Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 38, September 14 to September 20 2008

Hebrews 9:15-22

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are again picking up our ongoing series on the Book of Hebrews, and I would ask you to turn with me to the ninth chapter of Hebrews, where we will be looking at verses 15-22.

If you have been coming along to South Baton Rouge recently then you should have at least some idea of what this challenging and encouraging letter is all about. If not, then let me quickly summarize it for you. This letter is one that was written to a group of people who were formerly Jews or who, at the very least, were very familiar with the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.

However, now they were Christians and, sadly, were experiencing real hardships, including persecution, because of their faith. This unfortunate circumstance had apparently resulted in some people abandoning their Christian profession (therefore demonstrating they were never Christians in the first place) as well as causing others to think about following suit.

So, in the midst of these struggles, the Book of Hebrews was written and sent, with this one main purpose in mind: to show that Jesus' word and work are better than anything that the readers of this letter might be tempted to abandon Jesus for. Indeed, the reality is not just that Jesus provided them with a better way of relating to God - it was, in fact, the only way to God. The reason this is so is because the thing that the readers of this letter were being tempted to return to - the Old Testament system of priests and temples and sacrifices - that way of relating to God, which was at one time legitimate, had now been rendered unnecessary and ineffective because all that it had pointed forward to had been fulfilled and superseded by Christ.

In order to make this crystal clear, the writer has very systematically compared and contrasted Jesus to various realities that would have at one time been very important to his readers in terms of their former beliefs and practices. For example, he has shown how, as important as the Old Testament Scriptures were in revealing God, the revelation of God that Jesus brings is fuller and clearer. Further, he has shown how Jesus was no mere angel, and could not have been an angel but was in fact superior to them. He has shown how Jesus is superior to any prophet that had come before, including Moses and, currently, is in the midst of an extended argument intended to show Jesus superiority as high priest, to any other priest that has come before.

Up to this point, starting back in chapter 4, verse 14, we have seen at least 12 different ways in which Christ's priesthood is superior, which I'm not going to rehearse for you in full since we did that two weeks ago. However, I will remind you of at least three ways Christ demonstrated his priestly superiority, because they are found in the section just prior to the one we are looking at this morning. Looking at Hebrews 9:1-14 a couple of weeks ago we saw that, in addition to everything else already said, Christ's priesthood is better because:

  • 1) it gives us full and complete access to God,
  • 2) it purifies and cleanses what the OT system could never purify and cleanse - namely our conscience, and
  • 3) because the forgiveness and pardon it brings does not run out in a year's time and thus have to be renewed.
All of which leads us, finally, to where we find ourselves this morning, chapter 9, verses 15-22. Before we have a look at this portion of Hebrews, let us take a moment now to talk to the author of these verses, and ask for his guidance in understanding them.

(Read Hebrews 9:15-22)

On the basis of all that has been said thus far about Christ's priesthood, the writer, in verse 15, comes to yet another conclusion about Christ's life and ministry when he says, "Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant." In other words, the clear differences between Jesus' priesthood and that of every other priest that had preceded him shows that he did not come to simply perpetuate an existing way of relating to God. He came to inaugurate a new way of relating to God.

To be sure, he came under the terms of the same covenant that God had established from the very beginning but he also came to fulfill those terms and to show that, from here on out, God was going to administer that same gracious covenant in a different way, in a way that He had been moving his people toward all along, and of which the Old Testament system was an important, but not final part of that movement.

And so, again, and as the writer of Hebrews puts it, Christ is not the administrator of the former covenant but rather, the mediator of a new covenant, of this new way in which God was going to relate to his people - for all time.

Now, the idea of a mediator may or may not be something that is familiar to everyone. Ligon Duncan explains the mediator's role in this way:

....the very presence of a mediator implies that there is estrangement, that there is need for reconciliation. So throughout this passage, throughout all of Hebrews, the underlying assumption is that we are estranged from God....the mediator comes between estranged parties and works to [bring them back together]....Jesus does this - not by getting the two parties to work it out but by doing what was necessary to take away that which created the estrangement, that which stood between them.......
The thing that stood between God and his people, and that Christ came to deal with, is the same thing that has stood between God and his people from the very beginning, back in the garden, namely, the sin of Adam. His sin produced a new and sad state of affairs for all those whom he represented - which was, in fact, everyone, as Paul tells us in Romans 5.

The proof that we have all been implicated in Adam's sin is the record of our own lives as we, daily, "confirm and extend the reality of sin's presence within us" - as one commentator puts it.

Sin, then, is the cause of our estrangement with God and that is what Christ came to address. And the specific means by which sin had to be addressed was the shedding of blood, a fact that appears very early in the Bible, and which is confirmed over and over again, all the way through the Old Testament up to and including the life and ministry of Jesus.

Indeed, regardless of liberal theologians' criticism of the idea of blood atonement, nothing could be clearer than the fact that the shedding of blood was the required response to sin. It is everywhere you look:

....we see it in the account of Adam and Eve who, after they sinned and their fallen consciences made them aware of their nakedness, tried to cover themselves up with fig leaves, only to have these replaced by God himself with clothing made from animal skins - which clearly implies the shedding of blood, the taking of innocent life, to deal with the consequences of their actions...

....we see it in the account of Adam and Eve's children, Abel and Cain, both of whom at one point offered sacrifices to God - Cain offering some of the crops he had harvested and Abel offering a first-born lamb from his flock. Regardless of whether you think God had given these men prior information as to what sorts of sacrifices he would accept, the reality is that the only one he did accept was the one that involved the shedding of blood.

....we see it in the ratification of God's covenant with Abraham in this somewhat strange ceremony where, in response to Abraham's question as to how he can know that God's promises will come true, God has several animals slaughtered, and cut in half, and then symbolically walks between them himself - in this bloody ritual which says, in effect, "May this very thing happen to me, may I be torn in two, may my own blood be shed and my own life forfeit if I do not deliver on these promises." In other words, although there is never any danger that God might transgress by not doing as he promised, for Abram's sake he condescends to this very human ceremony to give him the assurance he is seeking. Which is all fine and good, but the thing I really want you to see in this is, again, this connection between transgression and the shedding of blood, the forfeiture of life.

....we see this perhaps most clearly in the OT when we get to the time of Moses and the formation of the people of Israel as a nation and the institution of this whole system of priests and the tabernacle and the ritual sacrifices for sin and the whole Day of Atonement, and all that went with it.

So, the fact that there is a definite connection between sin and the shedding of blood in the Bible is beyond question. As for why, specifically, the "shedding of blood" is required, perhaps the best statement of that can be seen in Leviticus 17:10ff, where God says, through Moses:
10 "If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 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. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
So, the people of Israel were strictly forbidden from eating blood or things with blood still in them. Why? Because blood is the stuff of life, it is what sustains life, it is that without which life is not possible. When humankind sinned in Adam, and in every sin since, there was, and is, an abandonment of God, a turning away from the One who is the very source of life itself. Thus, to reject God and God's way is to turn from life and toward death, to embrace death. Accordingly, the penalty, the consequence for sin fits the crime. If sin involves, ultimately, the rejection of the Life-giver, then the loss of life will and must be the result.

So, the Old Testament clearly show us the fact of this connection between sin and the shedding of blood, and it also shows us the reason that this, and not something else - like 100 push ups - is the consequence and penalty for sin. But it shows us something else.

As the writer of Hebrews has already pointed out, the constant repetition of the blood-shedding rituals in the Temple indicated clearly that, whatever all the sacrifices were accomplishing, it was not permanent and it was not sufficient to completely deal with the problem. And the reason is that the blood of bulls and goats, while certainly able to deal with matters of external purification, and while capable of postponing, perhaps, the wrath of God, it could never accomplish - and was never meant to accomplish more than that. Instead, it was intended to keep God's people looking forward, keeping their eyes on the horizon for the day when that to which the sacrifices pointed would finally come into view.

It finally did. However, when that day came, the shocking, mind-boggling thing that was revealed was that the means by which God intended to fully and completely deal with human sin would, in fact, involve the shedding of human blood - the human blood of his own divine/human Son - the Lord Jesus Christ. And yet even this, as surprising as it turned out to be, really shouldn't have been such a huge surprise since Israel's own prophets had spoken about this very thing. Listen to the words of Isaiah 53:6ff:

...All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief;1 when his soul makes2 an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see1 and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,1 and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,2 because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors....
The proof that Jesus own life and death was indeed the very thing that the prophet Isaiah was pointing ahead to is confirmed much later on, in Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 20 and following when he writes:
Romans 3:20-26 For by works of the law no human being1 will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
All of this, then helps us to understand the great significance of Hebrews 9:15 which speaks of Christ as the mediator - as the one who dealt with the sin that estranged God and his people. It helps us to understand the means by which that mediation occurred - the shedding of blood and why it was that, and not something else that had to happen.

As we look at verse 15 itself, we see something further about this mediation that Jesus accomplishes. We see here an indicator of those for whom the mediation was undertaken. At the end of verse 15, the writer of Hebrews indicates that the death, the shedding of Jesus' blood that has occurred, redeems not only those like ourselves who are living in this new covenant era that Jesus has inaugurated, but also those who committed transgressions under the first covenant.

In other words, Jesus' death was effective for God's people in every age, including those who lived and died under the Old Testament administration of God's gracious covenant. It has past, present and future implications. As John Piper puts it:

....Sometimes people wonder how those who lived before Christ were saved. The answer is, they were saved in the same way that we are saved, through faith in the shed blood of Christ. The sacrifices that they offered symbolized or pictured the sacrifice of Christ who would offer Himself as their substitute. — Thus the Old Testament sacrifices postponed the penalty for sins until Christ paid for them at the cross. The salvation of the saints before Christ was, so to speak, on credit, until Christ paid the bill....
What is the purpose, the end goal of all this mediatorial work that Christ has done? It is, as verse 15 says, "so that all those who are called will receive their promised inheritance."

Now, it is this notion of receiving an inheritance, that sends the writer of Hebrews off on what might appear, at first, to be a bit of a tangent. All of the sudden he starts talking about a will and a testament, and how these things work, what they do.

However, the abruptness of this shift, while fairly strong in English, would not have been that way at all for the original readers of this letter, receiving it as they did in the common Greek language of the day. And the reason is that the word for covenant - diatheke - is the exact same word used to express the idea of a "will" as in "last will and testament" and, in fact, was actually the more common use of the word.

So, after talking about the inheritance that God's people receive in Jesus, the writer of Hebrews begins to talk about how what Jesus has accomplished is very much like what happens when a will is enacted.

Now, for the sake of some of our younger listeners, let me just say that a "will" is an official set of instructions that a person writes down so that, when they die, people will know what to do with them and with all of their things. So, for example, a person might say, "When I die, I want to be buried in such and such cemetery and I want all of my money to go to my wife, or my children, or my husband" or "When I die, I want all of my un-matched socks to go to my friend, Bob, who never matches his socks anyway". Those are the sorts of things you might find in a will.

So, the writer of Hebrews, in verses 16-22, is really just talking about that sort of thing. He is taking advantage of a linguistic connection, and making use of something that was very common in their culture, to help his readers understand even more clearly the effect and impact of Jesus' death.

The main thing he has in mind here is that, just as the instructions in a will do not take effect until someone dies, so it is the case that Jesus' death has set into motion certain things and has caused certain things to happen - things like the forgiveness of sins, things like the sharing of his great, priceless, eternal inheritance, with his people. That is what has happened in the new covenant that was brought in by Jesus' death.

However, it is not just the new covenant which functions a lot like a last will and testament, says the writer of Hebrews, but the first covenant also functioned in very much the same way. It too, was set in effect by death, by the shedding of blood. Now, to be sure, it was not the death of God or God's Son, per se, that set the first covenant in motion - but it was the death of animals which were meant to represent and which stood for the shedding of God's blood - temporarily - until the time came when Jesus himself showed up and finalized the whole things.

So, in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, the shedding of blood played a central role. It fully addressed and atoned for human sin, it was, for a time, an agent for external purification and cleansing, and ultimately it was the efficient means by which God's promised inheritance - his "last and will and testament," so to speak, was activated for the good of his people.

Now, in just a few moments, we are going to be observing the Lord's Supper together. There could hardly be a more fitting passage of Scripture for us to be looking at than this one on such an occasion as this. Because one of the main reasons this passage was written was to encourage those who read it to cling to Jesus, and not look to anyone, or anything else to do for them what only Jesus' blood could do.

Even though the troubles they faced were very real, there was nowhere else they could go, except Jesus. To go back to the Old Testament system would be to go back to something that was no longer acceptable to the very God that instituted it! It would accomplish nothing.

Their only hope was to continue trusting in Jesus, to look back to the accomplished work that he did on the cross - his body and blood offered up as the final, sufficient, perfectly acceptable sacrifice - that never has to be repeated ever again - a reality that to this very day the Catholic Church does not understand, and is the reason why - and I choose my words carefully here - it is why their understanding of what happens in the mass is completely wrong and, ultimately, dishonoring to God.

The sacrifice that redeemed all of God's people, for all of time - past, present and future happened once, not weekly, not daily. Jesus' death was God's final word on our sin. It was God's final word on our efforts at saving ourselves, or making ourselves acceptable to Him. It was God saying to his people for all time that this was the point of all the bloodshed, all the sacrifices, all those lambs, all those bulls that were slaughtered - it all points to this.

So, in a few moments time, we are going to come back and finish what we have started in taking the Supper together. When we do, and when we begin to pass around the elements of bread and wine, then you need to know that because of the nature of what this Supper is, and what it represents, it is, by definition, a family moment, it is a communion of all those in this room who by their baptism have been identified with some branch of Christ's church and who, with their lips, can and have professed that they are trusting completely in the shed blood of Jesus as that which has made them right with God. If that's you - then you're part of Christ's very large, very wide family, and this is your moment, this Supper is for you.

If that is not you, when we come to that point in our service, just pass the elements along and we're going to pray for you, and hopefully with you, that God will bring you into his forever family and to the place that you know not only why Jesus died, but more importantly, that he died - for you, that he is, in fact, your Savior.

Let's pray together......

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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