Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 43, October 19 to October 25 2008

Hebrews 9:23-10:18

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

There is a story that has been going around for some time that involves the author of the well known "Sherlock Holmes" detective novels - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Apparently, Doyle was quite the practical joker and so, as the story goes, on one occasion he sent a telegram to twelve famous people in London whom he knew. It read: "Flee at once. All is discovered." And although all twelve were upright citizens, they all quickly left the country.

Now I do not know if that story is entirely true, but it illustrates something that I think certainly is true and that is how very common it is for people to harbor a guilty conscience. In the church, one manifestation of this reality is seen when people are uncertain about their standing before God because of their former lives, or former sins, or even because of their present struggles with sin. Whatever the cause, their consciences will be plagued by thoughts and fears that keep returning and re-surfacing at various times and on various occasions.

As a writer named Cole has pointed out, many genuine Christians walk around wondering if anyone else knows what they have done; fearful that the truth about them will one day leak out; worried that their story will become public knowledge. And behind that concern, which is serious enough in itself, is often the greater concern and fear that perhaps God still remembers these things and has not completely forgiven them, not really.

Now, I certainly would not want to dismiss the very healthy role that Christian conscience can play in drawing us back to God. There are definitely times and occasions where God's people are so deeply caught up in particular sins that God uses the very legitimate fears that they begin to have over the state of their souls to pull them back to their knees, and ultimately into a better place. The writer of Hebrews certainly has said some very challenging things in this regard and he will say them again, soon enough. However, it is also true that there are genuine believers out there who live in constant fear and who are terribly troubled about their standing before God - and the source of their trouble is not an overabundance of some grievous sin but, instead, an under-abundance of understanding and confidence in just what it is that Christ has accomplished.

It is that particular reality that we will be thinking about this morning as we look at what is the last of the main teaching sections in this great letter to the Hebrews 9:23-10:18. With this section the writer is wrapping up his main teaching on the superiority of Christ and, from this point on, will mostly concern himself with working out some of the implications of the truths thus far presented and will be encouraging and exhorting his readers in various ways, as a result. That being said, let us take a moment now to pray before we go on....

Now, as most of you will be well aware by now, in this letter the writer has been working very hard to convince discouraged and weary and wavering Christians from abandoning their professed faith and either turning or re-turning to their former way of life and practice in Judaism.

The main approach he has taken to accomplish this goal has been to show his readers how- basically - there was nothing left for them to return TO. The way of approaching God in the Old Testament that, at one time, was certainly approved by God, had now run its course and no longer had anything to offer. It had accomplished everything it was intended to accomplish - which was not to resolve the problem of sin but to temporarily cover God's people until the resolution came, and to point people forward to what that final resolution really was. Of course, that final resolution, as Hebrews has made abundantly obvious, was Jesus. He was and is the reality of which everything in the Old Testament was only a shadow. He is the clearest revelation of God. He is greater than any angel. He is a better prophet than even Moses was. He is a better priest than Aaron and all the other high priests put together. The temple he operates in is a better temple. The sacrifice he made was better.

Better, better, better, better, better.. That is what this whole letter has been about.

Last week, in addition to everything else we have seen thus far, we focused on one more "better": i.e., what it means to say that Jesus came to be the mediator of a new and better covenant. And, among other things, we also saw how, because Jesus offered the priestly sacrifice of his own blood, and not the blood of mere animals, what he achieved was not of temporal value but was infinitely, eternally and efficiently valuable for all of God's people, in every age, and for all time. vThat was where we left things last week. So, let us turn now to the passage before us this morning, Hebrews 9:23-10:18. You can either turn up that passage in your own bible, or you can follow along with what is printed in your bulletin:

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 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. 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. 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. For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'"
When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "Behold, I have come to do your will." He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds," then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Now, as I read those verses, you will no doubt have heard a few things mentioned that we have already touched on and which we will not, therefore, be going over again this morning - such as the relationship between the earthly temple and the heavenly one, or the significance of Christ's shed blood over against the shed blood of sacrificial animals, etc.

There are, however, a few other matters that I would draw your attention to as we bring this rather long section on the superiority of Christ's priesthood to a close - a section that, may I remind you, started all the way back in chapter 4. However, before we look at these "other matters," let me just take a few minutes to summarize in a very general fashion what's going on in some of the main sections of the verses just read to you.

The first sub-section is verses 23-28 of chapter 9. Now the writer of Hebrews, just prior to this section, has made the point that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. He has also recently made the point that the temple Christ serves in, as high priest, is not the earthly one - which is a mere copy - but is, in fact, the heavenly temple - the real thing. In verses 23-28 he brings those two ideas together in order to say that, just as the earthly sanctuary was "purified" and made ready for use by the shedding of animal blood, so too was the heavenly sanctuary made fit for its purposes by the greater sacrifice of Christ's blood.

Presumably, the writer of Hebrews makes this point because he is still trying to show his readers that Christ truly was a legitimate high priest and that he did everything that the former priests did - but in a better, fully satisfying, and utterly perfect way.

He also makes the point in this section that, in contrast to what happened in the earthly temple with repetitive sacrifices, the heavenly temple only required ONE sacrifice to fully accomplish what needed to be accomplished - a sacrifice that sanctified and purified the heavenly temple, even as it was, by the very same action, achieving the full and forever forgiveness of God's people.

Then in conjunction with this talk of what we will call the "once-for-all-ness" of Christ's death, the writer of Hebrews is drawn to make a further and related comment - namely, that just as humans die once and then are left to face judgment, so too is Christ, in his humanity, one who dies only once. In other words, he reminds his readers of the humanity of Christ, and marshals this fact as further support for the point he is trying to get across regarding this once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.

The difference with Christ, however, is that what happens to him after his death is not that he himself will face judgment but, instead, he will come to administer judgment (that the rest of us will face) and to reap the fruits of what he accomplished at his first coming, through his death. And this will involve, among other things, declaring his people to be not guilty as well as his gladly receiving those who are eagerly waiting for him....

In the next section, chapter 10, verse 1-4, the writer of Hebrews comments on the sufficiency and completeness of what Christ's once-for-all sacrifice has brought about, emphasizing its effectiveness not only in putting away sin - objectively - but also putting away sin subjectively. In other words, the writer of Hebrews seems to be very aware of the fact that Christ has dealt not only with the external, objective problem of our alienation from God because of sin, but he has also dealt with our internal, subjective problem of a guilty conscience before a just and holy God.

The place where I think this comes through is when you compare what is said in verse 1 with what is said in verse 2, of chapter 10. In verse 1, the writer talks about how the Old Testament system was incapable of "making perfect" those who drew near to God by that system. As part of his argument he points out in verse 2 that, if that system had been able to make perfect those who drew near, then the sacrifices would not have needed to be repeated and the people would no longer have any consciousness of sin.

In other words, whatever else being "made perfect" involves, in the writer's mind it at least involves this: no longer having any consciousness of sin.

Now, we need to be clear what the writer of Hebrews means by this phrase, "the consciousness of sin." Simply put, the "consciousness of sin" that is being talked about here is not so much an awareness that one has committed sin or that one is a sinner, as much as it is an awareness that one's sins have not been fully dealt with, fully atoned for - that God's wrath because of one's sin, has not yet been assuaged. So, this "being made perfect" that the Old Testament system was not able to achieve was to bring the people of God to that place, not just objectively but subjectively, in their hearts and minds, where they knew that their standing with God was perfectly secure.

That is what the writer means in verses 3 and 4 when he points out that one of the sobering consequences of the Old Testament system is that you were constantly being reminded of at least three things: 1) you were still a sinner, 2) that your sins needing atoning for and that 3) there was no sacrifice yet available that could fully deal with it and, as a result, the blood had to be spilled over and over again, and would have to be spilled against next year. As a result, any comfort that might have come by means of the Old Testament system would have been short-lived and bittersweet, at best.

In the next section, chapter 10, verses 5-10, the writer of Hebrews does what may seem to be a very curious thing. Basically takes some of the words of Psalm 40 and presents them as statements that came from the lips of Jesus himself. Now, let me just say that in doing this, the writer of Hebrews is not engaging in anything terribly unusual.

There are many places in the Scriptures where New Testament writers have looked back on Old Testament passages and have drawn connections to Jesus from verses that you and I might never have thought to make those same connections. Nevertheless, under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit these inspired authors have shown us what, I am certain, is only a glimpse of what could be seen within the pages of the Old Testament. Indeed, did not Christ himself pave the way for this very same sort of interpretation of the Old Testament when, during the course of a long walk to a place called Emmaus, he demonstrated to two men how the entirety of the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to himself?

So, in doing what he does here, the writer of Hebrews has come by it quite honestly. He very legitimately shows us that these words of the Psalmist in Psalm 40 are, in fact, the prophetic words and expression of the Lord Jesus Christ himself and are, actually, a foreshadowing of the central purpose of his own life and ministry.

Jesus came, you must remember, to a people who had settled for the shadow, and not the substance of what God was calling for. He came to a people who had lost the plot; a people who had stopped listening to their own Scriptures and who seemed to have missed the point of passages like 1 Samuel 15:22,

...And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams....
Or Psalm 50:8-14,
...Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. "If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, 1 and perform your vows to the Most High...
Or Psalm 51:17-19,
....The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar....
The writer of Hebrews correctly saw that Christ's purpose, first and foremost, was to do his Father's will - to obey his Father, to be the obedient Son that Israel had never been under the old covenant. Without that obedience, all the sacrifice in the world meant nothing and God wanted no part of that sort of sacrifice. However, Christ, by his perfect obedience, became the only one who could rightly offer, who could rightly fulfill the conditions of an acceptable and sufficient sacrifice before the Lord. As we know, the sacrifice he offered was, in fact, himself - and proved to be the ultimate act of his obedience - an obedience unto death.

In the next section, chapter 10, verses 11-14, the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the completeness of Christ's work by means of this contrast between the standing former priests and the sitting Christ, the significance of which we'll say more about in a moment.

Finally, in chapter 10, verses 15-18, the writer of Hebrews draws us back, one more time, to a passage that he has taken us to several times before — Jeremiah 31:31-34, and the prophecy of the new covenant, inaugurated by Christ. His purpose in recalling this passage yet again for his readers is simply to highlight a part that he has not up to this point really made much mention of, specifically, verse 34 where it says, "I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sins no more."

Now, keeping that admittedly general and unsatisfying summary of these verses in mind, I want to now spend the remainder of our time this morning drawing your attention to some of the implications that I believe flow from this passage. Once again, and as I said at the beginning of our time this morning, as much as possible it is my hope that we will avoid going over ground we have already covered and, instead, will make use of this time to point out some of the "other things" that might be found here.

Firstly, one place where this passage, and indeed this whole letter, has had a huge impact is in church history. During the days of the Reformation, there were many concerns over a number of doctrines and practices that had crept into the church that either had NO foundation at all in Scripture or worse, which seemed to fly right in the face of the plain teaching of the Bible. One of these areas of contention between the medieval church and the newly formed protestant church was in their respective understandings of the Mass or the Lord's Supper.

Simply put, the protestant church found it impossible to reconcile the concept of the Mass as a real, and ongoing sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ with the teaching of Hebrews, and specifically with the verses before us this morning which leave no doubt whatsoever that Christ's sacrifice was done once, and once only, and that this sacrifice was completely sufficient and never could or should be repeated.

This very significant point of doctrine has huge ramifications and is one that remains a point of contention between Catholic and Protestant churches today. In Catholic doctrine, Christ is still being sacrificed, his body and blood are being broken and shed, over and over again. In Protestant doctrine, the sacrifice of Christ, as Hebrews makes painfully clear, is over and done, his priestly work is completely finished. This difference is the reason why the Catholic communion still has priests and the Protestant communion has pastors. It is the reason why Protestant churches have communion tables and Catholic churches have altars.

Why do I point these things out? Is it because I am trying to pick a fight? No, of course not. But this is the context and culture in which we live in South Louisiana, and there is no use pretending it isn't. Now there are many other things that separate Catholic and Protestant churches, in terms of their doctrine, but if we are ever to see unity between them, it will have to involve, among other things, a commitment to taking seriously the teaching of books like Hebrews, and allowing the clear truth of those Scriptures to inform and reform the church's belief and practice, in this and many other areas.

A second thing I want to draw your attention back to is this fairly simple contrast that the writer of Hebrews draws between the ministry of the Old Testament priests who were forever standing and working, endlessly and tirelessly, in the temple and Jesus who is not standing but is seated at the right hand of God. That difference, while perhaps seemingly small, is in fact huge. A seated Christ tells you that his work is finished. A seated Christ has assumed the very same posture of his Father who, after six days of creating the world, stepped back, ceased from all his creative labors and rested. Why? Because his creative work was complete and perfect. Nothing remained to be done.

The same thing is true of the Lord Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. His redeeming work, the thing which the Father sent him to accomplish is accomplished. It is finished and complete. Nothing remains to be done.

A seated Christ is what you and I need to remember when we are weary of struggling with sin. A seated Christ is what you and I need to recall when doubts begin to creep in, when we are plagued by fear that is fanned into flame by the evil one himself - when we are tempted to think that perhaps our sin is too great, or that the reservoir of God's mercy has finally run dry. A seated Christ is what you and I need to remember when, like the elder brother in Luke's parable, we mistakenly begin to think that God's love for us is a consequence of our piety, rather than the other way around. A seated Christ is what you and I need to remember when we are overwhelmed with our own sin and we wonder if we will ever be better, if we will ever come to resemble our Savior.

This is the reason why the new covenant that Christ inaugurated can do what the Old Testament covenant could never do with regard to our conscience and our consciousness of our sin, and ourselves as sinners. Because a seated Christ tells us that our sin has been dealt with. There is not another sacrifice that has to be offered. There is no annual installment that needs to be made. God's wrath has not just been postponed or temporarily stayed. It has been satisfied. His people have been reconciled to him. The alienation is over. The relationship is restored. Our position is secure.

When everything is coming down all around us, sometimes, the thing we most need to do is ask ourselves the question, "What is my Savior doing right now? Where is my Savior right now?" I will tell you where he is. He is SEATED at the right hand of God the Father. The thing that he came to do, the thing that he did in your place and on your behalf - It's DONE. It's SETTLED. It's finished.

The third and final thing I want to draw your attention to here is the phrase that appears at the end of chapter 9, verse 28, 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...
Jesus is coming back. Which is great news. And when he does, it will not be to deal with sin. He has already done that. Instead he will be coming back to judge and to finish what he started which, as Hebrews says, is to "save those who are eagerly waiting for him".

Which tells us a couple things, at least. Firstly, the fact that he is coming TO SAVE, tells us something about how we ought to think about this whole idea of salvation. The language that we are most accustomed to hearing and using, when we talk about salvation, is language that talks about it almost exclusively in the past tense. We speak of Christians as those who are saved and who have been saved.

But we seldom talk about salvation as a present activity - or even more, as having a future component to it. But this is the language used here by the writer of Hebrews. And it is the language that is found elsewhere in the NT by other writers, such as the Apostle Paul. Because the truth is that we are not only savED - past tense - but we are also being saved, and we one day will be saved.

And the thing that is in view with these various descriptions of salvation is the simple fact that the salvation that has been accomplished and completed by Christ - in history and at the Cross - is being applied and worked out - over time, and over the course of our whole life, the fullness of which we do not yet know, but which those who are his, will surely know.

As this war against remaining sin rages within us, and while the character of Christ is being formed and forged within us, we experience what the seated Christ has accomplished, over time, and in the midst of a fallen world, and often in the midst of very trying circumstances which only serve to better reveal his strength through our very frail and weak selves.

And it is this very working out of our salvation - with fear and trembling - that creates within God's true children are very real longing and a leaning forward, a deep and growing yearning to see the end of sin and death, both within us, and around us.

Indeed, this is the very reason why when Jesus returns, he will return to people who are eagerly waiting for him.

They will eagerly be waiting because they are only too aware of the effects of remaining sin.

They will be eagerly waiting because they are sick and tired of being sick and tired at the fallen-ness and broken-ness of the world.

They will be eagerly waiting for him because they know that it is then, and only then, that the assured and accomplished and finished work of Christ will be finally and fully applied and experienced, through and through.

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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