11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that 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 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also 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.
A Call to Persevere
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary 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 approach 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 to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 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 approaching.
It is on days like today that it is hard to be true to the faith that I profess. On days like today I, with the rest of the world cry out to God wondering why awful things happen. Days like today I want to walk down to the nearest recruiting station and sign up to join a fight, I want to teach someone some sort of lesson and rid the world of all the wrong. To see and hear about bombings and shootings in Lebanon, France, and Iraq rips my heart out. To look at the world and realize that it could be very soon that we see the next war to end all wars. I find it odd that that term was one that was used for a war that was fought one hundred years ago. A war and the men and women, the families that were dramatically affected are remembered every year on the eleventh of November. We call it Veteran’s day but it began as a day to remember the ending of the First World War. Yet as we remember the true cost of war the horrors of violence continue to play out before our eyes. This past week we remembered the cost of war, and this week we remember that war remains.
This is a cycle that continues throughout history. A cycle of power hungry people seeking to bend others to their wills. A cycle of history that continuously repeats because so often we are controlled by pride, greed, and lusts failing to open our eyes to the humanity of those around us. Instead we see only means to an end, enemies to conquer, potential profit centers, and political supporters. We claim to remember the cost of war, we give platitudes of peace but do we really seek it?
The letter to the Hebrews was written just prior to possibly the most devastating event of Jewish history. It was written just prior to the final bout of the Jewish War. This war was not just a war that was fought in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire but it was a war that shook the world. Many scholars have connected the battle in Palestine with the removal of Roman forces from Britain. This war changed the very courses of history yet many even remember it happened. It was a war that was fought for independence, religious freedom, nationalism, and cultural identity. It was a war waged by humanity in the name of God, and the result of this war sent the people that followed the God of Abraham into a cultural tailspin. It destroyed the temple and with it disconnected the people from the mercy of God.
War is not of God. Wars are fought because of humanities inability to live at peace. Wars are fought because of petty jealousies and contempt have gotten out of hand. They begin not with nations but with individuals. Cain was jealous of Abel so Cain removed the one that cause his discomfort. Cain, according to scripture, went on to develop the first city, the first civilization, the first empire, and violence was used to protect his legacy.
At the dawn of this war that ripped the Jewish people from the land of promise, a new era was beginning to emerge. An era that began with a rabbi that walked among the disenfranchised people that were forgotten by those in the seats of power. It began because a rabbi began to change the focus of the teachings of the prophets and the law to focus on the people instead of the nation. This rabbi questioned the status quo, began to personalize the religious practices, and caused people to consider the heart of the law instead of the letter. This teacher introduced people to a God that cared for them.
This was not anything new really. It had been taught throughout the ages, it was taught by the prophets of old prior to the exile of Judah. It was taught by the great law giver Moses. Yet people were distracted. Their minds were focused on things around them instead of God, they were focused on their own selfish gains instead of the humanity of those that lived next door.
The writer of Hebrews remembers the prophet Jerimiah and he quotes, “I will put the law in their hearts and I will write them on their minds.” This new era that was ushered in by Jesus, the era we call the new covenant, is one that is based on relationship instead of sacrifice. It is an era where we can each be directly connected with the Spirit of God and not have to rely on a priest to intercede for us apart from God himself. Consider this quote for a moment. What does it really mean to have the law in our hearts and written on our minds?
To have the law in our hearts goes well beyond knowing scripture. It is becoming the embodiment of scripture to the world around us. Living the scripture out to the fullest extent, taking it to heart means that it becomes the very essence of who we are. If we were to take the law “do not steal” to heart let that become the very essence of who we are as a person, what changes? The very idea of theft sickens us, the possibility of potentially taking what is not ours and defrauding someone of their own possessions becomes unthinkable. If we were to live by this concept every aspect of our lives would be moved from our own personal gains and entitlement and would focus instead of mutual benefit. The heart of the law condemning theft is building relationships, respecting others, and mutual profit.
Think about the other laws, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not bear false witness, each if they are taken to heart, if they are lived instead of followed takes us to a completely different place. Respecting the individual instead of considering them a means to an end, honoring others by seeking truth instead of building ourselves up on falsehoods. Recognizing that every individual no matter who they are or what they believe should live and we should honor and protect their lives.
Do we allow God to place the law into our hearts? Are we allowing His Spirit to saturate our being to the point that His ways become the very essence of who we are? This is why my heart grieves today. I grieve because I can see in my own life that I have failed in so many ways to take the laws of God to heart. I grieve because somewhere along the line the people that are claiming Christ have failed to provoke one another to love and good deeds. And if the people that have encouraged me to come to faith can fail, where does that leave me?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As a leader of a group of people that were mistreated and often hated for no other reason than the color of their skin they had every right within the laws of man to rise up and fight against the oppression. But they instead took a different approach. I did not live through that era in history. I know that that time was not filled with peace I know that it was not an easy path for any that lived through that period of history but I also know that it made a difference. It can be summed up in a simple statement, “we cannot give what we do not have.” Hate breeds hate, violence breed violence, war breeds war just as hope breeds hope, respect breeds respect, encouragement breeds encouragement.
Provoke one another to love and good deeds. The writer of Hebrews is saying the same thing as Martin Luther King. The only way to change the course of history is to stop or change the cycle you are perpetuating. We need to actively pursue the very things we are hoping for in Christ. We need to become the embodiment of the law. Have it become the essence of who we are and what we hope for. Actively pursue without neglect, it cannot be passive but can only be lived.
Today we each face a challenge. It is a challenge that we have faced many times before at many different junctions on our pathway through life. Will we provoke those around us to love or will we continue the cycle of hate. Will we recognize the humanity of those around us or will we live life pointing fingers at others that have slighted our egos? Will we be instruments of war or peace?
I do not care about converting people to an institution of religion. I do not care about changing people’s political stances. But I care about people, I care about life, I care about the future that my children will inherit and the children of those around me. Will it be a world one step closer to the kingdom of Christ? Will it be a world that is willing to forgive and reconcile or will it be a world that holds onto the sins against them? Will we as a church provoke love and good deeds, will we encourage each other closer to God through Christ, or will we teach the ways of the world?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as friends. Consider again what it means to have the law written in our hearts and on our minds. Consider what that means today and what it means as we train up the next generation. Consider. Will we as individuals, and as a community become people of God? A people who are loving God, embracing his Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others? Consider just what that might mean and are we willing to sacrifice our lives to allow that type of kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?
Hebrews 5:1–10 (NRSV)
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
The book of Hebrews brings up many theological concepts that are unique to this one book. It dives deeper into the concepts of angels than any other book of scripture, and it also speaks fully about the office of priest. I bring up this uniqueness because most of the New Testament is silent about priest. Even the gospels speak very little about them, but when the writers do mention the priests they hold a very important role. For instance when Jesus healed those with leprosy they were told to present themselves to the priests, and it was the high priest that was the final say in the verdict against Jesus before they presented him to governor.
Clearly the priest has an important role. But I do not think we fully understand the role of the priest in our contemporary era. It is not surprising that we have ignorance over the office of the priest because for the most part we do not have an equivalent to this role. Most would say that a pastor is an equivalent but if we were to look deeper into the actual role of the various offices we would see that there is a difference.
When we look back to the very beginning of the nation of Israel we begin to see the emergence of the office of the priest after the children of Abraham are lead out of Egypt. Prior to this time there was not an office of priest because God spoke to and through the patriarchs, and for the most part during the years of captivity we do not know how the people worshiped. This time of exodus out of captivity is key to understanding the role of the priest and the role of the people. Let’s look at this story for a moment.
Jacob or Israel had twelve sons and one of them was the favored one, this favorite son made the others jealous and they plotted against him and eventually sold him into slavery and told their father that he was killed by wild beasts. Joseph, the favored son, was sold to Ishmaelites, who then sold him to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph worked hard and the household was blessed through Joseph, but then plots were again set up against Joseph and he was thrown into prison. Even in prison Joseph was a blessing to those around him. Eventually word made it to Pharaoh that Joseph was extremely wise, and the leader of the Egyptian empire requested his services. While this was going on the rest of Joseph’s family was struggling because the land of Canaan was experiencing an extreme famine, eventually they migrated to Egypt to try to obtain food. While in Egypt God brought the family back together and they moved to Egypt and settled there. This story is one that shows us the grace of God even though the trials, at times the hardest part of our life is putting us into a position to become the greatest blessing sometime in the future. I could preach more of that but that is not for today.
After a time the Egyptians were tired of the aliens that had moved into their land and seemed they failed to remember the history that brought these people into their nation and they became very jealous of them and began to persecute them and eventually enslaved them. For over four hundred years the children of Israel were enslaved, held in bondage, unable to live the life in the freedom they were promised by God though their Fathers. This is where Moses and Aaron come in and the beginning of the priesthood of Israel. Moses was sent by God to lead the people back to freedom, but Pharaoh was not willing to release them. This lead to sever plagues in the land. Water was made undrinkable, crops were ruined, flocks died, and eventually the first born of every family who was not covered by the blood of a lamb was killed by the spirit of God. After the plagues pharaoh allowed the people to leave his land, and the nation of Israel was formed.
But it was from the bondage, the plagues, and redemption that define the office of the priest. Everything within the religious life of Israel revolves around these events, because prior to this there was not a priest. Prior to this there was no need for a priest because God spoke directly to the fathers. But Israel was brought to bondage by their jealous and greed, and sin held them in captivity. It was God that brought them out and God who bought them. Yes I said bought them, because that is what happened. The price of Israel’s freedom was the first born of every living creature. Every creature of Egypt and every creature of Israel belonged to God. That was the price of redemption. What does this have to do with the office of the priest? When the blood of the lamb was place over the doors of the people of Israel it allowed the people to live, but it did not remove the price.
When Israel emerged out of bondage and journeyed to the land of promise, God demanded the first born of every creature including their children. This was a steep price to pay but God in His grace provided a way, to offset the demand of the first born he set aside one tribe out of the twelve to be his. All the other tribes would have redemption though this one a constant reminder of the steep price they had to pay for their redemption. The law required that every first born male child be brought to God and for the family to be able to take that child home they would have to bring a sacrifice to purchase the child back from God, but the exchange was that another child would take the place of the one redeemed. That child would come from one tribe the tribe of Levi, the tribe from which Moses and Aaron came. This tribe was God’s tribe, the tribe set aside to remind the nation of the great price required to live free.
One tribe, took on the wages of sin of a nation. And though this one tribe since they bore the sins of the nation they became the only ones that could offer to the people the grace of God. From that moment on God spoke predominately to the people through this one tribe and the people spoke to God through them. It was an entire cultural identity revolving around this recognition that our sinfulness carries a great price. For my children to live free, to inherit the blessing of God someone else must take their place. The tribe of Levi was taken care of but they were the one tribe that remained slaves even in the land of promise. They did not have an inheritance, they were bound, their only hope was in the people of Israel staying true to God and when the people turned from God they would see this one tribe suffer because of it.
Have we ever looked at the tribe of Levi, and the office of the priesthood in this light? This one tribe represented the entire nation. The good and the bad was seen through this one tribe. This one tribe represented the entire nation before God and God to the entire nation. But only one of this tribe could actually make direct appeals to God and that was the High Priest. This one high priest would wear the special garments representing all of Israel into the most holy area of the temple. This one priest carried it all. Imagine if you will that position. Imagine if you would have to stand before the judge speaking on behalf of everyone in our nation, having to provide an answer for every grievance that occurred, and knowing that those grievances could negate the very covenant that God made. How would you approach? How would you enter this most holy place? How would you stand before God knowing that the sins of your neighbor could cost not only them but you your life?
There is a reason that this most holy place is called the mercy seat, because that is the only thing that we could possibly ask for standing there before pure holiness. None of us can stand in confidence representing an entire nation. Because we are fully aware of our own short comings. There is not a single person holy enough to stand because all of us has sinned. But we do not stand in that place, because Jesus stands there for us.
I will briefly speak on Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of the most high God during the days of Abraham. I mention this only because he was outside the promise, he was not part of Abraham’s company, so by definition he was a gentile. And yet he was a representative of God. Jesus is said to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek and not of Aaron. Aaron was Israel’s priest, Melchizedek was not. Melchizedek is an image of the redemption of all people through Christ. The writer of Hebrews includes this because Jesus was not a priest according to Jewish Law. He was not a Levite, but of the tribe of Judah, and yet he became the voice of the people and the voice of God.
Jesus stands as our priest. There is no other priest required. Jesus came and lived among humankind, offering prayers, worship, and service to others. He stood before the accusers and took on the wages of sin. He hung on a cross and cried out to God the Father, “Forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing.” That statement still rings in the halls of the heavenly temple. Forgive them.
Jesus stood in our place. He took on our punishment. He became our advocate. And what He said is forgive them. The price to redeem those in bondage is life. It was the lives of the one tribe for the lives of the other eleven. It was potentially the life of the one priest for the life of the others. But there is still only one statement that can be made, “Forgive them!”
Can you say those words? Can you say those words knowing that those around you could care less? Can you say those words even when you feel those that have sin against you have no desire or even knowledge that an offense has occurred? Forgive them! Those are the words that a priest must say. And that is why I say that there is not an office in the contemporary era that really represents the office of the priest. Because it is impossible to say those words without the strength of Christ. Forgive them!
Forgive them, those are the words that Jesus spoke and the words that he is calling each of us to speak. The writer of Hebrews says that through Jesus’ priestly office he has become the source of eternal salvation for those that obey him. Forgive them, is the command that Jesus gave to Peter when peter asked about the sins of a brother. Forgive them. This is forgiveness is the beginning of our journey with Christ and through this forgiveness we have hope, and we become the hope for the nations. As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion with God in sacred silence, I ask again, “Can you say those words: Forgive them?”