Yesterday’s reading ended with the triumphant message that Christ’s sacrifice was once for all time, sufficient to do away with sin, at the culmination of the ages. He ushered in the gospel age, which spans the entire period between his first and second comings.
Today’s chapter continues to major on the ineffectiveness of the sacrifices of the Law, as illustrated by the need to perform them year after year, day after day. All they achieve is to remind those worshippers of their sinfulness and guilt. Hebrews contrasts all that with the totally effective and all-sufficient death of Christ on the cross. It begins with a repeated quotation of Psalm 40:6-8. In essence, God did not desire ‘sacrifices’, ‘offerings’, ‘burnt offerings’ and ‘sin offerings’ (four of the five prescribed kinds in Leviticus – leaving out only the ‘guilt offering’). Instead, he wants heart-felt obedience and submission to his will.
In the Jerusalem temple at that time: “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” (v11). The Old Covenant priest had to stand, given that his work was never completed. Standing is a working gesture.
But then we read: “When this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God (the ‘sitting’ indicating a task fully completed) and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy” (vv12-14). Forgiveness having been decreed, there is now no longer any need for further sacrifices. Three times in two chapters we have been told that it was ‘once for all time’. Important!
The heresy of today’s Roman Catholic Mass, for example, is that it is declared a true and actual sacrifice, and it purports to be necessary as part of our forgiveness; it can also only be administered by a professional ‘priest’. But Hebrews 10 summarily dismisses this pretention as ‘obsolete’, just like the Old Covenant. We have no more need of candles, altars, priests in ancient robes, so-called sacrifices repeated endlessly, ancient rituals, special times and seasons, incense, and works of atonement. All have been both spiritually fulfilled and now swept away by the all-complete sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary, once for all time.
Not all traditional forms of worship are wrong, however. For example, the words of the 350-year-old Book of Common Prayer sometimes cannot be improved upon (excuse the ancient language): “All glory be to thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation (offering) of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world…”. In other words: job done!
So, what is left for us to do? Hebrews 10:19-23 encourages us to actually enter the Holy of Holies – the very presence of God (yes, us!). It tells us to draw near to God in full confidence of forgiveness and cleansing, and to hold on to our great hope in the Faithful One. Hebrews 10:24-25 then continues: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as we see the day approaching”. Giving up meeting together is both discouraging to ourselves and discouraging to others. I can think of only one good reason to stay away: that is if your presence is more discouraging than your absence!
This great and lengthy chapter ends with the fourth of the five warnings of Hebrews. This time verses 26-31. It warns us not to desert our calling and our Lord and Saviour. There is no other sacrifice available if you reject the ‘Lamb’ that God has provided. Some of these so-called believers were losing heart, giving up and baling out. Apollos warns them of the judgment and wrath that is to be meted out to all those ‘outside’ Christ and implores them not to give up on him. The same quote used by Paul in Romans to prove ‘Justification by Faith’ is now used to warn those who ‘shrink back’. However – as though Apollos suddenly remembers the saving and holding grace of God – he reassures his readers that “We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved”.
EZEKIEL 18 and 19
“The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. That’s what the people of Israel and Judah had been saying. What on earth does this strange proverb mean? They were actually complaining about the sufferings and deprivations that they were going through – maybe as part of a siege on Jerusalem – and were basically blaming God for it. Essentially, they claimed, God was punishing them for the sins of the previous generation – and that was not fair!
God responded that they should stop quoting the proverb, since it was simply not true. Instead: “The one who sins is the one who will die”. (Ezekiel 18:4). God does not have grandchildren, just children; so each ‘child’ must answer to his ‘Father’ for his own behaviour. The Lord then gives examples where successive generations are either righteous or unrighteous in both their allegiance to God and in their lifestyle behaviours. He will judge each generation on the basis of how they relate to him and how they relate to one another; the behaviour of the previous generation is irrelevant, God says. “The one who sins is the one who will die… The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them…”.
The Lord then moves on to offer a second chance to those who in their own generation are behaving ‘badly’: “If a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live… Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? – declares the Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (18:21-23).
God pleads with his rebel people: “Turn away from all your offences; then sin will not be your downfall…Get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (18:30-32)
Chapter 19 has two more allegories about Israel (notice that God now uses ‘Israel’ as a term for ‘Judah’ – He must mean that, since the old nation of Israel no longer even exists). One allegory represents Israel/Judah as a lioness with her cubs as the successive kings of the nation. The other represents Israel/Judah as a vine that was large, healthy, and strong, and planted in a land of abundant water. Then this vine was uprooted and planted in a desert – that means Babylonia.