God's Fitting sacrifice - Hebrews 1:1-4
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It had been an especially tiring day for the prison psychiatrist. With more than a hint of despair in his voice he confided in the chaplain: ‘I tell you honestly Reverend; I can cure somebody’s madness but I can do nothing about his badness.’ ‘Psychiatry’, he went on, ‘properly administered can turn a schizophrenic bank robber into a mentally healthy bank robber. A good teacher can turn an illiterate criminal into an educated criminal. But they are still bank robbers and criminals.’
Well, I guess you have to admire that psychiatrist for his honesty as well as feel sympathy for his despondency. But it does underscore a very important distinction, namely, treating people is one thing, curing them is something else.
It is not easy being diagnosed as ill when you least expect it. I well remember my Grandad who for most of his 80 or so years hardly had a day’s illness being told he had diabetes. Grandad was always one for the home made remedy approach. When I was little I cut my finger and his solution was to get the salt pot and pour salt onto the gaping wound! When I had a loose tooth, his remedy was straightforward if crude, one end of a thread was attached to the tooth and the other to a door handle- as the door was slammed shut, the tooth came flying out! But he could apply no such remedy to his diabetes. However, today diabetes can be treated but not cured. What’s the difference between a treatment and a cure? It is this: the treatment has to be continually applied, whereas a cure has a finality about it. The daily administration of insulin can keep the illness under control but it can never be relaxed otherwise the illness takes over.
Our author is saying something similar about the nature of Old Testament religion or any to the religion for that matter, namely, that all that we find there is but a temporary treatment, keeping in check the spiritual problem of sin and its disastrous effects in terms of our relationship with God and each other. But Jesus has come not to tender a treatment but to affect a cure.
Although the rest of the letter, especially chapters 9 and 10 explain how this is so, it is highlighted right at the very beginning of the letter in this prologue, did you see it there at the end of verse 3? ‘After he [that is the Son, Jesus] had provided purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’
First we have the centrality of the cure.
Over the last few weeks we have been seeing how in so many different ways our writer has been underscoring the divine identity of the Son, Jesus. He is God’s word, not just a prophet; he is the world’s Creator, Sustainer and Goal- the sole functions of God. But now we come to something else which the Jews only ascribed to God. The one true God is not only the world’s Ruler he alone is the world’s Redeemer- that is who God is. You see this repeated over and over again in Isaiah. Not only is Yahweh the great Creator- chapter 40, he is also the great Redeemer who has a set purpose of redeeming his people, ‘Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God; and there is none like me’ (Is 46:9) and then he goes on to say how he is going to bring about the salvation of his people. Now here in verse 3 we see that Jesus is going to save his people. So the divine identity of Jesus as Lord/Yahweh of the OT is underscored again- God is Ruler-Jesus is Ruler, therefore Jesus is God. God is Rescuer- Jesus is Rescuer, therefore Jesus is God.
But what does he rescue us from? The answer- the effects of sin, ‘he provided purification for sins’; which brings us to the nature of the cure.
The writer speaks of ‘purification for sin’. This tells us something about what sin is, it is a pollutant. Like some filthy, foul smelling chemical in the air, it seeps into every pore and crevice, blocking up the lungs, choking the arteries until it finally overwhelms and kills us. But sin isn’t as passive as that, those are its effects, that is how it acts, but it comes down to our own choices; it’s like us madly welcoming in the pollutant and not worrying about the consequences. Worse than that it’s like thinking the chemicals will do us good and so we want more and more. Sin is a kind of madness- we all know that. And it is so serious we need purifying from it before it ultimately kills us eternally.
That is why Jesus came and why his death is absolutely central to all we believe and sing.
For centuries the Jews had been carefully schooled by God that before sin could be forgiven a sacrifice had to be offered. The blood spread on the surface of the altar symbolised in the most vivid terms the appalling penalty that sin demands-death. God cannot ignore sin, for him to do so would be tantamount to him abdicating his role as the moral ruler of the universe. Sin has to be punished, wrongdoing demands a penalty; we all know that. How would we feel if after the horrors of Auschwitz had been uncovered, the judges at Nuremberg had simply said, ‘What a pity-of course you have been lead astray by your ideology, now run along and don’t do it again.’? There is such a thing as natural law, written on the hearts of every man and woman-and integral to that moral sense we all have is that injustice has to be dealt with. God would agree, after all he was the one who wrote that law into our hearts reflecting something of his own moral sense. God can no more ignore your misdoings or mine than we can ignore each other’s. Sin brings with it a penalty-death.
But the slaughter of an animal on the altar for a Jew was not only a graphic reminder of the penalty for sin, but also a moving picture of the mercy of God. For this was God’s way of ensuring that those who put their trust in him, could be accepted by him, for God treated the animal as if it were the guilty sinner, he graciously accepted the animal in the place of the offending party. In short this is a substitutionary sacrifice. This is what the writer goes on at length to describe in chapter 9 and 10. But the fact that sacrifices had to be made, day after day, month after month and year after year underscored their provisionality; they were a treatment not a cure.
But then came the Son of God. Here is why the incarnation is necessary because only flesh can die, only a body can be pierced and bleed. What is more, only a person can voluntary offer himself as a sacrifice on behalf of others. The sheep being slaughtered in the temple couldn’t do that, all they could do was go ‘baa’; but the Son says to his Father, “Here I am Father, I will go and die for them. I will lay down my life so that they may live. I will shed my pure blood so they can be made clean, because we love them Father and they can’t save themselves. In fact Father, this is why we made a world, so that we could share our eternal love with people like these.”
So here and here alone is the cure for sin and not merely a treatment- the divine remedy which totally expunges all our moral guilt once and for all. Like a magnet, the dirty iron filings of our sin are drawn into his perfect, sinless body. The wooden altar of the temple is replaced by the wooden altar of the cross. The blood of goats is set aside for the blood of the Son. The penalty for sin is paid for, the power of sin is subdued and one day in glory the presence of sin will be no more.
Let me tell you that many people in our society, in our city, are just plain tired. Not just tired of the daily grind of work, the lack of purpose and direction in life- but tired of the weariness that sin and guilt produce. At some point everyone has a troubled conscience. There are things we do and have done which simply cut us to the heart and we would feel that it would be like would dying a thousand deaths if those closest to us knew what we were really like and what we had really done. Perhaps more than that, the tiredness ultimately springs from being cut off from the giver of life and our wellbeing, God, because we simply can’t bear the thought of facing him with our guilt. And so like Adam and Eve we would prefer to run away and hide behind a tree, get on with distracting ourselves rather than finding ourselves alone with our guilt and our Maker. Isn’t that so?
But it needn’t be so, not now, because Jesus has made purification for our sins. Just as when you press the delate button on your computer and the page becomes blank, so as you turn to Jesus confessing your need and casting yourself on his tender mercy, the delete button is pressed and your sin in God’s sight is simply gone.
How do we know that that is so, because Jesus has ‘sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven’. In the OT temple the priest kept standing because his work never finished, there was always one more goat to kill, one more bull to slaughter- but not anymore; there is no further sacrifice required, Jesus has paid it all and so he can sit down to rule having been crucified to redeem.
Notice too, where he sits, ‘at the right hand of the Majesty on High.’ He sits on the heavenly throne which means he is now ruling the world as a man with the Father.
This brings us to the final point, the benefits of the cure.
This is deep and mysterious stuff, but as a result of God the Son becoming a man, dying our death and ascending back into heaven, a change has been introduced into God, ‘flesh and blood has been taken into the deity’. If I can reverently put it this way: as a result of the incarnation and atonement (Jesus dying and rising for us) God will never be the same again. Our relationship with him will never be the same again- it will be infinitely better.
In what ways?
First, it means God is able to sympathise with us, really understand us. One writer puts it like this: ‘Let us never imagine that God does not understand us. God’s Son took our nature. He entered our experience. He know what physical pain is. He knows what emotional and spiritual pain is. He knows what the loss of God is. He stood in the outer darkness: in the place where there is no comfort; in the place of the absolute ‘Why?’ where, needing God as no man ever needed God. He cried and God was not there. Bearing a burden such as the world has never known, and left comfortless. We never go beyond his pain. Our darkness is never more intense than his. Our ‘Why’s’ are never more bewildered. Sometimes, when we ask, ‘Why me?’ part of His answer is, ‘Me too!’’
But secondly, related to this, it means God will always be well disposed towards us. This doesn’t mean that everything is going to be easy for us, but it does mean that whatever happens God will always have a good purpose in it (Romans 8:28). And even when we sin, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross to purify us, God doesn’t look on us in the same way he did before we trusted Christ. Then he was a judge towards us with his law against us, now he is a Father with his Son for us. Because Jesus has gone into heaven, he looks down from heaven like a kindly, sympathetic older brother whose heart just goes out toward us in compassion not anger, how could it be otherwise as he has already suffered God’s anger towards sin for us on the cross? This is how the Puritan Thomas Goodwin describes Jesus’ tender heart, he says, ‘ your very sins move him to pity more than anger…it is true, his pity in increased all the more towards you, just like the heart of a father to a child that has some terrible disease….his hatred shall fall only upon the sin, to free you from its ruin and destruction, his very compassion is drawn out more and more to you and this is as much as when you fall under the influence of sin as under any other affliction. Therefore, don’t be afraid, ‘What shall separate us from Christ’s love.’ The answer, of course, is nothing because Jesus could not love you any more than when he was loving and dying for you on that sad and lonely cross to purify you of your sins.
So let me tell you about Odessa Moore, a Christian prison visitor in the Unites States. She met a teenager who was waiting to be tried for first degree murder. When Odessa met him, his eyes were filled with nothing but hate. As they talked, the all too familiar story began to emerge: Father a drug addict, mother an alcoholic and both would beat the boy and lock him in a cupboard for hours on end. All his life he had been fed the line that he was nothing. ‘But that was alright’, he said, ‘because I don’t care for nobody.’ ‘But there is someone who loves you’, responded Odessa. But he refused point blank to believe it. ‘Look’ said Odessa eventually, ‘You are here for murder right?’ ‘Yes and I would do it again’ he said. ‘Well,’ Odessa continued, ‘How would you like it if someone came here tonight and said, “I know you have committed murder and that you are going to get the death penalty, but I am here to take your place.” How would you like that?’ Now she had his attention and for the first time his eyes showed a spark of life. ‘Are you kidding’ he gasped, ‘That would be great.’ So she went on to tell him about Jesus who became the scapegoat who had already died to take his place, who had paid the price already. Step by step she took him through the Gospel until at the end of the evening, the stone cold teenager had melted weeping tears of repentance as he committed his life to Christ. He knew what he needed- forgiveness- and he knew he did not have it within himself, but God did and he reached out and received it. Then his standing before God as a forgiven son was certain.
Jesus is the God who made us and for whom we were made. Jesus is the God who redeems us and who is kindly towards us. Jesus is the one who is to capture our hearts, our imaginations and our lives, because Jesus came not to offer a treatment, he came to affect a cure. Let us pray.
 Stephen Motyer, 'Not apart from us' (Hebrews 11:40): physical community in the letter to the Hebrews’ EQ 77.3 (2005), 235-247.
 Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By, p 123
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