The smoothest stones in Jerusalem were those that covered the path leading to the altar of sacrifice in the Temple. Polished by the continual throng of people bringing their offerings, seeking forgiveness at an altar where forgiveness could never be found. Ruts worn deep by the shuffling of feet weary under the load of sin which brought them day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year to this place that refocused their attention on their failure, their debt, their sin. The Tabernacle, later the Temple with its sounds of animals, its smell of blood – everything about this place made a deep and indelible impression – an impression of sin and death.
That is precisely the point of inadequacy for the old law, the old covenant. Regardless of how many sacrifices were offered, how pure and spotless the animals were that were sacrificed, they could never bring forgiveness into the lives of the people.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The Day of Atonement was a day that should have brought rejoicing, because on this – the holiest of days – the yearly day the sins of the people were atoned for at the altar of God – in reality was only an annual reminder that they were still sinners.
Most of us have mortgages on our houses – 15, 30 years – a lot of payments, but eventually, we’ll make the last payment and burn the note.
But this is like a mortgage that extends precisely the length of your lifetime. Every month, a payment to be made, every month a reminder that you still owe. Each payment, rather than accomplishing anything, simply reminds us of the enormous debt still weighing upon us.
Some of you remember the financial nightmare of the 1980’s with “balloon mortgages” and double-digit inflation. A balloon mortgage started off with lower rates and would increase over time. It looked like the wave of the future for young homebuyers. But then with inflation, interest rates rose to 17, 19, 21%. It financially devastated a lot of families. Homebuyers and financiers underestimated the power of inflation, and lost their homes, their savings, their credit ratings, their self-esteem.
These tremendous financial debts were a continual reminder to those families that they were trapped in a no-win situation. And likewise, every year on the Day of Atonement, the sacrifices would remind the people that sin still had a grip on their lives.
If we had underestimated interest, we have also underestimated the power of sin.
Let me ask a question then: If the old covenant could not bring forgiveness into the lives of the people, was it a failure of the covenant – had God fallen down on the job? Did God make a mistake in creating the Law? Did he underestimate the power of sin?
Only when we understand the purpose of the Law, and the intent for the sacrifices can we answer those questions.
Why the Law? What was it intended to accomplish?
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:23-25)
The Law was a guide, a tutor – not the end in itself, but a means to bring us to Christ. The Law could do one thing: to convict of sin. It could not cleanse, it could not justify, it had no power over sin. That was not God’s intention.
That was Paul’s own realization:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20)
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. (Romans7:7,12-14)
So the Law did perfectly what it was designed to do: convict us of sin, destroy the false notion that we can somehow stand righteous before God on our own merits.
But it could not – was not intended to – bring forgiveness from those sins. It could tell us that we were dirty – it could not give the cleansing.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’ ” First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). (Hebrews 10:5-8)
It was a constant OT theme – sacrifices weren’t what God really wanted (even though the Law required them), because sacrifices were so often separated from the motivation of the heart that God really wanted them to accompany.
And when you divorce sacrifice from justice and righteousness and heart-felt obedience, it becomes just another ritual, vain and self-serving.
But the sacrifices continued. They were never sufficient, always pointing ahead to a day when they would no longer be needed – and that day had come. [Picture – Jesus in Gethsemane] It was the day when Christ said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will, O God.”
All of those sacrifices anticipating THE sacrifice – vs. 12 “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…
by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
It was no longer a looking forward, an anticipation, a stop-gap. Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross brought true forgiveness, real holiness.
Have you gotten the picture yet? I’ll have to admit, the Hebrews writer never seems to say anything just once. But what he says is so important, so significant. We’ve heard it again and again – the old covenant, the old priesthood, the old tabernacle, the old sacrifices – they are obsolete, and God had done something new in Jesus Christ. [Picture – curtain torn] At the cross, the curtain of separation between God and man has been torn in two and a new covenant has been sealed in his blood. But having said all that – so what?
Our writer sets the table for his conclusions:
First, he writes, “since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…” (Heb 10:19)
And second he tells us: “since we have a great priest over the house of God…” (Heb 10:21)
And now, here is the “so what” and it revolves around stepping out in a confidence and security that God is in control of our lives.
The so what that he bases on the power of the cross is a four-fold exhortation: The first three: Draw near, Hold fast, Spur on.
1) “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb 10:22)
A sincere heart goes right to motive. Any motive other than a pure desire to see God will only lead us to more empty religion.
“In full assurance of faith” Remember that in vs. 19 he said “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” We don’t timidly sneak in, hoping not to be noticed, but we walk in as children of the Father whose confidence is based on a relationship.
It’s a fascinating phrase – “hearts sprinkled…bodies washed” It is that cleansing from the inside out that takes place in baptism. Our guilty consciences cleansed and made new – our daily lives, our morals, our conduct all transformed by the presence of Jesus in our lives. Both are vitally important to the Christian life and to the intimate relationship with God.
Hold to Hope
2) “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (Heb 10:23)
I see so many whose lives are dull and listless – almost as if something had died. And something has died: hope.
Hope is not just a wishful dreaming of a better day that better judgment tells you isn’t possible. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s working in our lives and delivering on the promises that he has made.
Why should we hope? “For he who promised is faithful.”
Consider One Another
3) “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good works” (Heb 10:24)
The sentence is really phrased better “Let us consider one another – the spurring on of each other unto love and good works.”
It is a constant concern for others that ignites the fellowship we have when we gather on the Lord’s Day. If all week long, our thoughts have been on self, and me and mine, how can we bring anything but selfishness to our gathering on Sunday? Is becomes all about me and what I get out of it. Nothing hinders our ability to love others, to function in the body as much as self-centeredness.
The only way we can break this cycle of self-centeredness is to train our thoughts: “Consider one another.” And when all week long I am thinking about others, and how I can encourage them and help them grow and get them excited about their faith, what am I going to bring to the assembly?
Did you notice that these three exhortations are styled around another three-fold center of a Christian’s life?: Faith, Hope and Love.
Draw near to God in faith.
Hold on to hope
Spur one another on to love
These three really set the stage for our writer’s fourth and final exhortation in vs. 25 – “Let us not give up meeting together…”
The first 3 exhortations are absolutely dependent on the fourth – you cannot do any of them in seclusion – there is a power in “together.”
Faith in isolation withers and dies a lonely death.
Hope in seclusion becomes burdened and discouraged.
Love by itself becomes self-centered and narcissistic.
When we meet together our focus is first and foremost on God – we raise our hearts and our voices to God in praise. But as we do, what a tremendous sense of body and community that creates. Listen to Paul one more time:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)
The writer says some are in the habit of being elsewhere when God’s people gather. And the truth is there are people who have chosen not to be here this morning – other things took higher priority in their lives. And when they do come, they come late, they leave early, they don’t know anyone and don’t want to know anyone – they have little interest in the body. And they are impoverished because of it, their souls are left unfed and undernourished. And they are even more vulnerable to the seduction of the world and of Satan.
Is it the obedience to a commandment or the receiving of a blessing with which the writer is more concerned? We’ve often used this verse as a club to beat people over the head to get them to come to church. But what the writer really wants us to hear in this verse is the incredible gift we receive when we’re with God’s people. It is why he calls us together, because he knows how deeply we need the encouragement that comes from sharing the journey, sharing the promises, being part of the body, valuing each other as we share both our weaknesses and our strengths.
And more than that, he says, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
There is an excitement and an anticipation that keeps us going. How do we sustain this expectant anticipation of his coming and our salvation? By meeting together, telling the story, sharing our faith, encouraging one another.
A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants assembled at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with great enthusiasm to finish the race and win the ribbon. One disabled boy, however, stumbled at the start and tumbled over a few times and sat on the track and began to cry. The other eight heard his cries. They all turned and looked, then they all turned around and ran back to their competitor. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him. Then all nine runners linked arms and walked together to the finish line. The stadium erupted in cheering and applause. That day in the stadium in Seattle, the race was no longer about which individual crossed the line first, but that everyone cross the line together.
And when the day comes, it won’t be a mad scene of individuals pushing and shoving and competing for a prime spot in the line into heaven – we will enter as a family, arms joined, hands uplifted in victory, strong and weak together… together.