The Lord's Day Morning
November 25, 2007
“Always Keeping Jesus at the Center of Everything
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, and the ninth chapter. And as you’re doing that, let me take this opportunity to welcome back many of our college students…and I see scattered here and there throughout the congregation, back for Thanksgiving. We miss you; wonderful to see you all here again this morning. I trust you've had a wonderful time with your family.
Now our text is going to be found in verses 13-14 of Hebrews 9, but in order for us to catch something of a context, and because it is crucial that we do catch something of a context here, I want us to begin to read back in the eighth chapter and the very final verse of chapter eight. And before we read the passage together, let's ask God's blessing. Let's pray.
Father, we dare not even read the Scriptures unless You come and help us understand. So Holy Spirit, illuminate our minds and our hearts, and move our affections as we read Your word. You caused it to be written; holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. So once again we ask, come; help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hebrews 8, beginning at verse 13:
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Amen. May God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now as we were reading that section, if you haven't been in it recently you might be asking yourselves, “What in the world has all of that to do with me?” We live in a very different world. We don't live in the world of tents with outer sections and inner sections, Holy Place and Most Holy Place. We live in a world of laptops and iPods and Blue Tooth…and hand sanitizers. And antibiotics. And scented candles. And pristine offices with air conditioning. And beach homes. And I could go on. It's a very different world to the world that's being described here in Hebrews 8 and 9 that we were just reading together.
You might be saying, “I've never seen the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer.”
I grew up on a farm–you know this already. I only went to an abattoir [slaughterhouse] once. I was a teenager…I was 13, 14, somewhere around there. I remember it as though it were yesterday. I can still bring to mind now…I'm not going to describe it to you, but I can still bring to mind of something that's forty years ago. I could describe the layout of the abattoir, the geography of it. I can remember some of the instruments. I can remember the killing of an animal — a cow…and the rest of it. I can remember the smell vividly (and I grew up on a farm).
Most of us have never seen the ritual sacrifice of a bull or a goat, or this red heifer — something that's described in Numbers 19.
Well, some of you have. Some of you have just done it yesterday, the day before. Hunters, you can enter into this world a little bit. Some of us may find it a little more difficult, a little more strange. The closest you come to meat is Kroger or Sam's, and then you perhaps don't handle it. You carefully remove the cellophane and just let it fall into the pan, and you carefully sear it. You wash your hands with a ritual now that is done almost automatically (we trust).
So what do you do with a passage like this? You might be tempted to say, “This has nothing to do with me.” You might dismiss it. You might nod off for 25 minutes or so until the service ends, safe and secure in the thought that “This passage has nothing whatsoever to do with me. It may be of interest to those who like this sort of thing, but it's of no interest to me.” And I want to tell you this morning that this has everything to do with you, and everything to do with me.
This passage is describing for us a “how much more” argument. It's drawing a contrast (actually several contrasts) between worship under the old covenant and worship under the new covenant; worship that involved tents, tabernacles, temples, outer courts, inner courts, the sacrifice of animals, the shedding of blood, ritual cleansing….and the blood of Jesus. I want us this morning to give our attention to this. Maybe some of it is strange; maybe some of it is very strange, but I want to say to you this morning that unless we are covered by the blood of Jesus, then we're lost. And unless we're covered by the blood of Jesus on the Day of Judgment, we are lost forever. So give our attention to this we must.
There are four contrasts established in this passage. Look at verses 13 and 14:
“If the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purifications of the flesh…”
I. A contrast in time.
Let's pause there. You notice back in verse 9 the opening verse is describing for us the tabernacle. It's describing what he calls a tent, the tent which as you well recall was divided into two sections: an outer court and an inner court — the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place — and separated by a veil. Only the high priest could ever enter into the Most Holy Place, and then only once a year, and then not without the blood of atonement. He's told us that he hasn't time to describe everything about the geography and the significance of all of the furniture and paraphernalia of the tabernacle, but he says in verse 9 that by this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the Holy Place is not yet opened, as long as the first section is still standing. And then in parentheses in verse 9: “…which is symbolic for the present age.” There's something called “the present age.”
Now drop your eyes down to the end of verse 10, because we see a contrast. There's something called “the time of reformation.” There's the present age, and there's the time of reformation. The time of reformation is the time when all of these Old Testament things get reformed, get changed. We understand what the time of reformation means. It's the new covenant. It's New Testament worship. It's worship as you and I know it, coming in the name of Jesus Christ into the presence of our Father clutching only the name of Christ, believing solely in Him. No ritual sacrifices. The only red thing in here is the carpet and what you’re sitting on, at least if you’re down here. The time of reformation. We live in the time of reformation. We don't worship in tents. We don't worship in a tabernacle. We don't worship in a temple. We don't slaughter bulls and goats and heifers.
But wasn't the writer of Hebrews living in the days of reformation? How come he says “which is symbolic for the present age”? That sounds like the age in which he was living. How come he's calling the age in which he was living after Christ, after the cross, after resurrection–how come he's still calling it “the present age”? Isn't it the age of the reformation?
Well, no. He's writing to Jews — Christian Jews, believing Jews, Jewish Christians; Jewish Christians who perhaps were still worshiping in the temple. How long after their conversion would Jews stop going to the temple? If you lived in Jerusalem, you’d always gone to the temple. You’d gone there perhaps every day. When would you stop going to the temple? You’d go to the synagogue. You’d worship Jesus. But perhaps you’d still be going to the temple. I think some of them were still going there; that's a part of the reason why the writer of Hebrews is writing this letter. Some of these Jewish Christians had been persecuted by fellow Jews. Some of them had apostatized. Some of them were finding the way forward difficult. He's writing to them to instruct them. He's writing to them to encourage them. And for some of them who are still attending the temple…and the temple wouldn't be destroyed until A.D. 70…Hebrews is written probably in the early 60's. There may be five, six, seven years more before the temple is finally destroyed and this temptation would no longer be theirs. But for the time being some of them are still living in the present age.
Turn back again to that closing verse of chapter 8. You see the clue?
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
It hasn't quite vanished away yet. In theory it has; there should have been no need to go to the temple once Jesus had died and had risen again. But some of them are still going there, and until the temple actually got destroyed when Emperor Titus would come and destroy Jerusalem and destroy the temple along with it, it is ready to vanish away but it is not yet. He's drawing a contrast in time. There's the present age — it's actually the old covenant with its ritual, with its sacrifices, with its tabernacle and tents and temples and so on — and then there's the time of reformation. A contrast in time.
II. A contrast about blood.
The second contrast is a contrast about blood. The blood of bulls and goats, the blood of a red heifer [a ritual described in Numbers 19]…and the blood of Christ. The blood of Jesus. There's the blood of animals that was offered over and over and over, and there's the blood of Christ that was offered once. Once for all. Never to be repeated ever again. A blood that seemed by its constant repetition offered not only on behalf of the people but also on behalf of the high priest, a blood that seemed to indicate that it was ineffective. Whatever it was pointing to, whatever it was demonstrating, it was essentially ineffective because you had to do it over and over and over.
And then there's the blood of Jesus that was offered once for all, that secured an eternal redemption, that speaks of power and efficacy and accomplishment. We’re talking about, yes, what older theologians might have called blood theology. Now not everybody likes blood theology. Bishop Spong — Bishop Shelby Spong has written: “I choose to loathe rather than worship a deity that required the sacrifice of His Son.” 1 I choose to loathe such a deity, he says; but we glory in it. We glory in it. Robert Lowery's hymn:
“O precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Or we sing William Cowper's hymn:
“There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.”
Or we sing Charles Wesley's hymn:
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness…”
[actually I think it's von Zinzendorf's hymn, isn't it?]
“My beauty are, my glorious dress;
‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy … I lift up my head.”
There's a contrast here between the blood of animals and the blood of Jesus.
What did the shedding of the blood of these animals signify? Well, it signified many things. It signified that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. It signified what the curse of the covenant actually meant: that the soul that sins shall die; that in order for atonement to be made, in order for sinners to be reconciled to God, in order for sinners to be redeemed and set free from their bondage, a price has to be made and that price is the death of a sacrificial victim.
But these animals could never atone for sin. They could not do that. They were wholly incapable of doing that despite the fact that they were carefully chosen. They were unable to forgive sins, and God sends His own Son, of which these were just types and foreshadowings. And He sent His Son into this world to die for us, to shed His blood for us, to be our substitute, to be our sin-bearer, to take upon himself our sins, to receive the judgment that our sins deserved; that “He was made sin for us, who knew no sin that we might be reckoned the righteousness of God in Him.” There's a contrast here between old covenant and new covenant — the “present age,” as he calls it, and the age of reformation. But there's a contrast here also between blood: the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes, the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer for uncleanliness…and the blood of Jesus that cleanses from all sin.
III. A contrast about conscience.
But there's a third contrast. There's a contrast about conscience. A contrast about conscience. What the writer of Hebrews is endeavoring to say to us is that the very repetition of these sacrifices under the old covenant in what he calls “the present age” (because the temple was still standing)…what these constant sacrifices of animals seemed to portray was that they could never cleanse the conscience. All they could do was purify to the sanctifying of the flesh.
He makes this strange allusion to the ashes, the sprinkling of the ashes of an heifer. It's a ritual you’ll find in Numbers 19.
Supposing you lived under the old covenant. Supposing you lived in, say, Nazareth. Not in Jerusalem, but Nazareth. And that would be a two-day journey or so, maybe three, to Jerusalem. Just like Thanksgiving, like some of you are sitting all in families here, with grandparents and parents and children. And you’d all be obligated if you lived in Nazareth for one of the great feasts like the Day of Atonement. You’d be obligated to go to Jerusalem. You’d have to make that trek. You’d have to shut up shop and take your wife and parents and Aunt Maude and the children and the bairns, and take them all to Jerusalem. Some of them perhaps couldn't walk, so they would go in a cart. Imagine. Just let yourself imagine for a minute that you’re making your way to Jerusalem. And Aunt Maude is 98. You know…it's warm, and she's sort of nodding off, and she's leaning up against you. Her head is on your shoulder. And all of a sudden you realize she's awful quiet. And you know, you reach out your hand and you say, “Aunt Maude?” And there's no response. And lo and behold, horror of horrors, Aunt Maude had died in the cart on the way to Jerusalem.
And now what? Well, of course there's a funeral, but you can't go to the temple now. You are ritually unclean now because you've touched someone who's dead. It was the price of living under the old covenant. God was teaching them like children the consequences of living in a fallen world, about the extremity of sin. And the only way to recover from that was to undergo this ritual of the sprinkling of the ashes of the heifer. A red heifer (red perhaps being significant because of its color and blood and so on) was ritually killed outside of the camp. The priest would dip his finger in its blood and sprinkle it in the direction of the tabernacle, and then it was burnt and the ashes were put in water. And this water containing these ashes was used for this ritual purification…until you touched another dead body, and you’d have to go through it all again. And you know there are times in our lives when it's impossible not to touch a dead body. Well, perhaps not for some of us now, but in those days it certainly wasn't.
Do you understand? There's a contrast here about conscience. All these Old Testament rituals could ever do was sanctify externally to the purifying of the flesh, but couldn't cleanse the conscience. They couldn't take away guilt, and that's our great problem, isn't it? It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what college you go to, whether you won or lost, what your income is, what your job is. Doesn't matter. It's the same problem. We all have it. It's the problem of a guilty conscience. Not just guilt feelings, but guilt in the sight of God. Because we're all sinners. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no, not one.” That's your problem; it's my problem.
How can I find a gracious God? It was Luther's great question. How can I find a gracious God? How can I find someone who will cleanse my conscience? Who can present me faultless before God's throne of judgment? How can I find the answer to the predicament that sin brings me to? That when I'm brought before the Day of Judgment and brought before that grand assize, I'm brought before the sovereign God of the universe — how can I pass that? How can I get through that?
And do you see what the writer of Hebrews is saying to these Jewish Christians? The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes, the sprinkling of the ashes of an heifer, all that did was purify to the sanctifying of the flesh. It was all external. But the blood of Christ can cleanse our conscience. It can do what nothing else can do: enable me, a guilty sinner, to come before God–the only God there is, a holy, righteous God, and I can call Him “Abba!” I can call Him “Father!” I can come where no priest could go. I come beyond the veil, the veil that was rent at the death of Jesus, because I can come into God's presence. It's a contrast about conscience.
“Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered His blood and died.
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside.”
Isn't that what we sing?
IV. A contrast about life and death.
And there's a fourth contrast, a contrast about life and death. Because the writer of Hebrews says, you know, there's a sense in which the unbeliever, the unregenerate person, for all the works that he does…and some of those works are good in themselves, but all they do is lead to death. Dead works is what he calls them.
But what does the blood of Christ do? It cleanses our conscience. And you notice the language that he uses in verse 14? It purifies “our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” In Greek, and also in Hebrew, the word to serve…the verb to serve belongs to the same family as the verb to worship. To serve, to worship; to worship is to serve; to serve is to worship. I've been set free by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, who shed His blood for me…who died for me…that I might worship Him…that I might serve Him…that I might be able to say this morning,
“Praise, my soul, the King of heaven!
To His feet thy tribute bring;
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who, like me, His praise to sing?”
Is that your song this morning? Because I want to say to you, whoever you may be and whatever it is that you've done, Jesus says to you,
“Come unto Me…come unto Me, all ye that are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
He will set you free; free to serve Him, free to worship Him.
Let's sing together, shall we, the words of No. 305, Arise, My Soul, Arise.
Now receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
1. "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," Christianity Today, June 15, 1998
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