A final sacrifice - Hebrews 10:1-18
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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.
Now as we turn to our Bible passage this morning in Hebrews 10 that is the sort of distinction our writer has in mind when thinking about the man’s spiritual condition- the difference between providing treatment and offering a cure. As we shall see, Religion with a capital ‘R’ made up of rules and rituals, provides only a temporary treatment, whereas authentic Christianity with its life changing message provides a cure. So do turn with me to Hebrews 10.
First of all, the shadows of the past which point to the reality of the future-10:1 ‘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. 2If 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. 3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’
It is not easy being diagnosed as ill when you least expect it. I well remember my Granddad who for most of his 80 or so years hardly had a day’s illness being told he had diabetes. Granddad 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 solution was straightforward although 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 continually be applied, whereas a cure has a certain 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.
Now our author writing to these young Jewish Christians –hence the letter to the Hebrews- is saying something similar about the nature of Old Testament religion. He is saying 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 you say, ‘How do you know it was such a mere treatment?’ Well, for one thing because of the repetitive nature of the Old Testament sacrifices. As he says in verse 1, had they been completely effective – or to use his term-‘perfect’- then they would never have had to be repeated. But the fact that they were done year in year out just goes to show that like shots of insulin for the body they could only provide remedial treatment for the soul.
Or to change the imagery, in verse 1 we are told that God through the law of Moses stipulated this elaborate system of animal sacrifices but what this amounted to was a shadow of the reality which was yet to come, not the reality itself. Now a shadow itself has its own reality of course, it is not an illusion. So it is with Old Testament religion. A shadow of a person cast against a wall may to a greater or lesser extent capture the person’s shape in its outline, but it would be stupid to mistake the shadow for the person himself. Well, in a similar fashion, says our author, the Jewish sacrificial system is an anticipatory picture, a shadow or pointer to something better – the treatment is in place until the cure eventually arrives- then the shadow gives way to the reality.
What is more, the fact that these sacrifices had to be repeated would have aggravated the feelings of moral guilt and lack of assurance for the Jewish worshipper. The thoughtful Jew would have been thinking to himself, ‘If these sacrifices could put me in a right relationship with the pure, holy God of the universe, then why do I find myself caught up on the endless treadmill of religious ritual? Doing this over and over again?’ Just like the repeated tablets reminds the ailing patient he has a disease and is not cured, so the repeated sacrifices of bulls and goats reminds the religious Jew that the guilt of his sin has not be cured either- v3. However, at least it did spur some on to hope for a cure and take it when it eventually did come. They at least had the right categories and models in their minds to make sense of God’s provision when it finally came onto the world scene some 2,000 years ago. All this blood being shed in the temple, gallons of the stuff, underscored the seriousness of sin, that in God’s judgement we are deemed worthy of death. It also pointed to a merciful provision –that of a substitutionary sacrifice to take the place of the sinner- and that this was provided by God, not thought up by man, so that God’s anger was transferred away from the people onto the animal. That is the idea.
Well, now, says our writer, the shadow has given way to the reality, the ultimate substitute and sacrifice for sin has stepped into the breach, what was anticipated in the past has come in the present–vv 5-9 ‘5Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7Then I said, `Here I am--it is written about me in the scroll-- I have come to do your will, O God.' " 8First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). 9Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’
Who is he talking about? It is the Lord Jesus Christ of course. And he portrays Jesus as quoting a psalm of David, Psalm 40. Why? Well, King David was a very important figure in the OT. He himself felt the full weight of the inadequacy of that religion. He had fallen quite seriously with his adultery with Bathsheba, conspiracy to murder, deceit and intrigue and his soul was tormented as a result, as yours might be for something you have done. And as he became conscience stricken, God used David to speak prophetically, allowing him to enter into the mind of a future descendent of his, the priest-King, Jesus-v 7Then I said, `Here I am--it is written about me in the scroll-- I have come to do your will, O God.' " 8First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them"
So how does Jesus- the ‘I’- fulfil these words? In this way: Picture a Jewish worshipper taking a lamb into the temple to be sacrificed. Did that lamb have any thoughts about being sacrificed? Hardly. All it could do was go ‘ba’. Now think for a moment about the way we sin. We are tempted to make wrong choices aren’t we? Maybe tempted to go down a route we should not go down. Or to decide to not do something we know we should do. The fact is we choose to sin. At some point the will surrenders to the sinful thought. Sin occurs when that decision is made. And that is one reason why the blood of dumb animals can never be a satisfactory substitute for sin- is that animals cannot make moral choices, only human beings can. So if there is to be a substitute made which is a worthy substitute for men and women, it has to be , in the words of David a willing sacrifice, someone who can say, ‘ Here I am, take me.’ What is needed, then, is a perfect human sacrifice. But where is such a volunteer to be found? Where is the sinless, willing victim to be had? Well, certainly not from amongst the majority of the human race, we are the problem which needs the remedy. Now here is the amazing thing- the perfect God himself provides the perfect sacrifice in the person of his perfect Son. ‘Here I am’ says Jesus to his heavenly Father, ‘I have come to do your will. The body you have prepared for me, knit together in the Virgin’s womb, is to be a sacrifice for the sin of the whole world. This is the sacrifice you have required, not that of a dumb animal but a loving, obedient Son.’
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.
And the result? What was incomplete in time is now accomplished for all time-11-18 11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. 15The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16"This is the covenant I will make with the after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." 17Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." 18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.’
You know what it is like to have had a long, taxing day in the home or at work. The boss has been on your back, the backlog has had to be cleared, the kids have been playing up and then comes the point when you can flop into the easy chair and say, ‘Thank goodness for that. I haven’t been able to sit down all day.’ Do you know that feeling? Well, let me tell you something; the Old Testament priests also new that feeling only too well. Day after day, we are told, the priest had to stand offering one sacrifice after another, repeating the same old ceremonies and rituals over and over. Why did he stand? Well, because it indicated that more work had to be done. You only sit down for a rest after you have done the work. So again we have visual reminder that what OT religion offered was a treatment not a cure, you still had to keep taking the tablets. But not so with Jesus-v12 ‘But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.’ His sacrificing work is a finished work-v14 ‘by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.’
By ‘perfect’ he doesn’t mean that followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are morally perfect in the here and now for he also talks about them being ‘made holy’. Rather it is the idea that the sacrifice is complete, attaining its true goal for God’s people, which is what this word ‘perfect’ ‘telos’ means, the goal being brought into friendship with God. Why is this so important? Well, because it offers certainty which ritualistic religion cannot offer.
You see, ritualistic, rule based religion is the religion of the Wizard of Oz. You know the story. Dorothy the little girl from Kansas finds herself surrounded by brainless, heatless, spineless people in the persons of the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion. When Dorothy gets to the Emerald City, the Wizard says to her what many people think God says to us. Each of the characters comes to the Wizard with a need. Dorothy seeks a way home. The scarecrow wants wisdom, the tin man compassion, the lion courage. The Wizard of Oz, they hear, can grant all four. So they come into his presence shivering and trembling and present their requests. His response? He will help after they demonstrate their worthiness. ‘Bring me the witch’s broom’ he says ‘and then I will help you.’ So they do. They scale the castle walls and destroy the witch and in the process they discover some remarkable things about themselves. They discover they can overcome evil and do it all without the help of the Wizard. Which is a good job because when they get back to Oz they discover the Wizard isn’t a Wizard after all, just some huckster-a so called ‘professor’- who can put on a good performance but not help them with their problems. But the Professor redeems himself by what he shows this band of pilgrims. He tells them that they already have all that they need if only they realised it. After all didn’t the scarecrow display wisdom, the tin man compassion and the lion bravery in the way they dealt with the witch? Dorothy doesn’t need the help of Oz Almighty, she just needs a hot air balloon. Then Dorothy wakes up to find it was all a bad dream, her ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ home was right where it had always been.
The moral of the Wizard of Oz? Everything you need you already have. If you look down deep long enough and hard enough there is nothing you can’t do. There it is in the popular saying- ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ It is the idea that God started it and we must finish it. Prayer then becomes a token, (the real strength is ‘down here’ within, not ‘up there’ with God). Holy Communion becomes a ritual (the true hero is you and what you are doing, not him and what he has done). Your faith is strong as long as you are strong. Your life is good so long as you are good. But there is the rub- we are not good, we are not always strong and so we are not always secure. DIY religion is not very helpful for those who are useless at DIY, whose life shelves are crooked, and whose tables are wobbly. I can’t carry my sin, it wears me out. I need someone who will carry it for me, better still bury it. And if the truth be known, so do you. And our writer says, there is such a one and his name is Jesus.
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.
Our best efforts are never enough but Christ’s death is more than enough. Notice that in verse 13? ‘Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.’ There is no more to be accomplished- except the Second Coming. Sure it is a work which is to be proclaimed, it is a message which is to be believed and worked through, but it doesn’t have to be completed by any additions from us. And maybe you are here this morning and yet not a Christian. Sure, you have some affection for the church, but you know nothing of the Saviour and the forgiveness he brings, guilt is your constant companion. If so then that can all change. Or maybe you are a Christian but your assurance is lacking. You have let things slip, you have said or done something which troubles you. Well, there is only one you are to come to and confess, not me, but Jesus and hear the words of verse 17, ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." Not that God ignores your sins, but that he has dealt with them- in other words God offers you the cure not just the treatment.
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