How can we know peace, and joy, and hope in a dark world overshadowed by death and torn apart by sin?
We’re continuing to work our way through the Letter to the Hebrews. And this morning we come to a long section that runs from the beginning of chapter 9 through to 10.18. We heard part of that earlier. My title is ‘The Better Sacrifice’.
I This whole long section 9.1 – 10.18 is the culmination of a long-running theme in the letter . It’s a theme that’s encapsulated in that final verse of chapter 8, just before our section starts. Take a look at that. This is making reference to the prophet Jeremiah, and his prophecy of a new covenant between God and his people. 8.13:
In speaking of a new covenant, he [Jeremiah] makes the first one obsolete. (8.13)
In other words the Letter to the Hebrews is helping us to understand better who Jesus Christ is and what he has done by drawing out in some detail the contrast between the old covenant established under Moses and this new covenant centred on Christ. The glory of Jesus – his person and his work – shines with a dazzling brightness against the background of how things were under the old covenant established under Moses.
The structure of the relationship between God and his people has four key elements to it. They are, first, the covenant itself; secondly, the holy place; thirdly, the priest; and fourthly, the sacrifice. The covenant; the holy place; the priest; and the sacrifice. God and his people can only meet on God’s terms, at a place that God prescribes, through a priest and a sacrifice.
Those four elements, apply both to the old and the new covenant. And it is the dramatic contrast between how that worked out under the old covenant and how it worked out under the new covenant through Christ that is spelled out through much of this Letter to the Hebrews in general, and in this section, 9.1 – 10.18 in particular.
So let’s take a look at each of those four elements in turn – the covenant, the holy place, the priest and the sacrifice – and see how Hebrews draws out this profound and crucially important contrast.
First, THE COVENANT
The contrast here is stark, between the old, and now obsolete, covenant on the one hand, and the new and eternal covenant on the other.
This crops up again and again in Hebrews. We’ve seen it already in 8.13 which says of Jeremiah:
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (8.13)
Then 9.1-10 describe the working of what 9.1 calls ‘the first covenant’. 9.1:
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. (9.1)
And then in 9.11 comes a big ‘but:
But when Christ appeared… (9.11)
… and so on, to 9.15 which says:
Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance… (9.15)
The relationship between old and new covenants is illustrated with a couple of different pictures here in this section. There is the copy and the real thing. And there is the shadow and the real thing. So 9.23 says:
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. (9.23)
And then 10.1 says:
… the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities. (10.1)
Those are helpful images.
If you see a copy of something wonderful, you want to see the real thing. I remember as a boy seeing photographs of the treasures from the grave of the boy pharoah Tutenkhamen. They made me want to see the real thing, so when they where exhibited in London I was ready to queue for hours to see the real thing.
If you see someone’s shadow appearing round a corner, you don’t ever mistake it for the real person, but the shadow makes you anticipate the arrival of that person any moment.
So the old covenant whets our appetite for the new, and drives us to it – it drives us to Jesus.
That’s the first element of the relationship between God and his people, the covenant, and the contrast between the old and obsolete on the one hand, and the new and eternal on the other. Then:
Secondly, THE HOLY PLACE
God’s people can only meet with God at the place he prescribes – the holy place.
Under the old covenant that holy place is earthly. It has two sections, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. It is made by man.
At first this holy place was made of cloth – it was a tent, a tabernacle. Later it was made of stone – a temple. But apart from the building materials it was always the same God-ordained place of meeting between God and his people. This was where God put his name. Without limiting him, this was where God chose to dwell on earth. So this was where God’s people had to come to meet with him.
But this holy place, whether of cloth or stone, was just a copy or a shadow. The real holy place is heavenly. It has one section – with no distinction between a Holy Place and a restricted Most Holy Place. All of it is a Most Holy Place with direct access to God. And it is not made by man but set up by God with no help from us at all.
And Hebrews spells out the contrast. So look at 9.1-5:
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant [those were the stones with the Ten Commandments]. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. (9.1-5)
And then on to 9.11:
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 place… (9.11)
And the contrast is driven home in 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. (9.24)
If you’re searching for a new home, an estate agent will give you property details. They might even be in full colour, and have floor plans so you can get an idea of what the property will be like. But however glossy, they’re two dimensional, just on screen or paper. They’re not the real thing. You can’t live in a couple of sides of A4. They point to the real home, and when you get there it’s a dramatically different experience, and as you walk through the door you think, “So that’s what it’s really like.”
All that’s left now of the old covenant temple is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. But we don’t need to wail over the loss of the old, because now we have access through Jesus to the real thing. Once you’ve got the keys to your new house, your forget the estate agent’s details that once you pored over and that gripped your interest.
That’s the second element of the relationship between God and his people – the holy place – the only place where God and his people can meet.
Thirdly, THE PRIEST
God’s people can only meet through a mediator, a priest. It all gets a bit more elaborate now. The contrast here is between the priests of the old covenant, and Jesus our Great High Priest under the new.
But it’s not all contrast. Characteristics that are shared by both the Jewish priests and also Jesus. Both are called by God, chosen by him from among men: Both the priests and Jesus act on behalf of God’s people, who they represent, in relation to God. Both offer sacrifice for sin to God. And both understand our weakness – though in different ways.
But after that the similarities end and the contrast begins. The Jewish priests are mediators of the old covenant, Jesus is the mediator of the new. The old covenant priests had to be from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. Jesus did not qualify for that kind of priesthood. He is the unique High Priest, from the tribe of Judah and, as we’ve seen from Hebrews 7, in the order of Melchizedek. That is, he is a total one-off. There never was and never will be any other High Priest like him. The priests were qualified by descent, Jesus by who he was in himself – so 7.16 says:
[Jesus] has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. (7.16)
The priests were appointed without any oath; Jesus with an oath from God. The priests were sinful – that’s why they were able to understand human weakness. Jesus was perfect – without any sin at all, but nonetheless fully human as well as fully God. And he was tempted as we are, and therefore able to understand our weakness.
The Jewish priests were temporary and mortal. Jesus is our High Priest for ever. There many priests; just one Great High Priest. They had to offer sacrifices daily, over and over and over again. Jesus offered one perfect sacrifice once for all. Only the Jewish High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and then only once a year. Jesus opened the way into the Most Holy Place for all God’s people all the time.
That’s a summary of the teaching of Hebrews on the contrast between the old covenant priesthood and the new covenant High Priesthood of Jesus. For instance, take a look at 10.11-13:
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. (10.11-13)
That means that the only priest we ever need is Jesus our Great High Priest. All other sacrificing priesthoods are obsolete. It couldn’t be clearer. There are plenty of people from whom we can learn, and who by the grace of God can be helpful to us. But the only mediator we ever need to bring us to God is Jesus. Noone else.
Now, with that structure of the covenant, the holy place and the priest in place and understood, we come to the heart of it all. So:
Fourthly, THE SACRIFICE
There is one thing that the old covenant and new covenant sacrifices have in common. Blood. They are blood sacrifices. And blood stands for life. Or rather, the sacrificial outpouring of blood stands for the end of that life – it represents death. Sin cannot be dealt with without the giving up of life – without the shedding of blood. As 9.22 puts it:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (9.22)
No blood poured out means no forgiveness. That’s the basic principle. But then there is a radical contrast between the sacrifices under the old covenant and the one sacrifice under the new. You can see it set out there on the chart.
Under the old covenant it was the blood of animals that was shed, offered by the priests. Under the new it was the blood of Christ, freely offered up by him as he gave his life for us. The old covenant required multiple sacrifices, the new just one. So the old covenant sacrifices were repeated – carried out over and over again. The sacrifice of Christ was once for all. The old covenant sacrifices had to be carried out daily – the sacrifice of Christ once for all.
Once for all. Once for all. That is the chorus of these chapters. Those old sacrifices could not perfect the conscience of the worshippers. It was impossible for them to take away sins. The blood of animals cannot ever do that. But the blood of Christ is effective. His sacrifice purifies our consciences. It perfects for all time those who are being sanctified through faith in him.
So 9.9 says of the old covenant:
According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper… (9.9)
… 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. (9.14)
[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (9.26)
[The law] 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 worshippers, 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 sin. (10.1-4)
… we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10.10)
This goes to the very heart of our faith. This is what the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Jesus, reminds us of lest we forget. That’s why I’ve put at the end of the outline these words from Thomas Cranmer’s great thanksgiving prayer from the Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion – words that have rung down the centuries in the churches of this land:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until he comes again; Hear us, O merciful Father, we most humbly beseech thee…
Full, perfect and sufficient. It’s done. No other priests are needed. No other sacrifices. It’s finished, once for all. Jesus has paid the price. Jesus has taken the punishment. Jesus has died the death. Trust in him, and we are free. There lies peace; and joy; and unbreakable, unshakeable, sure and certain hope.