As you sit in the pew and look towards the front of the church, it is the most prominent feature of the sanctuary. Centered in the very middle of the chancel, the area marked off by the communion rail, it dominates the scene.
I am, of course, speaking about the altar. You see the altar every Sunday. But what probably never crosses your mind is how unusual our use of the altar is at Good Shepherd – and for that matter, at every Christian church that has one.
In the religions of the world, an altar has a specific purpose. It is for the offering of sacrifices. It had this role in the Old Testament, and in Judaism of the first century A.D. at the temple. It is the location where a religious leader kills animals. It is the place where the blood of an animal is shed as it dies.
The practice of the faith delivered by Yahweh in the Old Testament – in particular in the book of Leviticus – was a gory, messy business. It involved the killing of animals, the shedding of blood, and the butchering of animals as in certain sacrifices parts of the animal were given to the priest.
However, in all the years you have attended Good Shepherd, you have never once seen me kill an animal at this altar. You have never seen blood spill out of dying animal. In the epistle lesson for this morning, the writer to the Hebrews speaks about why this is. He points us to the single, great, once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He does this in order to speak about the redemption Christ has won for you. And his purpose in doing this is to give you encouragement.
Prior to our text, Hebrews has described the tabernacle that Yahweh had Israel build. It provided the same basic pattern that would also be found in the temple when Solomon built the permanent site of worship in Jerusalem. There was first section, the Holy Place, where priests entered daily in order offer incense at the incense altar. This is what Zechariah was doing when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in order to announce that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant with John the Baptist.
However, beyond this first section, there was a second section – the Holy of Holies. Here was located the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant indicated the located presence of God in the midst of his people. Yahweh was described as being enthroned above the cherubim – the angelic figures that were part of the cover of the Ark.
Sacrifices were offered daily in the area outside of the tabernacle. Incense was offered daily in in the Holy Place. But only once a year, and only the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews has said just before our text, “only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.”
In order to enter the Holy of holies, the high priest first had to offer a sacrifice for himself and his house. Only then could he sacrifice a goat and brings its blood into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle it on the cover of the Ark – the mercy seat. In this way the high priest made atonement for the tabernacle because of the sins of the people. God is the holy God. This had to be done once a year so that his presence could remain in the midst of Israel and her sin.
This is the background for Hebrew’s statement 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.”
Hebrews describes Jesus’ death on the cross in comparison to what had been done by Israel in the covenant God had made with the nation. The tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and the sacrifices were types – they were things in the Old Testament that pointed forward to what God would do in Christ. Hebrews emphasizes that as the fulfillment, Jesus Christ and his sacrifice surpass them in every way.
Hebrews says that Jesus is our high priest. But he is unlike any high priest Israel ever had, because he is God. The letter begins by saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Yet while he is true God, he is also true man. Hebrews adds, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things.”
As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus had no sin. Hebrews makes the point that he didn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself as it says, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Jesus Christ was the sinless high priest who came to offer a sacrifice unlike any other. Our text says that “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.”
Hebrews describes Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice being offered before God himself and not at some copy on earth. This sacrifice was the blood of the holy Son of God. And as such, it was the sacrifice that was offered once and for all. His death on Good Friday was the end time action by God to give us forgiveness. Hebrews says later in this chapter, “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.”
Jesus died on the cross as the once and for all sacrifice to take away our sins. There is nothing else to be done. There is no other sacrifice that needs to be made in any way. This is the confidence we have. As Hebrews says in our text, “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.”
Jesus Christ gave himself on the cross as the once and for all sacrifice to give us forgiveness. But Hebrews states clearly that this was not the end. The writer begins by saying, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Our Lord rose from the dead, and in his ascension was exalted to the right hand of God. The One who took on our humanity did so in order to defeat the devil and death. Hebrew says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Jesus Christ is the Lord who has won forgiveness for us, and who has defeated the devil and death. He is the ascended and exalted Lord. But Hebrews reminds us that our experience of Jesus’ saving work is not yet complete. The Son of God who entered into the world to give himself as the sacrifice for our sin, will come visibly to this world once again. Hebrews says, “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.”
The writer to the Hebrews says these things for a reason, and it is a reason why we need to hear it as well. He is writing to Christians who seem to be wearing down. In chapter six we hear, “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
There are times we feel this way too. Living as a Christian is not easy. We are called to a continuing struggle against sin. How much easier it would be just to give into the old Adam! We live as fallen people in a fallen world where health problems – both physical and mental – weigh us down and make life difficult. This challenges our faith in God’s continuing love and care.
And then, if you are going to live as a Christian and confess the faith, you are setting yourself in opposition to the direction that the world around us is going. No longer is the culture basically in sync with the values of the Church and supportive of her. Instead, the culture now says there is no such thing as truth, sexuality can be used in any way a person chooses, and a boy is not really a boy and a girl is not really a girl. Increasingly the culture wishes to attack and silence anyone who says otherwise. The Church in the United States finds herself in challenging new times.
Certainly, this has caused people to fall away from faith in Christ. It wears on us as we experience this pressure. And so we too need the encouragement found in Hebrews. Building on what he has said in the our text the writer to the Hebrews says in the next chapter, “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.”
As baptized Christians our sins have been washed away because of Jesus’ sacrifice, and we know that because of Jesus we have access to God. He is our Father. We know that we have Jesus who is the great high priest over the house of God – the exalted Lord seated at God’s right hand. We know that Christ’s return and the resurrection of the Last Day awaits us.
Because of this Hebrews says to us, just as it said to its first century readers: “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.” It urges, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
Hebrews tells us this morning: “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.” Through faith you have received this eternal redemption which Christ won by dying on the cross. You have the Lord who has conquered death by his resurrection. He is the One who will return in glory on the Last Day to raise you from the dead and vindicate you before the world. So have confidence, because of Jesus you will receive all that God has promised.
Post a Comment