Living on this country hill, it’s easy to feel as if I’m a throw back to an earlier time. My clothesline and my garden; the rows of canning jars full of colorful vegetables and homemade spaghetti sauce in the furnace room; the daily task of sweeping the bark and wood chips off the floor around the wood stove all tend to keep me well-grounded in the past.
However, a quick reading of the first seven verses of Hebrews 9 lets me know that I am not as comfortable in the past as I might imagine. The author describes the Tabernacle, it’s furnishings and fittings, the sacred relics in the Ark of the Covenant, and the priestly activities that were part and parcel of relating to God under the Old Covenant. The words that come to my mind when I picture the scene have nothing to do with worship: foreign, distant, and even frightening seem more descriptive.
I can just barely imagine the priest entering the Most Holy Place, cringing over his own sinful condition, his hands carrying the blood of an animal. It gives the words “forgive my hidden faults” a whole new urgency, doesn’t it?
I’m learning all sorts of unexpected things on this journey of raising four sons, and one of them is welding practices — not that I’m actually doing the welding myself, but with two sons who weld, I overhear conversations between them about the importance of a welder “achieving good penetration” with his torch. He doesn’t just move it in a straight line along the seam, but makes tiny circles very close together so that the metal he is laying down actually looks like a stack of dimes that has been laid on its side. The Holy Spirit has inspired this sort of approach to communication in the book of Hebrews as the author circles back around again and again, being certain that the truth of what Jesus has done (and what he has done away with or fulfilled) in His death and resurrection fully penetrates our understanding. There is even a weld called a “multi-pass,” and with each pass over his material, our author seems to emphasize a different aspect or provision of the New Covenant:
- We are invited into His rest;
- Our eternal High Priest makes intercession with God so that we can draw near;
- My continual holding fast to faith is a work of God.
Now, Hebrews 9 brings to light a truth that transcends all time. The Old Covenant pointed up — toward a reality in Heaven — and ahead — toward a reality that would occur in history, an event that would make it possible for human beings to experience a clear conscience:
12 Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
The animal sacrifices were sufficient for ceremonial cleansing, but they didn’t begin to deal with conscience cleansing. In fact, since that time, no invention, no medical or psychological breakthrough, no technological advance has even begun to touch the clearing of a conscience, and I expect that we will travel to Mars and even cure cancer without getting any closer to resolving the problem of guilt that alienates loved ones from each other, that triggers countless creative methods of self-medication, that hinders worship, and that robs our hearts of peace. People have donated millions of dollars, cut their skin, and volunteered their time at soup kitchens in an effort to balance out the weightiness of their own known darkness — only to wake in the night to the sound of lack roaring in their ears.
Hebrews 9:14 is a path toward a living God that has been cleared by the One who offered absolution to a thief as both hung dying. It is a message of relief to the guilty that God will do what we cannot do on our own. It is the whispered reassurance: “You will be with me in paradise.”
Thanks for joining us in our study of The Epistle to the Hebrews, a letter to a congregation of struggling Jewish Christians written by an unknown author sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. My Sunday school class and I will be landing on a few verses in each chapter with the goal of getting an overview of this fascinating and complex book. These mid-week reflections and observations are intended to initiate a deeper pondering of the week’s assignment in preparation for our discussion the following Sunday. This is the seventh week in the series, and if you’re interested, here’s last week’s blog post.
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