footnote to v. 15: ‘The Greek word means both covenant and will.’ In other words, translators differ as to what it means here. In this case, it doesn’t really matter: In either case, he is arguing the same thing. A death must occur for it to be firmly established.

I understand it to mean covenant here, just as the word does throughout the book. So, let me explain what he means when he says that a death must occur for a covenant to be effective. We see this described in Genesis 15, when God first entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham: An agreement would be formally ratified by cutting sacrificial animals in half and laying the two halves across from each other. The parties then walked between the pieces of dead animal flesh — by doing this, they were indicating a self-curse. The parties are saying, “May the Lord make me like these dead animals if I violate this oath.

In other words, a covenant is established on death — either a symbolic death for the one ratifying the covenant or a real death if he violates it. That’s what the writer means when he says in verse 17, “For a will takes effect only at death.”

God speaks to this later in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 34.18–20, we read these words:
Jer. 34.18-20And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts—the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.
This is what the writer refers to, this covenant ceremony that requires death to ratify. Then, he notes that the old covenant itself was established with a sacrifice of blood: Moses took the blood of sacrificial animals and sprinkled the tabernacle, the vessels of worship, even the gathered people to ratify the covenant.

In the same way, we are assured, blood was shed to establish the new covenant. Why blood? Why was a death necessary? Because a covenant, especially the covenants between God and people, require that the one establishing the covenant die — either symbolically or actually. In the case of the new covenant — think of it — the death was the actual death of the one ratifying the covenant. Christ, our high priest, also became the sacrificial victim. Since (verse 22), “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” our Savior became the sacrificial victim to establish a covenant that is final and effective.

Those are the two things that the blood of Christ accomplished for us:
  • Definite cleansing from sin and restoration to fellowship with God, and,
  • The establishment of the new covenant.

The remainder of the passage is about our response to that. He sums up his teaching briefly in two contrasts.

First, unlike the old covenant model, Jesus Christ has gone into the true, heavenly sanctuary of worship — the very presence of God.
Heb. 9.24: 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.
Second, the old covenant sacrifices had to be repeated again and again, since they were only symbolic and not truly effective. Not so, the sacrifice of Christ. Verse 25:
Heb. 9.25–26: Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 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.
His offering of himself was final — once for all — not to be repeated, only to be applied by the Father to his people when through repentance and faith, we rely on his blood atonement as the sufficient payment for all of our sins.

On the Day of Atonement, we are told that the worshipers waited expectantly out in the courtyard where the sacrifice had been offered on the great bronze altar. They waited for the high priest to re-emerge from the Most Holy Place after the sprinkling of the blood. His re-appearance meant that God had accepted the atonement on their behalf. God hadn’t struck him down in the sanctuary, and he didn’t have to be pulled out by the scarlet rope tied around his foot. Verse 27:
Heb. 9.27–28: And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 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.
Just as death is final and nothing intervenes between death and standing before the judgment seat of God, when Jesus was offered once in the place of his people, nothing intervenes between his death and our final salvation when he completes his work inside of us and brings us, with him, into the presence of the Father.

Our response is described in verse 28: To eagerly wait for him. Now we have a taste of what he is bringing; then, the fulfillment. Two things this means for us.

First, to wait eagerly for the return of Christ is to wait patiently. The Old Testament picture seems to give us the idea that the people waited anxiously for the appearance of the high priest. That’s why they tied a rope around his foot so that, if God struck him down, he could be pulled out and no one would need to enter the Most Holy Place. Unlike that, we are to wait eagerly, that is, patiently for his appearance. We have the confident assurance that he is going to complete the work that he began. So, our lives should reflect that confidence — we not swayed by the varied opinions of the society which applaud Jesus one generation and despise him the next. We stand for him regardless of his popularity at any given time because we know that his appearance and exoneration are certain.

And then it means to wait expectantly. He has already offered the final sacrifice; his blood has already been shed on the altar of the cross in the courtyard of this world. Subsequently, he has already passed through the heavens (plural) of the holy place and into heaven (singular, v. 27, the only time in the letter where the singular word is used indicating the very presence of God), to represent us. We look forward to his return.

The whole point is that to wait expectantly is to wait obediently, the writer’s exhortation to us throughout the letter. To be faithful to him demands our participation with the people of God in encouraging and supporting one another.
Heb. 9.27–28: And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 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.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A New Covenant (Hebrews 8.1-13)

The passage which was just read to us starts with these words: “The  point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in heaven.” Those words mark the end of the subject the writer opened up in 4.13. There he introduced the idea of Christ being a high priest with the words, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sin.” The readers' would have asked, "How could this be?" After all, the priests of the Old Testament had to be born of the family of Aaron and the tribe of Levi, and Jesus was from the tribe of Judah! So, for three chapters now the writer has argued that Jesus Christ is not only a high priest, but one from the order of Melchizedek who is superior to the Levitical priests serving in the temple. And, he has conclusively demonstrated from scripture and reason that Jesus is such a high priest.

Though he has concluded his argument, the subject isn’t closed. The high priesthood of the old covenant, represented by Aaron and the priests who followed in his line, is a stand-in for the whole system of worship in the Old Testament: The high priest simply represented the covenant under which he served, the system of worship prescribed by that covenant, and the temple in which worship took place. Having demonstrated that we have a superior high priest in Jesus Christ, he goes in this passage to show that the new covenant of Jesus is better than that old covenant of the law.
This passage, again like last week, draws a number of contrasts between the old covenant and the new covenant.
For example, he again underlines that they were different in their duration: The old covenant was temporary while the new covenant is eternal. They were also different in their purpose: The old covenant was anticipatory; the new covenant is final. Those ideas come up in a number of ways. For example,
  • In verse 2, he stresses that Jesus has gone into the true tent, or sanctuary, in heaven in the presence of God while the tabernacle of Moses was man-made.
  • In verse 5, he notes that the priests of the old covenant “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” that were patterned on the reality that Moses saw on the mountain.
So, we don’t need to go over that ground again since that series of contrasts has already been made in previous passages: Temporary — Eternal; Anticipatory — Final. But note that in verses 6–7 the writer segues into the fact that Jesus’ priesthood is better because the covenant he represents is better.
Hebrews 8.6–7: But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
To say the old covenant was not faultless is to say that it was defective in some way. Something was lacking in the covenant made at Sinai with Moses and the people of Israel and, in fact, what it lacked is something that, from the writer’s perspective, the Old Testament itself makes clear. The new covenant, on the other hand, corrects that deficiency. This is what we want to focus on this morning.
The deficiency of the old covenant is made clear in the passage. We can state it this way: 
Listen again: The old covenant did not impart the ability to keep the covenant; the new covenant imparts both the desire (a new heart/mind) and the ability (the Spirit) to keep the covenant.
We all function under a basic rule in life: People should not be asked to do something which they are unable to do.
  • If you are a teacher, and there’s a blind student in your class, it would be wrong to demand that your blind student read the same book that everyone else has to read unless, of course the book is available in braille or in audio form. To do otherwise would just be cruel. 
  • You wouldn’t tell your three-year-old daughter, “When I come home this evening, I want you to have painted your room and moved the furniture back in. And be sure to do it right!”
  • You don’t ask a wheelchair bound person to run a race, you don’t ask a history teacher to draw up architectural plans for a house, and you don’t ask a 125 pound man to be a Sumo wrestler! 
In other words, we tailor our expectations to person’s abilities — to do otherwise, especially in egregious ways, is just wrong.

And yet, we are told here that the old covenant was deficient in that it did not impart the ability to keep it. In other words, God gave Israel commands that he knew they couldn’t keep. He gave commands without also giving them the ability to obey those commands. How could that be right? That’s our first question today: How could God have given the Old Testament law knowing that the people to whom he gave it could not keep it?

Well, first let’s look at the passage and note what it indicates about this deficiency in the law. In verse 7, he says that God found fault with them (the covenant people, not the covenant itself) when he said. And then, he quotes the whole passage from Jeremiah 31 about the new covenant.

A brief history lesson: In about 1400 BC, God met the people of Israel at Mount Sinai in the Arabian Peninsula after he brought them out of bondage in Egypt under Moses’ leadership. There he entered into a covenant with them and he gave them his covenant standards embodied in all of the laws of the covenant. Those hundreds of laws were summarized in the Ten Commandments which he gave them on the mountain.

The following almost one-thousand years of history in the Old Testament are a long and dreary account of how they failed to keep the law they had been given. Then, sometime in about 550 BC, a prophet named Jeremiah became God’s spokesman. He revealed that God promised to give the people a new covenant. It would not be like the first covenant which they broke. In this covenant,
Hebrews 8.10: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts.
Where the old covenant was merely external commands, the new covenant would become internally accepted and motivated. In a parallel passage in Ezekiel 36, God says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.” Both desire and ability.
He goes on to say,
Hebrews 8.11: And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
In other words, the covenant community would be made up only of people who had the personal knowledge of God and his saving power. It would no longer be a mixed community. God would impart the power to keep the commands that he gave.

So, the old covenant was weak because it didn’t include the power to obey; the new covenant is empowering. The promise of the new covenant is that ability will be connected to the commands.
The Old Testament itself revealed this deficiency. For example, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses gives a series of sermons to Israel when they are in Moab right across the Jordan river from the Promised land. He’s not going to enter the land, so this is Moses’ final instruction to the people. He starts by recounting what happened at Mount Sinai, forty years before, when God gave them the law.
This time, after he recounts the Ten Commandments coming from the mouth of God himself to the people, he records what happened after that. The people are terrified and beg Moses to get the rest of the law himself and bring it down to them; they don’t want to hear God directly any longer. They say to him,
Deut. 5.27: [You] Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
“And we will hear and do it!” That was what they did with God’s revelation: They obligated themselves to keep the covenant standards. That’s what it means to be members of the covenant, it means to commit to keep the covenant. That's what the believer today does in baptism. We affirm our faith and our intention to live as a follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings!

And, what did God say to them about that?
Deut. 5.28–29: “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!’”
Hear the wistful longing in the voice of God in verse 29. These words are an indication of the weakness of the people of the covenant — they were right to commit themselves to obedience but, in themselves, unaided by supernatural power, they would not be able to keep the covenant. The Old Testament demonstrates this over and over.
Listen, later in Old Testament history, when God speaks of their failure:
Psalm 81.13: Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
And later through Isaiah, God said,
Isaiah 48.18: Oh, that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
Or, the words of Jesus, God in the flesh, when he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Luke tells us that he looked over the city and he wept over it because the leaders rejected him:
Luke 19.42: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
In other words, the old covenant is the story of failure. They did not have the heart to obey.

But our question this morning is, “How could God give them commands and hold them responsible for keeping those commands, when he knew that unaided human power is incapable of keeping them?”

Let me give the two-part answer to that question that the Bible gives.

First, from the perspective the Bible’s whole story, human beings had that ability to obey God from the heart but willfully threw it away. In Adam, our first father, the race (represented by this one man from whom we all descended) had the ability to obey. And (to quote the Puritans), “In Adam’s fall, we sinnéd all.” When he, our covenant representative, rebelled against God and lost the heart of obedience, we are viewed as all having willingly given it up in him. That’s the whole principle of representation.

You see, from the Bible’s perspective, we could read but chose to blind ourselves. And that’s why God can still command us to read. We could walk and chose to hamstring ourselves, and God can still command us to run. And, we could obey and chose to rebel bringing upon ourselves the human bent towards evil that keeps us from obeying from the heart, and so God can still give us commands to obey… even though he knows we can’t!

That’s the first reason: We willfully threw away our heart-obedience.

The second thing we have to note is that the New Testament makes crystal clear what God’s purpose was in giving the law.
Romans 3.20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
The law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, was given for the purpose of revealing God’s standards of righteousness and convincing people of their sin. This happens as people try to keep the law but keep finding themselves failing. In other words, the law was given to reveal our sin and need for a Savior.

Look at a passage in which the apostle Paul recounts how he changed from being, a religious, law-keeping, but self-righteous person to being a submissive and dependent believer in Christ. This is a living illustration of the principle that the law brings the knowledge of sin.
Romans 7.7–8: What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.
Paul asks, “If the law brings the knowledge of sin, then is the law itself sinful?” No, he says. For example, I would not have really understand my personal sin and guilt before God if I didn’t have the law that pointed it out to me. So, he mentions the one law that brought this home to him, the tenth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet.”

It is most important to note that he chose that commandment to talk about. To covet means to excessively desire something that is not yours. Of all the Ten Commandments, it is the only one that can’t be kept outwardly — you can obey those in authority, not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie outwardly. But, coveting is a sin of desire. And you can’t control your desires. As a man who was self-righteous (by his own admission), Paul was a religious person who saw righteousness as external obedience. But, of the commands, this one was one that he found he couldn’t keep outwardly. This one showed him his sin. When he saw his sin, Christ’s revelation of himself as the Savior on the Damascus Road was the offer of life to a dying man. In Christ, there was forgiveness of sin. And Paul believed the gospel and was saved.

This is why God was perfectly right to give the law. When the people said, “We will hear and do it,” God was perfectly right in saying, “They are right in all that they have spoken” (Deut. 5.30). It wasn’t cruel to demand something they couldn’t do because first, they are at fault for their inability, and, second, the law was designed to reveal to us our inability and to drive us to look for mercy and grace in Christ.

But the whole point of the new covenant, and the point made when Jeremiah’s promise of it is recorded in full in Hebrews 8, is to show that it is superior to the old covenant in that in it God imparts the ability to keep it.

Three things we have in the new covenant:

First, all who believe have a new heart that desires to obey.
Hebrews 8.10: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts.
That which God lamented in Deuteronomy 5.29, “Oh, that you had such a heart as this always…” he now imparts in Christ. He promises to give a new heart and a new spirit to all who believe the gospel — that is, both the desire and the ability to obey. Do you know that you have this new heart the gospel speaks of? It doesn’t mean that now you perfectly obey; it means that you want to obey, and when you fail to obey, you feel sorrow for it, and you run to Christ to seek his wisdom and strength.

Second, all who believe the gospel have a personal relationship with God.
Hebrews 8.10: And I will be their God and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
Now, this wasn’t unknown under the old covenant. People responded to the knowledge of sin in three ways:

  • Some of them became religious: Their sin was convincing themselves that they were keeping God’s commands. They did this by externalizing them — making them about right behavior and not right hearts. Yes, they could keep from murdering people; but they couldn’t keep from the burning anger which God says is the heart of murder. Yes, they could keep out of bed with other people’s spouses; but they couldn’t deal with the burning lust which is the heart of immorality. That’s the sin of religious people.
  • Some of them became irreligious: They stopped trying and figured that God (if there is such a thing) doesn’t really expect them to do these things.
  • And some under the old covenant experienced this personal knowledge of God. They did not rely on their law-keeping and self-righteousness but, like Abraham, they looked to God’s promise to bring the serpent-crushing Offspring of Eve into the world to deal the death blow to sin, they knew God. But many didn’t.
Under the new covenant, every true believer, every true covenant member knows God. You might say to me: Wait a minute: Everyone here knows God? No, I’m not talking about a local church — I’m talking about the new covenant community. The people of God. This “personal relationship with God” is not simply possible for those who are in the covenant; it is their birthright.

And this passage isn’t saying that under the new covenant there will never need to be teachers. It means no one will have to teach another covenant member to know God in a personal way because that will be universal to all in the covenant.

 Do you know God in a personal way? Are you able to call him ‘Father,” and know you are not just reciting words but speaking to the Eternal King of the Universe who invites you to call him father and delights in you when you do? If you believe the gospel that is your birthright.

And, lastly, in the new covenant, God promises the complete and final forgiveness of sins for every covenant member.
Hebrews 8.12:For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
When the commands of God have convinced you that you are sinful and guilty before God, then you know you need a Savior. And in the gospel, there is a Savior, the Son of God himself, who died on the cross in the place of sinners and rose from the dead to give them life.

Do you know in your heart that your sins are forgiven? Wiped out from God’s record book! Not just filed away somewhere but expunged forever! To those new covenant members, everyone who comes to God through Jesus Christ, God the Father himself, the eternal Judge, says, “I will remember their sins no more… no more… no more!

A new heart, the knowledge of God, the forgiveness of sins. The birthright of all who come to God through faith in Jesus Christ! That's because, 
Hebrews 6.6: Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.