Hebrews 4:11-5:10
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today, we start a new section in the book of Hebrews,
this letter written or possibly this sermon given,
to a community of predominantly Jewish Christians
who were wavering in their faith in the face of increasing persecution.
The whole book of Hebrews could be divided into three sections.
(SLIDE #2) The first section in the book of Hebrews describes who Jesus is
– repeatedly declaring the utter superiority of Jesus.
Jesus is greater than any human prophet for Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, embodying the message He brings.
Jesus is greater than any heavenly angel for Jesus is no divine creature;
He is the Son of God.
Jesus is greater than Moses for Jesus doesn’t just lead us through the wilderness; Jesus is the One who builds the house of our salvation
– our home away from home with God.
And as we heard last week, Jesus is greater than Joshua.
While Joshua once led the people of God into the Promised Land,
Jesus leads us into the promise of our ultimate rest – a rest we enter into
not based on our effort and striving but thanks to His work on our behalf.
(SLIDE #3) Now, the writer of Hebrews begins to dig into what this work of Christ is.
While the first part of Hebrews outlined who Jesus is, from our reading today
all the way through the end of chapter 11, the topic, the theme that will
occupy us all the way through the end of chapter 11 will be focusing on
exactly what Jesus did, what Jesus continues to do for us all. (SLIDES #4 – #9)
What Jesus has done for the world is framed through the work of the priesthood – a job first created and described in the OT book of Leviticus.
Passing references to Jesus as our High Priest (SLIDE #10 have been dropped 2x s already in Hebrews, back in chapters 2 and 3, but now this concept is
about to be fleshed out in marvelous detail.
This concept was something that would have been very familiar
to those who first received this letter as they were raised to understand
the necessity of the role of the high priest in their life as a community. (SLIDE #11)
Living in the first century A.D., these readers could still daily see for themselves these priests living out their job description at the Temple in Jerusalem.
But what about us?
Our cultural distance from the priesthood of ancient Israel,
can make it difficult for us to relate to this framework for
understanding the work Jesus has done for us.
So, let begin by briefly considering the role of the priest and particularly,
the high priest as both are outlined for us in the Bible.
To the Jews living in the first century, (SLIDE #12)
the priests were the spiritual leaders of Israel.
All them coming from the tribe of Levi,
the Levitical priests lived a life of consecrated service dedicated
as the mediators between the people and God.
The Levitical priests didn’t ordinarily bring the Lord’s message to the people
– that was the role of the prophet.
The priest’s role was to rightly, to appropriately bring the people before God and to reflect, to communicate God’s forgiveness or atonement for the people.
(SLIDE #13) Atonement. This is a fancy, biblical word, we don’t use every day.
So, let’s refresh our memory as to what atonement means and why we need it.
If God is all about forgiveness, why can’t we just say “Sorry, Lord”
when we’ve messed up, God grants us forgiveness, and we move on?
Why do we need atonement? Think about it this way.
I borrow your phone and while I’m using it, I break or lose your phone.
There is now a breach in our relationship. Something between us.
I can’t just ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Something is right there, broken.
The act of repairing that breach, of addressing what is between us
is what the Bible calls atonement.
Repairing the breach is not just about saying sorry and granting forgiveness.
To go back to my analogy, saying sorry won’t fix or replace my broken phone.
Whether I pay what is required or you do, someone has to pay.
There is a cost involved to make things right.
And this cost that needs to be paid isn’t necessarily an economic one.
Atonement is about much more than resolving a debt.
Atonement is about the rebuilding of trust.
Atonement is about the necessity of confession.
Confession isn’t just saying “Sorry,” it is about fully acknowledging
and owning my wrongdoing – even if it was just a mistake, just an accident.
Atonement is about the beginning of repentance
– not just being more careful next time but moving toward reconciliation,
turning things around between us, clearing the air, so we don’t have “this” between us – getting in the way of our relationship.
The priests of Israel worked to meditate God’s offer of atonement for the people.
(SLIDE #14) They did so through a specific, detailed procedure of
regular sacrifices on behalf of the people – five different sin and guilt offerings
– that kept their relationship with God in good standing.
The priests offered these sacrifices not to somehow bribe God but to thank God for the blessings of both creation & covenant – to both acknowledge & embody
the willingness of God’s grace to cover and cleanse our sins.
To be clear, atonement as presented in the Bible is not about
the people making amends for wrongs they’ve done as much as it is
responding to the opportunity God provides to clean the slate for them.
Atonement is not something that we do.
Atonement is something done for us by the grace of God.
In meditating this work of atonement, the priests of Israel were led by the high priest.
(SLIDE #15) Moses’ brother Aaron was the first high priest.
All of the high priests thereafter were to come from Aaron’s line.
The high priest of Israel oversaw the work of the rest of the Levitical priesthood.
But there was one specific job to be done on one particular day every year
that only the high priest was permitted to do.
(SLIDE #16) The day in question was known as the Day of Atonement.
This is the day the writer of Hebrews is referencing in verse 3.
The Day of Atonement was the biggest day of the year for all Israel.
Outlined in Leviticus, chapter 16, it was the day the high priest alone
would go meditate atonement for all the sins of the people.
Not you might ask, if there were five regular, daily offerings used to facilitate atonement for the people, why was this so-called Day of Atonement necessary?
The Big Five, those regular, daily offerings were about preventive maintenance
– specifically, for addressing sins when they were realized by the individual.
In other words, dealing with the accidents, mistakes, or other wrongdoing when we recognize we’ve done something wrong and need to say sorry.
The Day of Atonement addresses this question:
Do we realize everything we do wrong? Are there gaps in our awareness of our sin?
The Day of Atonement is based on the assumption that
some sins never come to the attention of the sinner.
We ‘re talking about unintentional accidents/mistakes
we never realized we had made, that were never called to our attention.
We’re talking about the times when we acted out in a way that wasn’t
directed defiantly at God, in a manner where we felt perfectly justified to
act the way we did, and it never occurred to us that we were crossing a line, that we didn’t have all the information, that from God’s standpoint – that was wrong.
This thorough, deeper & complete cleaning is what the Day of Atonement was about.
The high priest, by going through the curtain of the Tabernacle (SLIDE #17)
into the Holy of Holies, the very presence of the Lord,
offered the people’s sacrifice to cover all of their sins
– recognized and unrecognized, lingering and residual – all of it.
And when the high priest came out alive, the people gave thanks
because it reflected the Lord giving them a fresh start,
a clean slate in their relationship with Him for another year.
But for all of the pageantry, for all of the glory of God’s provision for the people on the Day of Atonement, it really was nothing more than just a STOP GAP.
The Day of Atonement mediated the covering of sin, God’s forgiveness of sin,
but it could not deal with the ultimate consequences of sin – namely,
our brokenness due to sin and our inevitable death because of sin.
With all of this background in mind, the writer of Hebrews asserts
every high priest who served on that day, was but preparing us (SLIDE #18)
for a better, a greater high priest who could fulfill what
the Levitical priesthood could only do in part and imperfectly,
a better, a greater high priest who would accomplish what
the Day of Atonement always anticipated, God’s covenant promise
to be fully present among His people without obstruction or limitation,
to completely and once and for all remove the sins of His people.
And that better, great high priest is none other than Christ.
Jesus is the right person for the right job, the writer insists.
He makes the case for Christ specifically by pointing to two job qualifications
of the high priest of Israel, qualification which Jesus didn’t just meet but exceeded.
(SLIDE #19) The first job qualification is the high priest did not to assume this role
upon himself but had to be called by God to come from among the people.
In other words, the high priest needed to be one of us.
Less than a month ago, this is what we celebrated at Christmastime.
The Incarnation. Jesus, as the Son of God, became the Son of Man.
God in Christ came down to earth & clothed Himself with our humanity
to be one of us, to be our great high priest, and yet,
unlike any other high priest or human being before – also being fully divine.
Notice how the writer goes to great pains twice in this passage (SLIDE #20)
to emphasize while Jesus’ work was patterned after the priestly work
initiated by Aaron, Jesus and his work are greater than Aaron in that
Christ hails from the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek.
This cryptic claim about Melchizedek will be unpacked later in this letter.
For now, what is being stressed is the order of Melchizedek is eternal.
Therefore, we are to understand Christ comes along not as a mortal priest,
not as a temporary priest, but as our forever priest, our everlasting great high priest, not entering into the Holy of Holies only once a year, but ascended to heaven, sitting now and forever at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
(SLIDE #21) The second job qualification of the high priest highlighted for us
is the priest’s ability to relate to the people whom he is serving for the Lord.
The high priest’s ability to understand, to deal gently, and to represent others before God comes from sharing the pain and suffering of others,
of being subject to the same weaknesses with which they struggle.
(SLIDE #22) This is why, the writer goes on, the Levitical priests had to make sacrifices
for their own sins as well as the sins of the people.
Jesus, it is argued, our great high priest,
can relate to us and can represent us in a similar but even better way.
To support this claim, (SLIDE #23)
several powerful and yet provocative statements are made about Jesus.
“Jesus is able to empathize with our weaknesses.”
“Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”
“Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.”
In other words, Jesus fully and without reservation entered the human condition. In his humanity, Jesus did not keep all our pain and suffering at arm’s length.
The Incarnation is the joining of God through Christ
with the complete range of our human experience.
Jesus knows what it’s like to endure forced migration
because of the injustice of a ruthless king.
Jesus knows what it’s like to have your family think you’re crazy,
to have your hometown turn on you.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be homeless and to have no place to lay your head. Jesus knows what it’s like to wander in the wilderness & to wrestle with the devil.
Jesus knows what it’s like to always have people crowding around you
– some of them even repeatedly criticizing and attacking you.
Jesus knows what it’s like to mourn for a loved one,
to face the betrayal of a friend, to be let down by those closest to you,
to be wrongfully accused and convicted, to be mercilessly mocked, spit on, abused, and ultimately murdered. Jesus completely entered into our struggle.
But maybe we push back and say, (SLIDE #24) Jesus was pure,
he never struggled with the allure of online porn or some other addiction.
Jesus was single,
he never struggled with the challenges of dating, of enduring the rejection of
a partner in a romantic relationship or a spouse in marriage.
Jesus never struggled with the pressures of parenthood – of sleepless nights with a baby, of raising a child with say, autism, or dealing with a teenager.
Jesus was a MAN. He never struggled with PMS, suffered a miscarriage,
or dealt with post-partum depression.
Jesus doesn’t understand my struggles. How could he?
We can choose to get caught up in particular experiences of the human condition.
Or we can acknowledge the core, the common link,
beneath all those emotions and experiences that we all can relate to,
that Jesus related to – our absolute brokenness and our desperate need.
We can recognize rhe undeniable truth that we, our lives and this world,
are not the way their supposed to be and we experience the painful ripples
of that reality in a multitude of ways.
We can admit the inarguable fact that human nature has not changed one bit
in these thousands upon thousands of years – that we may have
new circumstances, new inventions, new living conditions,
but the basic human temptations of pride, lust, envy, anger, violence,
stress and addictions, all have stayed the same.
Jesus endured the weakness involved in all of our suffering and
Jesus faced every temptation that results from our weakness and our suffering.
(SLIDE #25) The temptation to lie, to compromise what’s true, to deny what is right,
to run and hide or to despair over what must be,
to strike back or to justify causing another harm,
to steal, to cheat, to take the glory for Himself,
Jesus has felt the heart of every temptation we have ever felt.
Again, we might argue, “How can Jesus really understand me if he never sinned. There’s a part of my experience that he can’t get.”
To Jesus was without sin does not take away from his humanity.
We must remember part of the reason Jesus came to earth was
to show us what it truly means to be human.
Jesus came to offer us a different picture of ourselves rather than
to accept the broken, flawed version of our humanity with which
we’ve grown so comfortable as to make it the universal excuse for
every accident, every mistake, every sin of ours: “We’re only human!”
(SLIDE #26) Jesus embodies what God intended for us as humanity
– perfection, wholeness, purity.
Jesus experiences the frailty and limitations, the vulnerability and uncertainty
of this broken world without compromising his humanity
– without rejecting His call to be human as God created humanity to be.
In truth, Jesus’ temptations were harder than ours.
They weren’t easier because Jesus was righteous – they were harder for Him.
Christ felt MORE temptation than any of us – ever have or ever will.
Think about it, if you’re tempted to lose your temper
after a minute of being hassled, we’d call that having a short fuse.
Now, imagine resisting that urge for five minutes of constant annoyance.
After five minutes, we feel the temptation more don’t we?
Because the more we resist, the more we feel it.
What about five hours of constant aggravation? What about five years?
What about a life-time – and never giving in?
(SLIDE #27) The person who resists temptation knows more about temptation
than the person who caves in. Jesus knows more about evil than any of us.
Because He resisted it, minute by minute, hour by hour,
day in, day out for the whole of His life.
This, btw, is what the writer of Hebrews means when he declares (SLIDE #28) Jesus learned obedience through his sufferings.
All his weaknesses led Jesus into a posture of obedience rather than despair.
All of his temptations resulted in Christ’s faithfulness, not his faithlessness.
In all of his sufferings Jesus modeled reliance on God
rather than rebellion against our Creator.
Jesus stood in our shoes, doing it right, showing us what it truly means to be human – what we are meant to be, what we are capable of,
when we live our lives not divorced from God
but in consistent concert and reliance upon the Lord.
It’s Jesus’ sinlessness that makes him the best, the only reliable one
to turn to in the midst of our struggles and our need.
The Levitical priests were just like you and me, flawed human beings.
They could understand human sin because they shared in it.
They could relate the suffering of others to a point
but then their own junk got in the way. The same is true for all of us.
As a pastor, my counseling ability is sorely limited.
Even with the best training, experience, and effort,
what I can offer you, anyone, is not enough because of my sin.
Inevitably, unavoidably, my baggage gets in the way of truly listening to & loving others.
Sin is selfishness and because of my sin, I get upset, self-protective, impatient. Because of our sin, we all fall victim in different ways,
to getting stuck on ourselves, of becoming wrapped up in ourselves.
Being without sin, Jesus is the only one who was not wrapped up in himself.
We get his full attention. His whole heart can completely go out to us.
Facing temptation in every way like we do and being truly the last man standing, Jesus can not only fully empathize with us,
Jesus is the only one who can hammer out for us – within us,
a spotless, righteous, perfectly complete human life.
Because of all this, all Jesus has done for us, all Jesus keeps doing for us,
the writer encourages us to respond in this way: (SLIDE #29)
“Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.”
We are encouraged to boldly go – to run to God rather than run away from Him.
(SLIDE #30) This was our greatest mistake in the very beginning
and continues to be our ongoing mistake still today.
We run away from God in defiance and disobedience.
We run away from God in fear and disillusionment.
But if we know who Jesus is, if we begin to understand,
why Jesus has done and continues to do for us,
we don’t need to, we mustn’t run away from God anymore.
Where do you turn in time of need? Who’s on the throne of our lives?
Everyone believes that something is on the throne.
Even if you’re an atheist, or a practical atheist,
you believe that impersonal, non-descript forces run the show.
Maybe you’re someone who believes in the survival of the fittest.
Or maybe you believe in karma – some kind of cosmic balancing of the scales.
Where do you turn in time of need?
Do you believe God is an absentee landlord?
He’s left you the keys and now you’re on your own?
Who’s on the throne of our lives? What’s driving our existence? Sex? Money? Power? Fame? Death?
There’s no one on the throne but Jesus.
Nothing else, nobody else has what it takes to occupy that seat,
to do the job that needs to be done.
Do we need a priest?
The truth is every last one of us need a priest because
none of us are who and what God originally created us to be.
On our own, we not only fall short of the mark – of all we should be,
we fall short of our potential – of all that we can be together
as intended by our beautiful and glorious Creator.
Do we need a priest? Absolutely. But we have one – a great, high priest named Jesus.
We have Jesus who joins us in our struggles
– all our frailty, our weakness, our suffering and our temptation,
and overcomes them all.
We have Jesus who enters into the furnace of our suffering
and carries us and empowers us to move through all our pain,
beyond death itself into a renewed, everlasting life of grace.
(SLIDE #31) So then, let us boldly go. Boldly go.
When you struggle to pray, boldly go on praying, speaking in groans,
through your gasps and your tears, trusting that the Spirit of Christ,
not only can hear you but is meeting you where you are.
When you feel far from God, boldly go walking by faith,
knowing your Heavenly Father will never leave you or forsake you,
that through His Spirit, Christ the Son is still carrying you forward,
will bring you home, even when you cannot feel His presence.
When you suffer, when you despair, when you grieve, boldly go,
get out of bed, get out of your head, open your heart, bare your soul,
and wrestle with God.
Scream at Him if that helps, accuse Him if you must,
question Him as you need to, but rest assured, He will not let you go.
He will stay with you and hold onto to you even when
you don’t feel like holding onto Him.
And even though you may doubt the hope you have in Him,
He will still come through on His promises anyway.
When you trip up or even when you openly rebel, when you sin,
boldly go, confess and repent without fear for Jesus bears
the wounds of your forgiveness but also boldly go and follow,
keep your eyes on Him, listen to His voice so that you need not stumble & fall.
Beloved, when we fear, when we worry, even when we die, let us boldly go,
not perceiving an uncertain and unknown future but recognizing Christ
who always goes before us, Jesus who stands of the horizon of tomorrow
with open arms, with the assurance of our resurrection
and the words of eternal life. Amen.