Jesus - God's final work - Hebrews 10:1-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
On Wednesday, January 13th 1982, Air Florida flight 90 took off from Washington airport headed for Fort Lauderdale, in Florida. It was a chance for many of the 79 passengers and crew on board to get a bit of winter sun in the face of a very harsh Washington winter. But within minutes of the flight, the plane suddenly lost altitude, and crashed into the Rochambeau Bridge which spanned the icy Potomac River, just one mile from the airport. The plane quickly broke up and sank within seconds of hitting the water. Sadly 74 of the people on board died. But what was extraordinary was that anyone managed to survive the terrible ordeal. The fact that five people on board survived, four passengers and one crew member, is testimony to the amazing rescue operation by helicopter that took place minutes after the crash. And as a result Air Florida flight 90 has entered American aviation history, not just for the terrible air crash, but for the even more astounding rescue that was captured live on TV. Because when people are rescued from a terrible fate, then that rescue is news worth sharing.
Well this evening we are looking together at another rescue, but this rescue is infinitely more important than even a rescue from a plane crash. And the reason for that is because this rescue affects our very deepest need. Now if I were to ask you what your greatest need is today, then how would you reply? If you are a final year student, perhaps you feel it's a degree or a job. Maybe it's a cash windfall, perhaps friendship or security. Well however deep those needs may be, they are not a patch on the most important need you and I have, and that is to be in right relationship with God. And because each one of us naturally turns away from God, then we need to be forgiven so we can come back into relationship with him. Because that is what we were made for.
And the big question is how do we receive that forgiveness? Is it really possible that we can be forgiven, that we can be in a right relationship with God? Well the answer that the writer of this letter to the Hebrews gives us is yes. We can be forgiven. For God himself has provided a rescuer, Jesus, who has come to offer us forgiveness and to bring us back into relationship with God. And his whole letter of Hebrews is about Jesus Christ. In fact, we could sum the letter up in two statements about Jesus. Jesus is God's final word. And Jesus has done a finished work. In Jesus we find everything we need to know about God. And in Jesus we find one who has given us total rescue. That's what this letter is all about.
Now it may be that you are sitting here and thinking, "So what? What's all this got to do with me?" It may be that you are not a Christian, and quite frankly you feel no need for forgiveness. Well can I encourage you to listen carefully, because the Bible's claim is that the very reason we were made is for relationship with God. Our very purpose and identity revolves around God and being in right relationship with him. So at least check out the facts, and see what you make it this rescue. Because whether we feel in need of rescue or not, the Bible is clear all of us need it.
But I guess many of us here would claim to be Christians, and again the temptation is simply to switch off, thinking we have heard this before. But let me urge you to listen very carefully to what our writer has to say. Because he is writing to Christians who had become complacent of the rescue of Jesus and had begun to slip away from God. And each of us needs to watch ourselves. As one writer puts it: "Dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God shown in the cross of Christ." So for each of us here tonight, this rescue is very relevant. So let's turn to see what this writer has to tell us. And he tells us two things, two ways of being rescued, one which is wrong and the other which is right.
1) Religion that is done by us (Vv 1-4)
2) Rescue that is done for us (Vv 5-18)
1) Religion that is done by us (Vv 1-4)
So let's look first at religion that is done by us. And the writer makes it clear that this way of trying to be rescued is doomed to failure. And he shows this is to us by explaining the failings of the OT sacrificial system. In the OT period, the period before Jesus, the way men and women were to be forgiven for their wrongdoing against God was through sacrifices of animals. Right from the start God had made it clear that the penalty for sin was death. Rebellion against God is a very serious offence, so death was the penalty. And yet God in his mercy and grace allowed the people to sacrifice animals instead of themselves. So a lamb or a goat could take the place of the people to die for their sins. So every day, the priests would offer the sacrifices on the people's behalf and the people would be forgiven. And every year there was a special service called the Day of Atonement which was a symbolic wiping of the slate. A goat was sacrificed on behalf of all the people of God, and they were forgiven for their sins. But as the writer now shows us there were three very serious failings with this system.
a) Incomplete- The first failing is that it is incomplete. Verse 1: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves." By law, the writer means the laws about the sacrifices. And he says that they were only a shadow of the things which were coming. In other words, these sacrifices were not the real thing. They were sign posts pointing to something much better coming along later. They were a temporary solution to deal with sin, until the coming of the real rescuer bringing the real rescue.
It's a bit like comparing a photograph to reality. Imagine a young man who has a beautiful fiancBut this young couple live some way apart. So in order to remind him of his love, the young man keeps a picture in his wallet of the girl he loves. There she is in the picture with her pretty face and flowing blond hair. And every night he pulls the picture out of his wallet and says to the picture. "Soon we will be together my love." Well the day eventually comes and they get married. But imagine how daft it would be if on their wedding night, the young man pulls out the picture and says: "Oh, my love you look very pretty tonight," and then goes to sleep! Or imagine if he goes to the restaurant and props the picture up next to the salt and says to the picture: "Are you tempted by the salmon then, my dear?" No! That would be madness! Now he has the real thing, the picture is redundant. The picture was only ever meant to be a prompt for him to remember his young love.
Similarly with the OT sacrifices. They were only meant to be a picture of something far better that was to come, the real rescue which we'll see in a minute. So, as we will see, there is no point hanging on to the picture, when the reality has come. But we might ask, why did God bother with the sacrifices if they were no good? Well ultimately God's timing is his own. But also because God was teaching the OT people and us some very important things. That sin is very important and can only be forgiven through shedding blood. In order for sins to be forgiven, there must be a death, because that's the price of sin. But the picture was as yet incomplete. There was more to come.
b) Inadequate- But they weren't just incomplete. Because secondly they were inadequate. Again verse 1: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins." And then verse 4: "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." The fact is, says the writer, these sacrifices don't actually do the job. They don't take away sins, because they don't deal with the guilt behind the sins. It's one thing to go through the rituals, and be symbolically clean from sin, quite another to have your conscience clean and forgiven. And why are they inadequate? Because an animal can never take the place of a human being. The whole point was that something could step into the place of the sinner. But an animal cannot do that fully, because it's not a human. You can't ask a goat if it feels guilty for the crime can you? You can't ask a cow if it is willing to step into the place of a human being and take the punishment for a human's sins against God? All cows do is look at you and moo! Animals are totally different from humans because they have no will. They cannot make the decision to step into our shoes, to take our place. So the sacrifices fail at this point because they don't fully deal with the problem of guilt and sin. It's just not a fair exchange. They are not an adequate sacrifice. The guilt still remains. And that is why we need a better rescue that will deal with the problem of our guilt.
You may remember that scene in the Shakespeare play Macbeth when Lady Macbeth is having a nightmare and she is running around desperately trying to wash the blood off her hands of the murdered Banquo. But the problem is there is no blood there. She washed that off immediately. The blood in her dream is her conscience. She cannot wash the guilt away. It stays with her and hounds her for the rest of the play. Now you can do all you want to bury the guilt for your sin. But it never goes away. The stain of sin stays on your heart and like red wine on a white carpet it is impossible to shift apart from a miraculous cleaning agent! And animal sacrifices are inadequate for the job of dealing with human guilt.
c) Intolerable- And then finally, the sacrifices are intolerable. Verse 3: "But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins." Just imagine if you were those OT people and every day, day after day, month after month, year after year, you sacrificed an animal for your sins. Every day it would be a reminder of just how far short you've fallen from God. Every day we sin, so every day we'd have to sacrifice, because God said that sins must be paid for by an animal sacrifice. But every time you sacrificed, it would be like a hammer blow to your heart. You're a sinner, you're a sinner, you're sinner, those sacrifices would say. And it would be never ending because you'd keep on sinning, because that's our nature. It would be unbearable. Oh, for a rescue that would deal with our sins once and for all, we would cry. Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way of writing off the debt of sin once and for all, instead of having to come back to God every day. But it wasn't through the sacrifices. Because they were incomplete, inadequate and intolerable. They were always meant to be signposts pointing to a better rescue that God would provide.
So why on earth does the writer spend all this time talking about these sacrifices. And why, you might well ask, have I spent this time telling you about them. We don't exactly sacrifice the family cat every time we sin do we? Not exactly very relevant to us 21st century westerners is it? But actually it could not be more relevant. Because the writer is writing to people who had slipped back into this sort of thinking about how to get right with God, about how to find forgiveness from God. And at it's heart it is a religion that is done by us. It's about how much we do for God. They thought that simply by going through the rituals, God would be impressed. But they failed to see that they had slipped into DIY religion. Trying to work our way to God on our own merit. Ignoring the fact that God has provided that better rescue that the sacrifices pointed to. And that friends, is exactly how many of us think we need to get right with God. We fall into the trap of thinking that we owe God and so we need to pay the debt back ourselves.
So many people believe that by doing good deeds and basically being a good person, God will give you the benefit of the doubt and let you into heaven. It's what we might call credit card religion. Every time you do something wrong you put it on your moral credit card. And so you run up a bill of wrong doing, a huge debt you owe to God for the things you have done against him. But a few good deeds later and the bill is paid off. Most people confess they aren't perfect, but their good deeds outweigh their bad, and so they will be OK. They think they are good enough for God. But that viewpoint falls into the same traps as the sacrifices. For a start it's incomplete. Because God's standard for heaven is 100%. If you have broken just one of God's laws, then you cannot be in a right relationship with him. For he is perfect, and imperfection cannot dwell with perfection. Such thinking is also inadequate, because it totally fails to take into account how terrible human rebellion is in God's eyes. We think a few good deeds will make bend God's arm to let us into heaven. But any wrong doing is a deeply offensive act of rebellion against the God who lovingly made you and cares for you. And like Lady Macbeth, our good deeds are about as useless as water to wipe away our guilty consciences. And perhaps worse of all, such thinking is unbearable, because how do you ever know you have been good enough. No, if you think that you can get to God by your own good actions, then think again. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can never do enough. And you need to acknowledge that fact before you go any further.
But you know even Christians who have accepted the rescue can fall into this trap, the trap of falling for religion that is done by us. It is so easy to fall back into this and live not a life of freedom with God, but a life of guilt. We fear that God will be angry because we have let him down. Perhaps we've not read our Bibles for a while. Our prayer life is in tatters and we've let our morality slip a little in some way. The answer? Pray more, give more, read the Bible more, get up earlier, have a cold bath! Whatever it is, we think we must pay God back to get right with him again. It is so easy to allow our relationship with God to be conducted by guilt as opposed to the freedom of knowing we are a forgiven child of God and we live by grace and not by works. It's just as easy for us Christians to fall into credit card Christianity. Thinking we need to pay off the debt by doing a little better. Friends, to live like that is slavery and pride. To come back to the rescuer for forgiveness and strength is to live by grace, knowing we cannot possibly pay him back. And nor does he ask us to. So repent of DIY religion, and the proud folly of thinking we can do it ourselves. And instead look at what the writer says next about the rescue that is done for us.
2) Rescue that is done for us (Vv 5-18)
Because the big difference between Christianity and every other religion under the sun is the difference between do and done. "Do" religions are about us doing things to get to God, whether it be living a good life, following a path of enlightenment, sticking to a code or following a set of rituals. That is "do" religion. And the trouble with all of them, regardless of whether there may be elements of moral good and right in them, is that they fall down on this one point: Namely that nothing we can do is ever enough to get to us heaven. It's a daft as saying that we can build a tower to get to the moon. It doesn't matter how high the tower is, how morally good you are, it is never going to be enough. Rather what we need is for God to take the initiative and to do something for us. If we are ever going to get to God, then he must bridge the gap, because we cannot. And that says our writer, is precisely what has happened in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the rescue has been provided for us. And the writer tells us two things about this rescue:
a) Complete Sacrifice (Vv 5-14)- First it is a complete sacrifice. And to make his point, the writer quotes from Psalm 40 and applies those words to Jesus. Have a look at verse 5: "Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: 'Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, 'Here I am- it is written about me in the scroll- I have come to do your will, O God.'" We've already seen that sacrifices of bulls and goats cannot deal with the fundamental problem of human guilt and sin. But what if a perfect human being stepped forward. That would be a fair swap. Him for us. And that is exactly what has happened. When Jesus died on the cross, he was dying in our place, as our substitute, where we should be, taking the penalty for our sin. Jesus is the destination to which those signposts of the OT sacrifices were pointing! And what does that mean for us? Verse 10: "And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." The result is that all our guilt and sin can be taken away! It's as if Jesus has taken that huge credit card bill that we owe God for our moral rebellion and sin against him, and he's paid the debt. And across that bill written in the blood of Jesus is the word "Paid!"
Some years ago, there lived a doctor who practised in a rural village and who happened to be a professing Christian. After his death, his accountancy books were examined and under several names were the words written in red ink: Forgiven- too poor to pay." Well the doctor's wife was mean and tight fisted, and she took the case to court to ask the debtors to pay up all the money they owed. But when the judge examined the books, he asked the wife: "Is this your husband's writing?" "yes," she said. "Then, replied the judge, not a court in the land can touch those whose debts your husband has forgiven."
And if we are trusting this complete sacrifice of Jesus, then not a court in the universe can overturn God's verdict on our moral debt. For next to our names, in God's accounting book, so to speak, written in the blood of Jesus are the words, "Forgiven; debt paid." And how can we be so sure? Is there a chance God could hand us another bill on judgment day? Well no. Because of what the writer says in verses 11 and 12: "Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God." Significantly the OT priests who offered the sacrifices never sat down. There were no chairs in the Temple because they were always having to sacrifice because the sacrifices never fully dealt with sin. But what does Jesus do after he has paid for our sin? He sits down at God's right hand. It's a symbolic way of saying: "The job is done! Sin is paid for. You can go free!" And so in verse 14, God can say of us "You are perfect." Your debt is dealt with. You're free! Our past sins, our present sins and our future sins are all paid for. It is a complete sacrifice.
b) Complete Forgiveness- And that means secondly that there is complete forgiveness in verses 15-18. Because the writer quotes from an OT prophet called Jeremiah, who looked forward to a time when sin would be forgiven and forgotten. Verse 17: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." And our writer is saying that that time has now come. God is now able to forgive and forget sin. That's how comprehensive the cross is. It's not that God's memory is wiped. It's rather that there is no longer any record of our sins. They have been dealt with by Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. It's as if the record of all my wrong doing has been shredded and replaced with Jesus' perfect record. Except it's not his name at the top. It's mine. A free gift of grace from Jesus. Complete forgiveness. Sins forgiven and forgotten.
So as we finish, let me ask you two questions. First have you accepted the rescue of Jesus who died for you. This forgiveness is not given automatically. You must admit your pride and turn to him as the only way to come to God. For you cannot do it on your own. You must accept the rescue that is done for you. So have you done that? And secondly, if you have accepted the rescue, are you still trusting the cross? Or have you slipped into doing it yourself? Are you are living your Christian life by guilt? For many Christians that is the temptation, living under the heavy burden of thinking they must pay God back, thinking they owe God. It's as if the mortgage on your house has been paid off for you, and yet you are still straying to pay the bank a huge sum every month. It's been paid. Remember that. Look to the cross and remember that your debt has been paid. Stop living by guilt and live by grace, knowing the true freedom of being a child of God. Because that is the effect of the rescue that has been achieved for us by Jesus Christ. It's not about doing and trying to impress God. Because it's been done for you.
Air Florida flight 90 was a disaster, and yet amid that tragedy something amazing happened. Because the five people who survived would not have lived to tell the tale, were it not for the heroics of one man. As the helicopter hovered overheard to rescue the survivors, the line was dropped to one man, Arland Williams. Selflessly he handed the line to another passenger who was winched to safety. Four further times, Williams did the same. And when the helicopter came back a sixth time for him, he had gone, overcome by exhaustion. Those five people could do nothing to save themselves. They could only accept the sacrificial act of one man who died whilst saving them. And tonight the same challenge is before us. We can do nothing to save ourselves. So will we trust another who gave his life to rescue us?
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