|Looking to Jesus: The Perfect Sacrifice, Part I (Hebrews 9:11-28)
Looking to Jesus: The Perfect Sacrifice, Part I
Minister’s Summary: The ministry of a high priest is to officiate in sacrifices on behalf of the people. The beautiful truth of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself on our behalf is affirmed here. Jesus is both the one offering the sacrifice and the sacrifice that was offered.
In Hebrews 9:11-10:18, the preacher reaches the climax of his argument concerning the high priesthood of Jesus. The argument intends to ground the faith and hope of the people of God as a means of providing strength for the their journey toward the city of God. He grounds the faith of his people in the high priestly sacrifice of Jesus and his presentation of that sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary.
The Mosaic Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) is the immediate backdrop for the preacher’s words. He intentionally describes the work of Christ as the work of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Some familiarity with Leviticus 16 would be helpful.
The day was dedicated to fasting and rest (Leviticus 23:32) and apparently announced with trumpets throughout the land (Leviticus 25:9), which reflected the people’s sorrow and mourning over their sin. The high priest would immerse himself (wash his whole body) before he put on the sacred garments when on other days of ritual he would only wash his hands/feet (Lev. 16:4 with Exodus 30:19-21). The special garments symbolized holiness.
The day involved two sets of sacrifices. For his own house (the Aaronic priesthood), he offered a young bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering (Lev. 16:3, 5). He offered these first. Two goats were prepared for the sins of the people. However, the priesthood had to be sanctified before it could offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people.
With a censer full of burning coals, the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place. He placed some incense on the coals, which created a smoke that filled the Most Holy Place. This smoke would prevent him from seeing the mercy seat (cf. Lev. 16:13) for there was the presence of God himself (Lev. 16:2). Once the smoke filled the room, he would bring the blood of the bull into the room and sprinkle it on the mercy seat (Lev. 16:14). He would then go outside the tent to perform the “goat ritual.”
One of the goats (chosen by lot) was sacrificed as a sin offering, but other goat was released into the wilderness. The blood of the first goal was taken into the Most Holy Place. The high priest thus entered twice into the Most Holy Place to sprinkle blood, but on the same day. This purified the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 16:16). The goat released into the wilderness was sent with the sins of the people away from the dwelling-place of God and the people. The sins were laid on the goal through the laying on of hands (Lev. 16:21-22). After this ritual, the high priest again immersed himself and put on a new set of robes—his elaborate, ceremonial robes (Lev.16:24). Immersion rituals were important on this day, as you can see from Leviticus 16:26 and 28.
Once sin and defilement had been dealt with through the sin offerings and the scapegoat, the high priest offered burnt offerings to dedicate the priesthood and the people to God once again (Leviticus 16:27).
Jewish sources tell us that though the day began with solemnity and penitence (fasting), it ended with joy and celebration in the recognition that God had atoned their sins. Israel rejoiced at the re-emergence of the High Priest from the Most Holy Place—it was a dangerous journey into the presence of God that was concluded with great joy when he reappeared.
1. Hebrews 9:11-14
William Lane calls this text the “heart of the preacher’s argument” (Call to Commitment, 120). Against the backdrop of the Mosaic tabernacle (described in 9:1-10), the preacher focuses his attention on Christ’s “Day of Atonement” when the high priest enters the Most Holy Place with the blood of bulls and goats. These verses succinctly state the exalted view of the cross and his subsequent entrance into heaven (ascension) that the preacher wants to impress on his hearers.
Lane calls attention to the central continuity between the Mosaic ritual and Christ and then outlines four points of discontinuity. The point of continuity is that Christ entered the Most Holy Place by means of blood to make atonement for the people. The points of discontinuity are: (1) Jesus entered a heavenly sanctuary rather than an earthly one; (2) Jesus approached God with his own blood rather than the blood of animals; (3) Jesus entered once for all rather than once a year; and (4) Jesus secured eternal redemption rather than annual cleansing. I would add one further discontinuity: Jesus cleanses the conscience rather than simply a function of external cleansing.
I think the purpose clause of verse 14 is particularly significant. We need cleansed consciences so that we might worship/serve the Living God. This is in contrast with Hebrews 9:9 where the worshipper is hindered by such. God effects atonement so that we might fully and intimately serve/worship him without restriction and restricted access. The “acts that lead to death” are the acts of sin (not Mosaic ritual; cf. Hebrews 6:2).
The reference to the “eternal Spirit” is a bit elusive. Some think it refers to Jesus’ own eternal spirit by which, by his eternal life, he offered his own death to the Father. However, since the word “Spirit” is used in Hebrews of the Holy Spirit and never in reference to Jesus’ own spirit, it probably best to think of this in terms of the qualifying and empowering work of the Holy Spirit. By the power of the eternal Spirit of God, Jesus lives to offer himself to the Father and sit at his right hand. Eternal redemption is rooted in the eternal life of God whose Spirit is the power and agent of the work of the Son.
2. Hebrews 9:15-22
Eternal redemption secures an eternal inheritance. As the redemption and inheritance fulfill the Mosaic covenant and are the reality to which they point, there is a need for a new covenant. Jesus is the mediator of this new covenant—the real covenant, not the shadow.
The reality even is the reality that forgave the sins under the shadow. The preacher claims that the sins, which were forgiven in the Mosaic rituals, were actually forgiven on the basis on the reality, not the shadow. The people of Israel experienced real forgiveness (Psalm 32, 51), but their forgiveness was based on the reality of the work of Christ. The blood of Jesus also forgave sins under the old covenant (cf. Romans 3:25-26). Israel experienced that forgiveness through the shadow (through the rituals), but the reality of their forgiveness was not based on the shadow (blood of animals). Nevertheless, the reality of forgiveness is through a blood ritual, the blood of Jesus as our high priestly victim. The new covenant is the reality to which the old covenant pointed.
The preacher digresses in verses 16-22 to explain why the death of Christ was necessary. It was necessary not only because of the need for a blood ritual, but also because a covenant (will—same word in Greek in this section) is placed into effect through death. The preacher uses the ambiguity of the Greek word for “covenant” to connect the death of Christ with both covenant-making by blood ritual and also “testament” (wills) enactment after the death of the testator (the one who made the will). The new covenant is effected by a sacrificial death that makes a new covenant and which is put into effect (the reality is manifested and secured) after the death of the testator.
3. Hebrews 9:23-28
Just as the Mosaic covenant was enacted with blood, so the new covenant was enacted with blood precisely because the Mosaic action was a copy (shadow) of the true (real). Moses patterned his actions after the real, and the reality is the death of Christ.
The preacher returns to his Day of Atonement analogy in terms of shadow and reality. Jesus entered the heavenly tabernacle—this is the reality. This is what secures redemption. The preacher focuses on the discontinuities of the old and new in order to exalt the new—he does not intend to denigrate the old. Rather, salvation history has come to completion with the revelation and actualization of what is decisively redemptive—the work of Christ on the cross and in the presence of God.
That work is viewed in terms of past, present and future—cross, now in the presence of God interceding for us, and coming again. The fullness of our redemption will only be revealed in the end—that will be the ultimate reality (salvation). The certainty of Christ’s work and ultimate victory in the second coming is as certain as death itself!
Consequently, don’t give up the journey. Continue to persevere in faith. Your redemption is an eternal one; your inheritance is an eternal one. When Christ comes a second time, your salvation will be fully revealed and the kingdom of God (the fullness of reality) will be yours.
Theologically, it is important to remember that the preacher does not think of the cross of Christ in isolation from his entrance into heaven. The cross, ascension (assumed resurrection), and presentation in the presence of God is one movement with three parts. We should think of this as a unified whole. The living Christ presents his own blood in the presence of God for our redemption. Too often evangelicals emphasize the death of Christ to the undervaluing of the redemptive significance of the resurrection and ascension.
But the preacher believes that the altar (sacrifice of the blood in the death of Christ) is useless without the presentation of that blood by the living priest in the heavenly sanctuary. The two must go together. It is one movement—it must be conceived holistically. Death and Resurrection are the gospel, and the preacher conceives the resurrection, at least in part, as the means for the living Christ to present his sacrifice to the Father through entrance into the Most Holy Place, the dwelling-place of God.
That living Christ presented his blood to the Father and remained at the side of the Father (at his right hand), and will remain there until he appears again at his second coming. The preacher reflects a grand vision of redemptive history: the Son comes, offers himself as a sacrificial victim, through resurrection life presents his own blood to the Father, remains at the right hand of the Father to intercede for his people, and then comes again to bring the fullness of salvation. This is the preacher’s understanding of salvation history.
The Mosaic covenant prefigured it. It was a shadow, a pointer to that reality. It led the people to that reality. But the reality is the work of the Son through incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession and second coming. Christology is his soteriology; it is the fulfillment of Mosaic yearnings, pointings and anticipations. It is the reality of salvation; the eternal Son brings eternal redemption through his eternal priesthood. The Son appeared at the “end of the ages” and his return will be the consummation of the age as we experience the fullness of salvation. We are in the “last days” anticipating the “last day”—the day of eternal salvation.
The theological significance is that this is a thorough cleansing—it cleanses the heart of guilty stains. Our defiled consciences hinder worship. They hinder relationship with God. Our guilt burdens us and prevents a full intimacy with God. However, the blood of Jesus cleanses those guilty stains as the hymn of William Cowper states:
There is a fountain filled with blood/ Drawn from Immanuel’s veins / And sinners plunged beneath that flood/ Loose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see/ That fountain in his day;/ And there may I, though vile as he,/ Wash all my sins away.
The application of this text is directly related; it seems to me, to the function of the blood of Christ cleansing our guilty consciences. What the blood of bulls and goats could not accomplish, the blood of Jesus could. It is the definitive and decisive offering which washes away all sin. It provides “eternal redemption”—it takes away sin.
Some acquaintance with the Day of Atonement would be helpful since the preacher’s argument depends on an analogy with that day. As in discussing the tabernacle, it is important to give a sense of how deeply holy and significant that day was. It began with fasting, penance and mourning for sin, it progressed with anticipation as the people watched the sacrificial killings and waited for the re-emergence of the High Priest from the Most Holy Place, and then culminated in washings, burnt offerings and joyous celebration (gratitude) for the atonement secured. Indeed, we might think about our own sense of excitement when we hear conversion narratives, witness baptisms, see restorations, etc.
Our discussions can turn on how guilt obstructs our approach to God, and how the blood of Christ is God’s final resolution to that guilt. The focus could then shift to our gratitude for that redemption and the hope of eternal inheritance, which that redemption secures.
Our discussions could also turn on how this encourages our journey of faith. How does this theological substance empower us for the journey? How does it ground perseverance?
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