Pastor Chris Tweitmann
(SLIDE #1) Hebrews can be challenging for Christians to understand today.
This sermon delivered in the form of a letter draws on a number of
specific Old Testament references and allusions that would have been comprehensible to any Jewish follower of Jesus living in the first century A.D.
Living thousands of years later, facing a significant cultural distance
from these times, we have to do a little extra work.
We have to dig into the history and practices of Israel as recorded in our Bibles.
This hit home for us last week with the start of Hebrews, chapter 7 (SLIDE #2)
as the writer reflected on Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Asked to consider a number of analogies between Melchizedek & Jesus,
we needed to go back to the book of Genesis to remember (SLIDE #3)
who Melchizedek was in the first place!
If we got lost in details, here’s the recap of last week’s takeaways: (SLIDE #4)
Melchizedek, who was a king and a priest of righteousness and peace foreshadows
the coming of Jesus who is both our King of Kings and our great, High Priest.
The scriptural silence related to Melchizedek’s background (SLIDE #5)
– nothing is said about his family line and there is no mention of the start
or the finish of his priesthood – indicates Melchizedek’s order is by definition
an order of one.
Therefore, the mystery of Melchizedek prefigures
the eternal, everlasting priesthood of Jesus, which is without beginning or end.
Today, as we look at the rest of chapter 7, we’ll hear these observations
repeated again (see if you can notice them!), but the focus of today’s text
is explaining how and why Jesus’ distinctive priesthood,
while similar to the Levitical priesthood that had served
God’s people for many hundreds of years, is ultimately superior
– and why we needed a change, an upgrade from the former way
of engaging our relationship with God and with each other (SLIDES #6 – #15)
In this long passage,
there are several phrases or statements that should jump out at us…
(SLIDE #16) vs. 18 – 19:
“The formal regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless…
…a better hope is introduced.”
(SLIDE #17) v. 22:
“Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.”
(SLIDE #18) vs. 25 – 26:
“…he [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
(SLIDE #19) v. 27:
“He [Jesus] sacrificed for their sins, once for all, when he sacrificed himself.”
The Greek word for “better” occurs more time in Hebrews
than in the whole rest of the New Testament put together.
By this point, that should come as no surprise as the writer has been
repeatedly declaring to us Jesus is better than all the rest – simply the best.
But now, the author begins to unpack why and how
the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus is better.
In order for us to appreciate how the new way or covenant is better,
let’s spend a little time remembering the way things used to be.
To begin with, the old or former covenant is the arrangement
God made with Israel through Moses
– specifically, the system of the Levitical priesthood. (SLIDE #20)
When the writer of Hebrews talks about a change in the priesthood
necessitates a change in the law, this is what is being referred to
– and not THE LAW, meaning the Ten Commandments.
God’s Top Ten remain the revelation of life as God created it to be,
all of our relationships – with God, with ourselves, with each other,
the way they were meant to be, the ideal or perfect version of all things.
Our Creator’s rules for life, have never changed. (SLIDE #21)
Remember, the heart of this Law – loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself – is the Law Jesus came not to abolish or to change but to fulfill. (SLIDE #22)
What is being referenced here is the sacrificial law of the Levitical priesthood.
The sacrificial law was instituted to address the ongoing problem of sin
– the undeniable fact that things aren’t the way their supposed to be,
that we don’t treat God, ourselves, and each other as God intended.
– with love, truth, and with grace.
Another way of expressing this is we never break
the second Great Commandment, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, without first breaking the first Great Commandment,
not loving God with all that we are and all that we have.
The former covenant of the Levitical priesthood was crafted to repair and restore the breaches in all our relationships that come as a result of sin. (SLIDE #23)
Outlined in specific, nuanced, excruciating detail in the Book of Leviticus,
the law and system of the priesthood was designed to be exhaustive
in addressing the problem of human sin.
When we talk about sin, we tend to frame sin in terms of intentional, deliberate, willful, knowing acts of defiance or rebellion against God
(lying, stealing, murder, adultery).
The most common self-definition: “I’m basically a good person”
Let’s stop here and think this through…
“I’m basically honest, basically responsible, basically peaceful, basically safe…”
So, when are you specifically lying, specifically irresponsible,
specifically violent, specifically dangerous?
Something else being conveying by this idea of “basically being a good person”
is “I don’t intentionally, purposefully do bad stuff.”
As long as we “mean well” or “we didn’t mean to do anything wrong,”
“if it was an accident, unintentional, then what we did wasn’t wrong. It’s no big deal.”
But the law of the Levitical priesthood established when it comes to sin,
calling something an accident or unintentional does not negate the effects of sin.
If there is intentionality and purpose inherent in all life,
if our Creator weaved a moral fabric, a sense of right and wrong,
into the tapestry of creation, then violations to that moral fabric
rip and tear apart the lives and communities of which we are apart.
The wrong things we do by mistake or by accident still wrong
and they still bear consequences – even if we aren’t aware of them.
(SLIDE #24) And so, through a series of regular, day-to-day offerings,
the Lord provides a way for His people to deal with the problem of sin
– to atone for both the intentional, willful things as well as
the unintended, accidental wrongs that inevitably happen in our lives
and our communities on a daily basis.
Priests, who served as intercessors, meditators, representing God
to the people and the people before God, are set apart for the sole purpose of
making atonement – of facilitating the different and specific offerings
outlined in the book of Leviticus that account for all the ways
our brokenness rears its ugly head in our lives and in this world.
The particulars of these various daily offerings detailed chapter after chapter
are graphic, multi-sensory and frankly, messy.
Most of us skip over this part of the Bible because we find ourselves overwhelmed by all the repeated prescriptions regarding blood, guts and fat.
What we fail to understand is these daily offerings were bloody and messy because they were kept practical, relevant to and inseparable from
one’s day-to-day life – to how life was lived together in community.
(The harvest. The herd. The grain. The cattle.)
There was no compartmentalization of living – go do what you like,
act as you will, treat God, treat others, including yourself, poorly
Monday through Saturday and then sober up with
confession, repentance, and reconciliation on Sunday.
Sin is trivial to us – a once a week proposition at best.
But what God tried to show His people was the problem of sin
isn’t just a day-to-day transactional issue through the institution of
what was known as the Day of Atonement. (SLIDE #25)
You see, something the daily offerings of the Levitical priesthood
could not anticipate were all the unrealized and unacknowledged sins in our lives.
Not the accidents or the mistakes but all the times
we were completely unaware we did wrong.
Think of all the dings we unconsciously inflict on each other
— the thousands upon thousands of little, seemingly inconsequential snubs, slights and jabs that we don’t even recognize but still harm another person.
Those marks cut deeper than we realize—resulting in individual fractures
and personal scars as well as penetrating and contaminating our relationships with each other, our life in community together.
And so, an entire day is set apart once a year to deal with
the deeper ramifications of the brokenness of our lives: DAY OF ATONEMENT.
It served as a deep, intensive, all-encompassing house cleaning.
The centerpiece of the day’s observances involves two ways of dealing with
the same problem – the problem of sin – through the use of two goats.
Goat #1 reflected the COST of sin. Engaging in death takes life.
Hence, the cost of sin is life. For a life taken, a life must be given.
Goat #2 involves more hands-on engagement with root of the problem.
Clean-up is great, acknowledging the wrong done, is all well and good,
but how are things made right in terms rebuilding trust
– that the wrong won’t remain at the center of the relationship. (SLIDE #26)
Hence, the scapegoat – putting it behind you by putting in on the goat
and leading the goat out of sight. All that remains between us is called out, gathered up, and hauled to a place far, far, away.
The scapegoat bears the residual – the collection and removal of
all the garbage (muck & grime) in our lives and communities.
(SLIDE #27) This is the law, the system, the writer of the Hebrews declares
ultimately was weak and useless and hence another priest,
a different priest, one in the order of Melchizedek, needed to come.
In what sense, was the old covenant ineffective? Two reasons are given.
First, the sacrificial system itself, as it is spelled out in Leviticus,
ends up being just a daily and an annual reset. (SLIDE #28)
The slate gets cleared daily but then it ends up being full again by tomorrow.
The ledger gets reconciled annually but over the next 365 days,
all that red ink comes right back.
Sacrifices repeated day after day, two goats being brought forth
year after year, starts to feel like a vicious cycle—like “rinse and repeat.”
Yesterday’s offerings are eclipsed by today’s sins.
And so, the Levitical system becomes nothing more than a band-aid, a stop gap.
Human sins (plural) are being covered but the problem of sin
– all our rebellion and disobedience, all our guilt and the shame,
all our chaos and death cannot be cleansed.
As the writer will argue later in this letter, the blood of bulls and goats could provide the true atonement, the real forgiveness, the actual restart we need.
The ineffectiveness of the Levitical system is reflected by
those who are overseeing it. This is the author’s second point. (SLIDE #29)
Day after day, as the priests trudged back to the sanctuary to repeat
the vicious cycle of the sacrificial system, these priests ran on this treadmill
not only for others but just as much for themselves.
They had their own sins to make sacrifices for
even as they tried to represent God before the people.
That the Levitical priests were prone to rebellion and plagued
by the problem of sin becomes more apparent as the Levitical priesthood eventually mirrored the corruption within the kings of Israel,
as the priests cheated the people by offering lame or diseased animals
for the sacrifices and keeping the good livestock for themselves.
In Psalm 110, the Messianic psalm the writer of Hebrews quotes repeatedly
– including in this passage, King David acknowledges this problem and
through the Holy Spirit inspiring him, writes about the need for a priestly King after the order of Melchizedek.
David prophetically anticipates the day when One will come
who will be a priest king, like Melchizedek but greater than Melchizedek.
Where the Kings of Israel failed, this King of Kings will not
– leading His people in righteousness.
Where the priests of Israel failed, this Great High Priest will not
– making everlasting peace by fully atoning for the sins of all the world.
And that person is Jesus Christ.
Something to be clear about here.
The coming of Jesus wasn’t God’s plan B; it always was God’s plan A.
When the writer of Hebrews speaks of the former Levitical priesthood
being weak and useless, he is not suggesting that the old way was bad
– as in it didn’t work and needed to be replaced.
The point is the Levitical priesthood was always meant to be
temporary, for the time being, if you will.
The old sacrificial system was never intended to save us,
it was designed to prepare us and to point to our eventual salvation in Christ.
All those centuries of offerings and sacrifices performed by
generation after generation of priests were simply object lessons
teaching humanity the pervasiveness and costliness of sin.
The Lord was teaching us the basics. (SLIDE #30)
Through precise instructions and detailed practices,
our Father was raising His children to recognize
just how precarious our existence is, of just how broken we are.
In the visceral picture of Leviticus which we find so primitive, so barbaric,
so shocking —the bleating of innocent animals, the smell of burnt offerings,
the beautiful robes of the priests, deliberately soiled with blood and oil, impossible to clean, was a vivid illustration of what sin costs
and what it takes to get clean.
Sin draws blood and blood is life.
Sin takes life from us so the cost of sin (repayment) is blood, the giving of life.
But the sight of all those priests covered in blood – blood as much on their hands as it is on ours – reminds us covering the cost of sin is far beyond our pay grade.
We can’t give back to God what we already owe God.
We are dead already in our sins, so offering our lives means nothing.
Sin has irrevocably, deeply stained the perfectly created beings
we were from the start, the moment God breathed life into us.
We can’t clean up the mess of sin by ourselves,
because we are covered in it from head to toe.
All we can do, on our own, is sweep it under the rug,
make someone else our scapegoat and put in on their heads,
dump all our trash out into the earth and make it landfill.
The former sacrificial law, instilling within us a sensitivity about
what redemption costs, what reconciliation involves as well as a glimpse of
what forgiveness looks like, did its job in instilling with us one, essential truth.
That atonement is not about us making amends for the wrongs we’ve done
– as if we ever could.
Atonement, making things right, is not about something we do
because we can’t do anything.
Atonement is something done for us, to us, through us by God. (SLIDE #31)
We can’t truly value or share the cure—the gift of salvation
—if we do not understand not only it’s cost but also, it’s true worth.
The change from the old covenant to the new wasn’t a change from something bad to something good but rather from something good but simply the best.
It is the Gospel, the good news of the God who
when something had to give and we had nothing to offer, gave us Himself.
It is the good news of the God who wants more than
a security deposit left on the altar, who desires to be in relationship with us
– for us to live in Him, and with Him, now.
It is the good news of the God who came down in the flesh in Jesus Christ,
not just as our King of Kings, but in taking on our humanity,
became our great, forever priest, who doesn’t need to make
an offering for Himself in order to be there for us
and therefore, offers us what no other priest ever could or can
– a true, willing, perfect sacrifice – unnecessary for Him but completely needed by us.
(SLIDE #32) Jesus saves us completely. All the Levitical sacrifices before Christ
could never completely heal the human heart and mind.
But Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is enough, more than enough – to fully mend
the human spirit, to eventually restore the human condition forever.
That’s why the writer of Hebrews asserts the death of Jesus
is not simply one sacrifice among the many sacrifices of time. (SLIDE #33)
Offering himself on the Cross is the only sacrifice to work of all time.
His offering is the once for all sacrifice – the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
(SLIDE #34) And through the power of an indestructible life – through
His Resurrection – Jesus doesn’t just carry our sins but transforms them,
Christ changes sin’s ultimate manifestation, it’s net result—death—into life
– full, abundant, everlasting life we can start to experience now.
(SLIDE #34) In fact, the writer of this letter even implies that in Christ,
our lives can become perfect.
Are you a perfectionist?
Most self-aware perfectionists will own up to this tendency. (SLIDE #36)
But before the rest of us, just say “No, not me!” we ought to admit
everyone bears a streak of perfectionism in at least some aspect of their life.
Whether it’s through our physical appearance (face, hair, clothes)
or the level to which we try to maintain the spaces we occupy (home, lawn, car),
or for some of us, how we try to engage our relationships
(seeking to please others to please ourselves,
keeping everyone around us happy or gaining the respect
and appreciation of others as the perfect spouse, parent, sibling, etc.)
the quest for perfection is an itch that all of us can feel the need to scratch.
We are all perfectionists in the sense
that we want our lives to count for something.
At some level, we all to seek to make an acceptable offering of our lives,
if not to God, then to contribute to the overall good, whatever that means.
But try as we may, all our offerings are never pure,
never complete, never perfect.
We still end up making a mess of our lives even when we are at “our best.”
As we push ourselves to be, to give and to serve, and to do the right thing,
deep down we are haunted by the sense it is never enough.
We often stand in judgment over others – the people who are around us,
who are closest to us – insisting that what they offer to us is not enough.
Not enough love. Not enough support. Not enough care. Not enough time.
Whether it is our own internal voice within us or the sound of
someone else’s voice directed at us, we all find ourselves on
the treadmill of the quest for perfection.
Offering more & more, day after day, but always ending up back at the same place.
In all our relentless human striving, we miss the fact
that our Creator’s understanding of perfection is not the same as ours.
The biblical word for “perfection,” used here in verse 11, (SLIDE #37)
teleiosis (TELL-EYE-OSIS), refers not to something we achieve
by trying harder and harder – eliminate every wrong action,
every wrong thought, every wrong motive and getting everything right.
Biblically, “perfection” does not mean “without flaws;”
it is has to do with wholeness or completeness, with everything
being put into place to the final, great purpose to be achieved.
Perfection is all things being made new – including us.
Perfection is not something we can achieve or accomplish. (SLIDE #38)
We cannot achieve perfection, but we can be made perfect.
We are being perfected – made whole, made complete, matured in Christ.
Are you willing to be made new?
Or has our definition of perfection, our quest to be perfect,
even overtaken our faith in Christ? Are you still trying to be perfect for God?
Maybe it’s out of a lingering sense of guilt or shame or fear.
God’s grace is all fine and well, but you’re still determined to do something
to make yourself right with God – to pay Him back, to merit His forgiveness,
to prove you’ve got what it takes to be good enough.
Or perhaps it’s out of a growing sense of pride
fueled by comparing yourself with others.
God may not be keeping score, but you are.
Of course, you’re saved by grace and all that but that doesn’t mean
you can’t try to be the very best Christian you can be,
striving to show everyone what a dedicated, a faithful & true Christian
looks like – to win people to Christ by having them notice Jesus in you?
We don’t just have the wrong definition of perfection
(getting everything right versus wholeness, completeness),
we also have the wrong focus in our pursuit of perfection.
Perfection is not about us; it’s about Him.
In all our well-intentioned efforts to get it all together for Jesus,
to be perfect in following Christ,
we get in the way of what Jesus is seeking to do for us.
We end up trying to be a better version of us in Christ
rather than letting Jesus work in us to make us our best selves through Him.
I am not perfect, but God knows I am often tempted to try and act like I am.
And yet there is not a single deed I do that is not untouched by my weakness.
My best intentions and well laid plans rarely pan out.
I easily lose focus and forget what’s important, what matters.
My self-determination and resolve inevitably get worn down.
There is not a moment when my brokenness does not become clear.
There is a not a day in which I do not fall from grace.
And yet, despite all of this, despite myself, my imperfections,
by the grace of God, I am not defined by sin.
Thanks to Jesus’ forever priesthood, his once for all sacrifice,
who I was is not who I am becoming.
I am a work in progress, but thanks to the power of Jesus’ indestructible life
at work in me, my story is everlasting. Failure is never final.
Resurrection and not death is my horizon – and not just
when I take my last breath but every time I fall flat on my face
in embarrassment, in suffering, in loss, or even in shame.
It’s the same for all of us, who stop trying to be perfect, who instead yield
before a better way, a better hope, – the One, the only One, who can, who is, making us perfect. Perfectly forgiven. Perfectly reconciled. Perfectly loved. Perfectly true. Perfectly whole. Thanks to our perfect priest, Jesus Christ. Amen.