By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 14, 2021
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “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,” 17 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.
The past few weeks we have camped out on the concept of the priesthood of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews spends a great deal of time comparing the priesthood of Israel in the tabernacle and the Temple and that of Jesus. He spends so much time comparing the two that it almost becomes so repetitive that we begin to lose interest. We begin to overlook the connections and are tempted to skip forward to something else. Yeah, yeah, yeah Jesus is a priest what’s next. We forget the importance of the priesthood.
The entire point of the book of Hebrews is about identity. The reason it is called the book of Hebrews is because the main recipients of this letter were those followers of Jesus who came from Israel. We might not fully understand the significance of this, but for those followers they are facing a significant crisis of identity. To the people of Israel, the Torah was important. The books of Moses, what we know as the books of the Law, set them apart from the rest of the world. Without this who are they?
As we read through the gospels and the book of Acts, we notice the greatest threat to the Israelites was to be put out of the synagogue. The synagogue during the first century was the center of the Israelite culture. The synagogue was the center of education. It was the place where disputes were brought for discussion and justice was sought. The synagogue was more than a place of worship, it was the hub of their very society. And these synagogues were ruled by various scribes or teachers of the law, some of which were priests that had rotational obligations at the temple.
If the synagogue was the place of cultural acceptance and unity among the people, the temple was the place of acceptance within the larger story. The temple connected the synagogues or the people with the divine. To be put out of the synagogue severed not only your place within a community, but it questioned the very core of your identity. You were a member of God’s people, and now you are denied access to the only place where communion with God was found. Every time you approached that holy place scandal followed. The apostle Paul faced this struggle. One of the reasons for his arrest was that it was believed that he had brought a Gentile inside the place within the temple reserved only for the chosen people of God. The person in question was a friend from Ephesus who was seen with Paul in Jerusalem, but there was no evidence that he had brought him into the temple, it was all based on assumptions. This did not stop the accusations, and Paul was accused and beaten nearly to death.
The earliest followers of Jesus faced great struggles. They faced persecution, they faced false accusations, they faced ridicule. They faced all of this for one reason, they believed that God through Jesus was restoring all people. This new theology threatened what those within the religious community taught. It questioned their understanding and their power.
We sometimes do not recognize the power acceptance within a community has on us, even as adults. We recognize that acceptance is important to students we speak a great deal about peer pressure among the younger members within our community. Influences that our peers might make in our lives that might lead us into behavior that our community has accepted as being deviant in some way. When I was a student, this largely revolved around the consumption of Alcohol. We do our best to teach our children the dangers the world might pull them into and how those things might trap us into a life and lifestyle that is not best for them. Often though the teaching comes across as legalistic adherence to rules that no one can fully explain. Which often drives our children toward the very lifestyle we tried to convince them to avoid.
This is what those first century believers were facing. One side is urging them to return to the life they grew up in and the other is urging them to remain with Christ. One side has centuries of well thought out and presented teachings, and the other is a mystery. One lifestyle everyone knows their place, and the other is an adventure opening before them.
We find ourselves in positions like this. We all hesitate at the very thought of change. This is why the writer of Hebrews takes such pains in explaining the priesthood and comparing it to Christ. “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” How many of us have thought about the sacrifices that were offered in the temple? I am going to make a wild guess and say nearly none of us. I say this because for two thousand years we have been reading the teachings of the Old Testament through the eyes of the New. The confusing sacrifices mention in the Torah we easily cover with Jesus because we have had this taught to us. It might surprise us that not one sacrifice ever took away sin. Not one.
It might be a shocking statement because we often read about sin offerings, I even spoke a couple of weeks ago about the offering made on the Day of Atonement. From our perspective these offerings were made to remove the sin, but that was not the intent. The sacrificial system was set up to illustrate the separation of humankind and the divine realm. We often look at the work done by the priests as making the people acceptable before God, but in reality, all the sacrifices are there to prevent our sinfulness from infecting the sacred places. The blood of the animals sacrificed during the rituals could never redeem the people, they were there to remind us that our sinfulness had a cost and if we wanted to have communion with God it would also come with a price. In today’s imagine we as humans are infected with the virus of sin, and the sacrifices are like masks. They are used to help prevent the spread of the disease, but not a cure.
Every day people would bring offering to the tent or the temple. Every day the priest would do their duty within that sacred space. Every day the entire community would look and watch as people struggled to the carry or drag livestock through the city and standing in line as countless other attempt to do the same. And everyone knows something. They know what each animal is for because they themselves have had to bring one at some point. Imagine the gossip that might erupt if someone in high standing within the community had to walk through town dragging a few bulls behind them.
The sacrificial system is not a cure, it is a visual reminder of our inadequacies. It is a testimony to the entire community that even the most righteous among us cannot stand before God, without a protective barrier. The writer of Hebrews says why would you want to go back to that? Why would you want to return to a system where there is no assurance, where there is not true communion. “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.”
One single sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews is showing us that what Christ offers is greater than anything we can offer. Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, while the priests of the temple are skittering around the footstool. He is right there with God.
“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 high 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. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Jesus opens before us something even greater than Israel experienced before. True friendship with God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Through Jesus we are invited back. We are called to enter once again that place our first parents experienced before the deception in the garden. We are called to walk with God once again, not as creatures but as friends and members of his family. Through Jesus everything that once separated us from God is removed and forgotten, we are renewed and restored. We can know this because Jesus told his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for us. We know this because he told Thomas, “You believe because you have seen, blessed are those that believe yet have not seen.” We have not seen the risen Christ yet the place He prepared for his disciples is also open to us if we believe.
What is belief? I have mentioned often that there are three types of belief. The first is knowledge. We know something and we accept that knowledge in our minds. The second type of belief is trust. This form of belief recognizes that what we know has merit so we begin to enact it into aspects of our life. The third type or stage of belief is entrusting. This level of belief is faith. We have recognized not only the merits of the knowledge and observed it in some aspects of our lives. Now we have confidence to entrust what we have to that lifestyle. This is what Jesus and the writer of Hebrews is calling us to. Life filled with meaningless effort, or a life of Friendship with Christ.
There is power in the argument made by the author of this letter. Every animal sacrificed for the altar in the temple did not return to the flock. Yet Christ was crucified before the entire nation on a cross. He was sealed in a tomb, not just sealed but guarded because the teachers of the law listened to Jesus as he taught and they knew that he said destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days. They placed guards at the tomb because they knew that something might happen, because they knew that this same Jesus had restored to life a man that had been buried several days in tomb. Jesus laid in that tomb surrounded by guards, yet on the third day the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty of everything but the grave clothes. The tomb was empty, and everyone knew it because they had put a seal on the stone. Now they must explain why. The disciples claimed that Jesus was restored to life. Not just one or two, but scripture tells us that he appeared and ate with all the disciples, and to his unbelieving brother, and to the seventy, and Paul tells us Jesus appeared to more than five hundred at the same time. Jesus rose from the dead. Death is the penalty of sin, yet Jesus overcame death and is restored to life. We that believe are joined into that life, even though we face death we know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, because he has faithfully proven this.
Why continue to strive with empty rituals of righteousness? Why do we continue to struggle to merit God’s acceptance through our own actions and abilities? Why do we continue to try to prove to those around us that we are good enough in ourselves? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Not one of us is righteous in ourselves. But while we were still sinners Christ died for us. While we still lacked faith, Christ rose for us. And while we still struggle Christ speaks for us to his Father, saying they are my friends.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” the author says. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” This takes us back to peer pressure. The term to stir up is to provoke. Usually this is a negative thought, but just as we can be provoked or irritated enough to participate in the lusts of this world, we can also be provoked or encouraged to do good. The author encourages us, to turn away from the pressures of the religious, and the world and to focus on something greater. Provoke each other to love, and to good works. This is not empty attempts of righteousness to gain God’s favor, but participation in what Jesus has started in us. He has removed the sting of death and given us the hope of life everlasting through him. Our sins are forgotten by God, and Jesus is whispering in the Father’s ear that we are his friends so we can boldly approach God not as creatures but as restored members of God’s divinely appointed steward of the earth. We can once again assist God in making the entire earth into Eden where we can once more walk with God.
Let us become people of encouragement. Let us be tributaries of God’s love and blessing to others. Let us become people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Let us become Friends of God. This is all ours through the freely given grace provided to us through Jesus. Who passed through the heavens to become the son of man, who was sacrificed outside the city and buried in a tomb, and who rose again to overcome death and restore us to life. Let us not neglect meeting together to celebrate our hope. And let us be provoked not to anger or sin, but to love and good works.
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