This past October, Matthew, Abigail, Michael and I went on the church bus trip to Frohna and the Lutheran Heritage celebration that they have there each year. Abigail preferred to hang out with Shaelen Hudson, so the boys and I spent the morning walking around and taking in the sights.
At Frohna they have demonstrations of different aspects of mid-nineteenth century life. So we saw a blacksmith at work and a man re-shoeing a horse. The boys got to grind corn and see a flint lock rifle up close.
However, the thing that made the biggest impression on them – and me – were the demonstrations of slaughtering and butchering animals. A man killed a chicken in front of us and showed how you prepare it to be eaten. This was the first time the boys had seen an animal slaughtered and prepared. And ok … it was the first time I had seen it in person as well.
But even more than that, the thing that made an impression were the heads of slaughtered pigs sitting on a table. Those putting on the demonstration were in the process making headcheese. They were taking all kinds of leftover parts from the pigs and were boiling them together. The bloody heads sat on a table, with their snouts sticking out. The boys have mentioned that scene several times since we have returned from Frohna.
As I watched all of this it brought home to me that slaughtering animals is bloody, messy work. And as I reflect upon this, I have to say I am very glad that we live under the new covenant and not the first covenant that God made with Israel. My job would be very different if we weren’t. Instead of Word and Sacraments, I would be in the bloody business of slaughtering goats, and lambs and bulls. Yet as our text makes clear this morning, I don’t do that because in his death on the cross Jesus Christ offered a better and more perfect sacrifice before God.
In our text this morning, the writer to the Hebrews has just described the layout of the tabernacle that God commanded Moses to construct. The same basic layout continued when the permanent temple was built. The first section was called the Holy Place. Here there was a lamp stand and a table for the bread of the presence. And then behind it, separated by a curtain, was the Holy of Holies. This contained the Ark of the Covenant. The cover of the ark had cherubim on it and was called the mercy seat.
The priests daily attended to sacrifices that were done outside the tabernacle at a place where burnt offering were made. Each day they would enter the Holy Place in order to perform necessary duties. However only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and this could only happen once a year – on the Day of Atonement. Before doing this, he had to offer a sacrifice because of his own sin. And only then could he proceed with the sacrifice that was part of the Day of Atonement on behalf of the whole nation of Israel.
After describing how this worked, the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say in our text, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 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.”
In our text and in what follows in chapters nine and ten, Hebrews focuses on three things in order to emphasize what Christ has done for us; in order to drive home the point that Jesus is the fulfillment because he has done something greater than the tabernacle and sacrifices of the covenant God made with Israel.
First he talks about where Christ went as the high priest in order make the sacrifice that brings eternal salvation. He didn’t go into a tent like the tabernacle. He didn’t even go into a huge, splendid building like the temple in Jerusalem. Instead Hebrews tells us, “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.”
When God commanded Moses and Israel to build the tabernacle he didn’t leave it up to them to decide what it would be like. He gave them the plan – literally, the pattern – according to which it was to be built. He gave them a pattern that in some way reflected the heavenly reality of being in God’s presence. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say in this chapter, “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.” When Christ made the sacrifice for our sins, he didn’t offer it to God in some copy of the real thing. He offered it before God the Father himself in heaven.
Second, the writer to the Hebrews talks about what Christ offered. He didn’t enter the true heavenly Holy of Holies by using the blood of goats and calves like the high priests of the Old Testament. Instead he used something much more precious; much more valuable. He used his own blood. Our text goes on to say, “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.”
Hebrews says that the sacrifices of the Old Testament were shadows. They weren’t the full reality. Repeatedly being offered they atoned for sin not because they were saving in themselves – they were after all simply the death and blood of animals. Instead, they atoned because of the way they were linked to the sacrifice that was to come – the sacrifice in which they were fulfilled.
And this point becomes clear in the third thing that the writer to the Hebrews emphasizes. He says that the sacrifice of Christ was a one time deal – it was offered once and for all. In our text he says that Christ the true high priest entered through the greater and more perfect tent “once for all into the holy places.”
He entered once for all in order to offer himself as a sacrifice once and for all. Hebrews goes on to say, “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 by doing these things, Jesus has established a new covenant. As our text says, “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.” The first covenant had a mediator – it was Moses who served the role of going between God and the people. It was a covenant made only with Israel. But it was not to be God’s final word. Instead, it demonstrated the fact that God was going to work through Israel in order to bring salvation to all people. It pointed forward to an even greater fulfillment
The Son of God entered into the world in the time we now live – the end of the ages. He began the last days, and in these last days a new covenant has been made that includes all people. The first covenant was ratified as Moses sacrificed oxen. He took the blood from the sacrifice in basins. He threw half of it against the altar. The other half he threw on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.”
The new covenant was also ratified by blood. But as we hear in our text, this covenant was not made using the blood of goats or calves or oxen. Instead it was made with the blood of Christ – the very sacrifice offered for us. And because of this sacrifice of the crucified and risen one, the new covenant gives forgiveness to all who believe in Christ. As God told Jeremiah about this new covenant, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
And now our Lord invites you weekly to come to his altar to receive this forgiveness. He gives you the blood of the new covenant – the new testament – in the Sacrament of the Altar. Just as the blood splashed on the people of Israel meant that they were included in the covenant, so also your reception of the blood of Christ means that you are in included in the new covenant. The body and blood of Christ guarantee that you are part of the forgiven people of God.
Now this is all really cool theology – great stuff that talks about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments; between the first and the new covenant. Yet you may want to ask, “What does this mean for us?” And when it is all said and done the writer to the Hebrews leaves us in no doubt about this. He writes, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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.”
First, he says that since we have a Lord who has done this for us, as the baptized children of God, let us approach our heavenly Father with boldness, confidence and the full assurance of faith.
And then he adds, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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.” Because we have all of this in Christ, what does it mean? It means that we hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. In the face of a world that his hostile to the Gospel, we continue confess Jesus Christ as Lord by what we say and do.
It means that because of what Christ has done for us we seek to encourage each other to love one another and to engage in good works. First and foremost, these are not “churchy things.” These works are good because they are done in Christ as Christians. They are good because they are the works God has given you to do in your vocation as husband and wife; father and mother; son and daughter; employer and employee. They are the various works of providing, supporting, and helping those God has put around you in your life.
It means that we do not cease coming to the Divine Service in order to receive Christ’s faith sustaining Means of Grace. And not only do we keep coming, we also encourage one another to keep coming … especially those who are ceasing to come. We care for one another by doing everything we can to see that each member of the Body of Christ is nourished and cared for.
We do these things. And we do it all the more because we know the Day is drawing near. We know that because of Christ’s death and resurrection we are living at the consummation of the age; we are living in the last days as the forgiven people of God. For as the writer to the Hebrews assures us, “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.”