By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 31, 2021
Hebrews 9:11–14 (ESV)
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) 12 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. 13 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, 14 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.
The past few weeks we have discussed the role of Jesus as our High Priest. At times we may not fully understand to role of a priest since we are two millennia removed from this practice. Even those traditions that have utilized the term priest as a leader within their forms of worship, do not use the word in the manner that the teachings of the Old Testament used the word. A priest is an individual appointed by God from among humankind to act in the place of the rest of the community.
We do not have this type of system anymore. Although some might be given different roles within a community of faith, they do not act on behalf of the community before God. This role has forever been removed from Abrahamic religions when the Temple of God was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. We have teachers of various sorts that assist in illuminating scripture with us, and individuals that walk the pathways of faith’s journey by our side. There is no longer a human agent on Earth that can stand in our place for us.
This is a dramatic change in the religious community. The responsibility of our spiritual lives cannot be laid at the feet of anyone other than ourselves. Your pastor, your teacher, your bible study leader is not responsible for you. We have been set free from this aspect of our existence. But this freedom comes with a great cost. Who is responsible?
In the ancient days of Israel, God established the priesthood. We look at this and we see it as being a wonderful thing. He appointed one family within one tribe to stand in the place of a nation. The whole tribe was sanctified to provide for the religious leadership, but only one family could enter the holy sections of the sanctuary. One family, for an entire nation. From the outside it appears to be a wonderful system. We know exactly who to go to, and where we stand. But this system was a compromise made by God.
God called Moses to be his voice to the people, and to be the voice of the people to God. But it was not sons of Moses that fulfilled the roles of the priest. Moses resisted his original calling, like so many people. He lacked the faith that God could do something that important through our weakness. God asked Moses to go to the ruler of Egypt to speak for Israel, and Moses denied God. Saying I cannot speak. Moses pointed out his own weakness and told God that he was not able to do what God had ordained. Does this sound familiar?
Because of Moses’ denial of God, God made a compromise with Moses. His brother Aaron would speak for Moses. Moses was originally appointed by God, but Aaron became the priest not Moses. We honor Moses as the Law Giver, but even within that story we get a glimpse at the weakness of humankind.
Moses was called, yet Moses lacked faith, so God used his brother instead. Then as we continue to read through the early history of the religious practices of Israel, we quickly see that Aaron fails. Aaron feared the people and authorized the making of an idol. Aaron’s sons introduced strange fire into the place of worship and they themselves died because they were careless before God. The priest appointed by God were human, weak, and corrupt. They were like us. Afraid of failure and afraid of success.
From the beginning we as humans recognized the vail of separation between humankind and God. We recognized that there was something about God that was dangerous and unapproachable. Our first parents were deceived and entered a spiritual rebellion, this introduced death to humanity. The curse of death was transmitted to us all. What do we do with this separation? Some of us make attempts to bridge that gap, while others seek to live life to the fullest before the curse overtakes us. But no matter what we do at any moment we will face that day.
We are separated from God, yet we all notice the absences. We try to fill the void with other things with the hope that we can feel as if we are complete. We fill that void with work, hoping that if only we became successful, we would be made whole. We might seek out relationships with the hopes of finding our lives’ fulfillment. Maybe we try to numb the feeling of inadequacy under the illusion of entertainment and chemical recreation, only to find that the things we used to distract our minds from our lack of fulfillment have now enslaved our bodies to addiction.
We strive forward. We seek that place we anticipate as being our promised land and what do we find? We find the exact same thing we have always known; we are there. Still unable to speak, still afraid, and still left in a state of incompleteness.
I know that is dark. I know that these are not exactly words of encouragement. We are Americans we are supposed to live by a code of hard work and success will make us wealthy and satisfied. We do live in a wonderful nation. I would not want to live anywhere else in the world, but we are not perfect. We have problems, we have issues that we try to hide, and we have corruption that we would like others to overlook. We want to be seen as the shining city on the hill, but we often do not know where the hill even is to build the city.
The priesthood of Israel was established to tell a story. A story of the human condition. In today’s passage we are given a glimpse of the work performed by those God appointed to stand for humanity. We are told about the blood of goats, calves, and bulls. We are shown ashes of a heifer being sprinkled on the people for purification. These practices are interesting and odd.
When many scholars read this section of Hebrews, they often liken it to the ceremony that is performed on the Day of Atonement. This celebration is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, which closes out the ten Days of Awe which began on Rosh Hashanah. This celebration is in honor of the creation of the world, and the fall of humankind. They remember, they remember the fall of our first parents, they remember the failings of Abraham and Sarah, they remember their own failings and they confess those failings so that they will be found on the side of God when the sacrifices begin.
Yom Kippur, the last day of the Days of Awe, which we usually call the Day of Atonement is the only day that the high priest could enter the inner sanctum of the temple. According to Leviticus 16, the high priest would sacrifice a bull to atone for his sins. And then two goats would be brought to the priest. One of these goats would be allotted to God, and the other would go to Azazel. It is not exactly clear what this goat for Azazel is, because Azazel could be the name of a spiritual being, a geographical location like a cliff, or it could simply mean the goat that goes away. Traditionally we know this goat as the scapegoat. The goat allotted to God is offered for the sins of the people. The priest would then take the blood of these sacrifices, the bull for himself and the goat for the people, into the mercy seat, which is the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. The blood was then taken to the great altar where it would be symbolically cleansed of the sins of the people. The priest would then emerge from the holiest areas of the Temple and go to the second goat. He would lay his hands on the head of this goat and confess the sins of people, symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the head of this goat. The goat for Azazel is driven from the community into the wilderness by a man, carrying the wickedness of the people away from the community to be left in the desolate places outside the community. The priest cleanses himself again, offers additional sacrifices for himself, and the man that takes the goat outside the camp also ritually bathes and washes his clothing so he can reenter the camp.
The truth of the sacrifices is that the sin remains. The blood purifies the scared space, and the goat symbolically carries transgressions away, but the sin remains. That goat could return which would indicate that the wickedness of the people could corrupt the people again.
These sacrifices on Yom Kippur account for the goats, calves, and bulls within today’s passage, but there is one reference that is not included in the rituals. This is the reference to the heifer. The sacrifice of the heifer, or the red heifer, is one that is different from most sacrifices. It is not sacrificed in the holy places, but outside the camp. The high priest goes out with an anonymous member of the priesthood, and this anonymous priest ritually kills the animal, then the blood is taken by the high priest and sprinkled on the outside of the tent. The high priest returns and the anonymous priest then burns the heifer with cedar wood, hyssop, and a scarlet thread. Then an additional priest comes out to collect the ashes, and water is mixed with these ashes. This mixture is then used to cleanse people and objects from the pollution caused by death, yet each of the three priests are considered unclean for a day and must ritually bathe and launder their clothing before they can reenter the camp after this period is over.
The mixture of the red heifer ashes is the only sacrifice directly applied to people, and is believed to be the sacrifice first used to cleanse the objects and spaces used for sacred worship within the tabernacle and the temple. Which is why many people that believe that a third temple will be built before the return of Christ are actively seeking to breed the perfect red heifer for this sacrifice.
But why are those that participate in this ritual considered unclean? Why is the sacrifice done outside the camp? Why is it a heifer or a female cow instead of a bull? I want you to consider those for a moment.
All have been corrupted by the stains of sin and death and our redemption comes through the actions of a virgin female, whose offspring was sacrificed on our behalf outside of the holy city.
The writer of Hebrews says, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things, then through the greater and more perfect tent.”. Christ in this sense is not directly speaking of Jesus, but the office of the Messiah, which Jesus fills. Messiah will come as a high priest of the good things. This is an interesting statement. Some manuscripts say, of the good things to come, but what this is alluding to is the better or greater things. When the Law was given to Moses, the children of Israel were preparing themselves to enter the land of promise. This was a good thing, but not the good things, or better things, to come. Messiah’s high priesthood will usher in something greater than the promised land.
If you were to log into YouTube and listen to the teachings of rabbis you will hear similar things as they teach. They will say things like when Messiah comes creation will return to the state prior to the fall of our first parents. We will be restored to our rightful place where humanity will work with God to make the world into Eden once again. This is what the writer of Hebrews is wanting to point out. These teachings were already present among the second temple era of Jewish history. The writer continues, “then through the greater and more perfect tent.” This again is drawing our attention to the past when human hands constructed the tabernacle of the Lord. Human hands made the place where God was going to dwell, but Messiah will come through divine means. God will bring it about. We might ask why the tent and not the temple? I think this refers to the beginning of their collective worship. Israel began their formalized worship of God when the tent was constructed. The writer of Hebrews is taking us back to the beginning, the to hope that was going to be fulfilled in the promised land. That hope is now even greater through Christ.
The writer of Hebrews speaks about this office of Messiah, but he speaks of it not in a future event yet to come, but one that has already happened, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest.” These things that you are looking forward to, have already happened. Jesus is like the heifer sacrificed outside camp that provides the cleansing power over death. He is the one that sanctifies the true place of worship. He is the goat that was taken outside to the wilderness carrying the sins of the people to Azazel. He provides the blood that cleanses the altar. And He is the priest that can stand in our place before the Mercy Seat of God.
We cannot do this in our weakness. The celebration of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur drives our attention to this weakness. When we are left to ourselves, we will continue to dwell in that place of weakness. Unable to bridge the divide that separates us from God. Even the most holy one, the high priest appoint from the tribes of men cannot enter on his own. We will continually try whatever we can to fill that void, to bridge the gap, but will continue to come up short. Continually striving to overcome our weaknesses with dead works. We like the goat for Azazel will continue to run off the cliff into the abyss, until we recognize and accept that the bridge has already been built for us by the one that has passed through the heavens, and was born of Mary becoming the son of man. The first Adam was deceived by the serpent and the second Adam tempted like us in every way stood firm to the end. Taking our sin and our shame to the cross, on that hill outside of Jerusalem. He was buried and sealed inside a tomb within the earth, and on the third day conquered the wages of sin by raising from the dead.
It is only in Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed high priest, and king of Israel, that the greater things to come can become realized. And that greater thing is that God never has and never will give up on you. He loved the world so much that he gave his only unique not to condemn the world but to save it. And all that believe in him will not be condemned but will have life. It is through Jesus that we can approach God and be restored back to our rightful place, the place where each of us were created to be. And it is in Christ that we will find fulfillment we seek. Do we believe?
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