The Work of the Mediator

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 24, 1998

Hebrews 9:15-28

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Turn with me to Hebrews 9 as we continue our study of this great book.  The last time we were together in this passage, we were looking at the first half of Hebrews 9 and we are going to pick up with the second half.  The first thing I would say is there is a sense in which the argument of the second begins in verse 11. We are going to pick up our reading at verse 15, but one of the things we are going to do early on is walk through verses 11-14 which set the stage for the summary argument of this whole chapter that is found in verse 15. As we have already seen, author of Hebrews has been arguing that Jesus is not only a better high priest but that he has also obtained to a more excellent ministry than the priest of the Old Covenant because He is the mediator of a better covenant. And the question is in what sense is the New Covenant a better covenant than the Old Covenant. And the author of Hebrews is in the midst of answering that question and takes a detour that runs from Hebrews 8:7 to about 9:10 in order to set the stage for continuing his argument. In Hebrews 9:11, he picks up that argument again answering that question. He is saying that this is why he said that Jesus was the mediator of a better covenant. Let me explain in light of what I have just said to you in the foregoing verses.

So you remember from our study of Hebrews 9:1-14 that in verses 1-5 he describes for us the tabernacle and in verses 6-10 he focuses on the Holy of Holies. Then he begins to draw implications and in the verses following of the significance of Old Testament worship. All of that is setting us up to understand the author of Hebrews’ argument of why the New Covenant superior to the old.

Let’s pull back and remember something we have said over and over in our studies. He is writing to people who are apparently being tugged with the possibility that they are entertaining in their own hearts of going back to some form of Judaism. They have made Christian professions, but they are toying with the idea of going back to some reformed form of Judaism, maybe the Essenes near the Dead Sea had influenced them. And the author of Hebrews is bringing to bear every theological argument that he can dig up from his understanding of the superiority of Jesus Christ and he is contrasting the outmoded forms of the Old Covenant with the new light of the New Covenant. He is laying out his argument in light of that temptation which this congregation is experiencing.  And by definition if they are tempted to going back to older forms, they are tempted to think that Jesus is not solely sufficient in His finished work and they are tempted to think in terms of doing things themselves apart from Christ which gets them into fellowship with God.  And the author of Hebrew’s whole argument is to absolutely trash that kind of thinking. That’s what we have before us here in Hebrews 9, beginning in verse 15.  Let’s hear God’s word.  

Hebrews 9:15-28 

“Our Father, we thank You for this glorious word and as we attempt to chew and to spiritually digest just the very cream, the very outline of this glorious passage, we pray that You would flood our minds with a fresh appreciation for the grace which is ours in Jesus Christ and that You would keep us, O Lord, from that proneness to wander from Him, but that we would ever glory in His soul-sufficient death and mediation on our behalf.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.” 

Now all throughout the Book Of Hebrews we have argued that the author is attempting to explain to us the superiority of Jesus Christ, not simply to say “Look, our Jesus is a better priest than ever has been before, but to explain to us that He is superior in such a way that the only hope of salvation is found in Him and that there is no going back to the priestly forms of the Old Testament.

In this passage the author continues to pile on arguments for Jesus’ primacy and for the sufficiency of His work on our behalf and to draw implementations from His completed work that radically impacts our understanding of how we relate to Him, how we are saved, and how we are to live as Christians.

I would like for you to look in outline at the argument of this passage tonight. First in verse 15, we have a summarization of the argument of the whole chapter.  In that verse we are taught that Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant.  Again, the idea of mediator is one that is very familiar to us. The mediator comes between estranged parties and works to effect their reconciliation. That is what a mediator does. So the very presence of a mediator implies that there is estrangement, that there is need for reconciliation. So throughout this passage, throughout all of Hebrews, the underlying assumption is that we are estranged from God because of sin and there needs to be mediation.

But the author of Hebrews is specifically arguing, having laid that as the foundation, that there is only mediator who can do that task and that we cannot look to anything else. We cannot look to our own works. We cannot even look to the shadows of the work of mediation which existed in the Old Covenant because we now live in the time post-Pentecost, in the time of the New Covenant where the one, true mediator has been revealed. He was the reality to which all those Old Testament types were pointing and to go back to the types is to reject the reality. So over and over the author of Hebrews is stressing that you must not run from Christ, you must not wander from Christ, you must not go from Christ to anyone else. Because if you leave Christ to go back to the old shadows, you are rejecting the reality in favor of the things which were simply pointers to the reality.  And so you are rejecting Christ totally by doing that and you are rejecting the only way back into fellowship and reconciliation to God.

So here in this passage it is stressed that Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant and we have already seen the author of Hebrews quoting from Jeremiah 31:31-34, which in the only passage in the whole of the Old Testament prophecies which explicitly speaks of a New Covenant. We have the author of Hebrews applying the fulfillment of that passage to the work of Christ and saying, “Look Jesus Christ is the one who brought about those things which were prophesied by Jeremiah and there is no one else but Him who fulfills that reality. He is the reconciler in the New Covenant.  He is the One who brings together a strange man with his God. And so in this passage you see for this reason the author arguing this point and I have just written it out for you that Christ’s effective atoning death manifests Him to be the mediator. It is Christ’s death that shows Him to be the mediator of the New Covenant. In fact it is the basis of Him being called the mediator. In other words, His work of dying on our behalf is at the very heart of what it means for Him to be the mediator. Now that is very pregnant concept. It is full of mercy and blessing and truth. And so the author is going to spend a whole chapter simply explaining what that means. 

I. Christ’s effective, atoning death manifests Him as mediator.

Let’s look at verse 15 again. “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant so that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed unto the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” 

Now the argument is for this reason, He is mediator of the new covenant?  For what reason?  That reason is summarized in the words “since a death has taken place for the redemption of the iniquities under the first covenant.” But he has really been laying out that argument from verse 11 on. Let’s go back and look at verses 11-14. Let me briefly outline the flow of the argument because it is confusing at first. But when you see it laid out, it makes perfect sense.

In verse 11, the author proceeds to demonstrate that Jesus was a high priest of a temple not made with hands. So in contrast to the Old Covenant priest who ministered in an earthly temple, the author of Hebrews says let me tell you, Jesus was a high priest of a heavenly temple. So you see there the superiority of His ministry — not an earthly temple, but a heavenly temple. 

Then look at verse 12. Then he says, “He entered into the blood, into the holy place, into the heavenly temple, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood.” So that is the second way that He is superior. He did not have to offer sacrifices other than the sacrifice of Himself. It was by His own blood, by His own merit that He entered into that temple.

Furthermore, we are told in verse 12 that His sacrifice was not repetitious, but once for all. And it actually obtained eternal redemption. So all of those things are piled up in verse 12. Then in verses 13 and 14, the author goes on to argue that if the blood of bulls and goats, all those sacrifices in the Old Covenant, if they had, in fact, been able to forgive sins in and of themselves, then the death of Christ would not have been necessary. But the fact that He is offered as the sacrifice shows us the ability of His sacrificial death to cleanse our consciences.

You remember over and over in this passage, the author says the very repetition of those sacrifices did what every year? It reminded those who went up to Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement that they needed forgiveness of sin and they had to do it year after year after year after year. And, hence, the author says the Old Testament system, though it was designed by God’s grace (and we are going to see that in a few moments) it was not able to give you the kind of full assurance that only trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ can give you. Because every year you had to be reminded that you needed forgiveness of sins. Whereas we who live under the glories of the New Covenant have a once-for-all sacrifice and there is nothing more coming back to us to say, “Now there has to be another sacrifice offered this year in order that you can be right with God. And another sacrifice offered next year so that you can be right with God.”

So the author of Hebrews in verses 13 and 14 argues that Jesus’ death actually brings about the cleansing of conscience. In contrast to the symbolic and ineffective and temporary character of the Old Covenant rituals, Christ’s priestly work, Christ’s sacrifice, actually brings about redemption, it effects redemption, and it is eternally effective. It never has to be repeated again. This is the flow of argument and then you run into the words in verse 15 “And for this reason, He is the mediator of the New Covenant.” You follow the line of thought? In light of all that, of those things, He is the mediator of a new covenant; that is, the basis and expression of Christ’s mediatorship in the new covenant is His sacrificial death. Through His sacrificial death, the promises of the new covenant have been brought about.

Now remember, when Jesus was explaining to His disciples the meaning of His death on the night of His crucifixion, what words did He take them back to? We know from Matthew and Mark, that He took them back to Exodus 24, “this is the blood of the covenant.” We know from Luke and from Paul that He took them back to Jeremiah 31, “this is the new covenant in my blood.” So Jesus takes the disciples right where the author of Hebrews takes them to explain His death. “If you want to understand My death, you need to understand that My death is the thing that brings about the promises which God prophesied hundreds of years of ago through Jeremiah and through Isaiah and through Ezekiel and even all the way back to Moses. My death brings about those promises.  That’s what it means that I am the mediator of the new covenant.” 

The mediator’s death has taken place (and we are going back to verse 15 here); it has taken place for the redemption of sins committed under the first covenant. So He is pointing back to the covenant of Moses and saying that Jesus’ death even works backwards. It works backwards for all those who were trusting that God would send a Savior, would send a mediator, to bring about forgiveness of sins. So Jesus Christ’s death works both backwards and forwards. It works to forgive the sins of all those believers under the Mosaic covenant and it works forwards to forgive the sins of all those believers under the new covenant. Because all of this is under the eternal covenant of grace.

Leon Morris puts it this way: “The death that inaugurates the new covenant, Jesus’ death which brings about this new covenant, is seen as providing the way of forgiveness, even for those transgressions committed under the first covenant. The obvious inference is that such sins could not really be forgiven under the first covenant and that, therefore, the new covenant was an absolute necessity.”

Now you have to realize how absolutely shocking that would be to say to these folks from a Jewish background. He is saying let me explain something to you. All that sacrificial slaughter meant absolutely nothing apart from Christ. Take Christ away, it was absolutely meaningless. But with Christ’ sacrifice accomplished, then those Old Testament sacrifices take on the significance of being pointers to the real sacrifice. But they are only efficacious as instruments because of what He did in His death. That is a mind-boggling truth that the author has set forth.

Throughout you notice that the passage assumes that the covenant we are talking about has already been violated. In fact, the very fact that there were blood rituals in the Law of Moses proves to you that God never intended the law to be an alternative way of salvation in the covenant of grace.  The very fact that there was this whole host of ceremonial rituals to offer atoning sacrifices in light of sin lets you know that God was already setting up this sacrificial system in anticipation of His people violating the covenant. Therefore, there was never a possibility of salvation apart from divine atonement. Never a possibility of salvation in this fallen world apart from the grace of God in Christ. The law was not an alternative way. No. The law was the standard of living that God’s people were to walk after. And yet they were not going to walk in that way. They were going to be condemned by that standard and, therefore, in the very giving of the law itself, God gave sacrifices to provide for the people when they fell short of His standards. But those sacrifices themselves did not bring about any forgiveness of sins. They pointed forward to the one who was going to end the condemnation of God’s people once for all; that is, Jesus Christ.

What is so significant about this truth? There are several things. First, can you imagine the force of this argument? That people who were thinking about going back to Judaism and the author tells that them that going back to that old covenant form of religion will do you absolutely no good because its effectiveness is completely tied to the work of Christ. Take Christ away and it means nothing. So if you turn your back on Christ, the old covenant ritual does not even mean what it meant when it was originally given. The old covenant ritual becomes meaningless. What a tremendous argument the author is putting before these people. And yet we face the same struggle every time we attempt to turn away for the sole sacrifice, the sole instrument of reconciliation, the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, to anything else. We are facing the same dilemma that these people were in.

Notice also that the language of explanation here, of Christ’s death, is brutally commercial. Notice the language, “Jesus bought back the sins committed under the first covenant.” He bought those sins and therefore cleansed them. That is in and of itself the most significant argument for the sole sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death. If Jesus was doing this, if He was paying, if He was buying the penalty, if He was paying for the penalty of sin and buying back those sins committed by all those who believed in Him as savior by His death, is there any possibility of someone saying, “Well, okay, that is fine that He has done that, but I am going to get to God some other way. I am going to get tot God on my own. That is fine that Jus did that, but I have this other plan for coming into fellowship and relationship with God.”  This is the great argument for salvation alone in Christ, because if His work was to pay the penalty for the sins of those who believe on Him, is there any other way for that sin to be paid for? The author of Hebrews says no, there is only one way for that sin to be paid for and you can’t do it. Only the Son can do it. 

II. Why did the covenant mediator have to die?

Now verses 16 through 18 are hard, and if you are looking on in your own translations, you have wondered what is going on. If you have an NIV or an RSV or some of the other modern versions, even if you have a King James Version, you will notice differences in that passage. In verses 15 and 18 you will see the word covenant used in almost all of your translations. But in verses 16 and 17, you will see the word testament or last will and testament or will inserted. It is interesting because behind the English translation the Greek uses the same word over and over from verse 15 to 18. But it is very perplexing. Let me read it to you again so you can understand what we are getting at. “But where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead. For it is never enforced while the one who made it lives. Therefore, even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. Now that passage reads differently in different translations. And the reason is there are two elements in that passage that sound like a last will and testament rather than a covenant. First, last wills and testaments are always related in our minds to inheritance and this passage speaks of an inheritance. When we think of last wills and testaments, we think of inheritance. They go right together.

But also this passage speaks of the covenant not being enforced until the one who made it was dead. The fundamental difference between a covenant and a last will and testament is a covenant is a living agreement.  A covenant is an agreement between two parties who are alive. When a covenant goes into effect, it goes into effect immediately. It doesn’t go into effect after you die; it is a living agreement. Whereas a last will and testament doesn’t go into force until the testator dies. When the testator dies, then the family looks at the last will and testament. But in a covenant, we have a living agreement between living persons. But this passage seems to be talking about a testament, doesn’t it? Because it says that the testament is valid only when men are dead, for it is never enforced while the one who made it lives.

Let me say that there are good reasons for believing that we ought to translate this whole passage with the word covenant. Because the author of Hebrews is simply trying to explain to us the relationship between Jesus’ death to the covenant that he has already started talking about in verse 15. Think about it, why would he start talking about covenant in verse 15 and then switch to testament in verses 16, 17, and 18 and then go back to talking about covenant again in verses 18, 19, and following? It doesn’t make much sense.

Furthermore, there is a very interesting thing in this passage that helps us understand that what the author is talking about is, in fact, a covenant-making ceremony. Look at that strange verse 17. “For a covenant is valid only when men are dead.” Actually that phrase in the Greek doesn’t say when men are dead, it says a covenant is valid only over dead bodies. That is how it literally translates. If this is talking about a testament, you don’t need dead bodies; you just need one dead body. A testament comes into effect when one person, the testator, has died. Why the plural?  Why is he talking about bodies? You remember in Genesis 15 and the covenant-making ceremony where God told Abram to lay the bodies of the animals side by side and then God in the form of a smoking oven and the flaming torch passed between the pieces? What we see there are the dead bodies of the sacrificial animals slain symbolizing that if God is unfaithful to the covenant that He has made with Abram, be it done to Him as they have done to the dead bodies.

This passage makes perfect sense in light of the fact that God is talking here about a covenant-making ceremony and he is talking about what happens when a covenant is violated. You remember we said that throughout this passage the author of Hebrews is assuming a covenant that has been violated. What happens when a covenant has been violated? The oath of self-curse comes to pass and someone must die. In this case, God is saying though He had fulfilled every obligation of every promise that He had made to us, yet we had failed our responsibilities in the covenant and Jesus died in our place to fulfill the promises that God had given to Abram in Genesis 15. He is saying that Jesus is the mediator of our new covenant, because He has died in our place. He has taken upon Himself the things that we deserve. His death was the penalty for a broken covenant and God is saying all those old covenant sacrifices simply pointed forwarded to that glorious fact. The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ was going to take on penalty for sins that He had not committed in order that we might be redeemed. And that is what it means when it says He bought back sin. He Himself paid the penalty that we deserve.

What is the author doing then in that complex package? He is just telling you why Jesus had to die and is relating that explanation to covenant. And if I can take you back to the Last Supper passages in the gospels, remember that is precisely what Jesus explained to His disciples. When He wanted to explain to them why it was that on that next day He was going to be nailed to a cross, He took them right back to the blood of the covenant. And every time we celebrate Communion and you hear the word around your taking of the cup: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins, drink of it all of you.” You are hearing Jesus’ explanation of why He had to die. He is saying that you are in covenant with God, you violated that covenant, you deserve to die, I said to My Father, I want to die in her place, I want to die in his place, O Father, that You might be glorified and that they might be redeemed forever. And Jesus is saying that every time you come to that table, I want you to remember that you are in fellowship with My Father, not because of anything that you have done, but because of what I have done. I died in your place to fulfill the curses that should have fallen on your head. I died the death of a covenant-breaker, even though I was the one who was faithful to the covenant so that all you covenant-breakers who believe on Me, who trust in Me, who have faith in Me alone for your salvation, might come back into fellowship reconciled to God. 

III. Blood was the cleansing agent in old covenant ritual.

Now verses 19 through 23 simply expand on that argument. Verses 19 through 23 rehearse the way that blood was used in the old covenant ritual. Again, the stress is that those old covenant sacrifices could not by themselves bring about the cleansing of conscience and forgiveness of sins that God intends for His people. Better sacrifices were in store.  

IV. The finality and efficacy of Christ’s atonement shows its primacy.

And then in verses 24-28, the superiority of Jesus’ blood sacrifice is stressed.  His death is final and efficacious. Let’s look at it briefly together. He didn’t enter an earthly temple but into the presence of God, verse 24. He didn’t offer Himself yearly, but once for all time, verses 25 and 26. His death in contrast to the old covenant shadows actually did away with sin, verse 26. And in verses 27 and 28 we are told that when He appears again to us, it will not be to do another work of atonement. That work has been done once for all. It will be to bring judgment. But the judgment that He brings will mean salvation for all who trust in Him.

Now the author of Hebrews has laid out for us here the groundwork for the doctrine of grace. And the fundamental point of it is no one can come back into fellowship with God except in Christ. Because only Christ paid and was able to pay the penalty that we deserved for our violation of the covenant.  And the author of Hebrews is saying to these people not to look back to the old covenant rituals as their way into fellowship with God. They mean nothing apart from Jesus. And he is saying to us, “Don’t look at your works, your service, your status, your reputation, don’t look at anything but Christ for your reconciliation with God, for the basis of your fellowship with God. For apart from Him, there is no reconciliation; and in Him there is complete reconciliation and nothing needs to be added to it.        Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

“Heavenly Father, we thank You for beauty of the gospel of grace and we pray that as we continue to attempt to comprehend the height and breadth and depth and the love of God in Christ as it is set forth here in Hebrews, that You would flood our hearts with gratitude for Your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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