Friday, June 29, 2012

Hebrews 9:15-22

We will take a two-week break from the devotionals whilst my family and I are in San Antonio for some time together and the World Discipleship Summit.  Thanks for your understanding.

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance —now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

16 In the case of a will,[d] it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, 17 because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. 18 This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. 19 When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. 20 He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.”[e] 21 In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. 22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Dig Deeper

The young man had come to visit a marriage counselor because he was in desperate grief over the state of his marriage.  He had married the woman of his dreams just four years ago, less than a year after graduating from college.  Things started out okay but they quickly turned sour.  He discovered that his wife was just not the person that he thought she was, and of course had no idea that in the mind of his new wife, he was not the same man that she thought she was marrying.  The first year had been a constant struggle although they didn’t argue much.  As time went on they simply began to drift from one another in their hearts and eventually got to a point where they barely talked and didn’t care that much about or for one another anymore.  That is when things took a turn for the worse and the young man noticed that they began to argue frequently and his wife became rather spiteful and vindictive and often seemed to try to hurt or humiliate him when she had the chance.  As a means of last resort, he had come to see a highly recommended marriage specialist to see if anything could be done to save their fragile marriage.  After listening to all of the problems that they were mired in, the counselor got up, slowly walked out of the room and closed the door.  After a puzzling absence of several minutes, the counselor returned with a laminated card that was about the size of a half-sheet of paper.  Without a word the counselor handed the young man the card, thanked him for coming in, and turned around and left.  With the counselor gone, the man looked down at the card and realized that it was a list of twenty rules for not getting yourself into a bad marriage.  On the back side were the ten warning signs of a clunker marriage.  Dismayed and feeling worse, the young man left the office with little intention of ever returning.

Of course a bunch of rules of how to stay out of a bad marriage and warning signs of such a marriage do very little good to someone stuck in one.  They offer no actual solution or way out.  It’s a little like stumbling upon a man trapped in a narrow fifteen -foot hole in the ground and dropping down a sheet of safety tips for how to avoid falling into holes.  It only accuses and points out the problem without offering any hope or actual salvation. 

In some very real ways, that was the problem of the Old Testament.  It pointed out the problems and even highlighted the condition that fallen humanity was in, but never offered a permanent solution to a fallen humanity and could never do so.  But imagine if the young man in the above scenario, got home and noticed very small lettering on the back of the card at the bottom that informed him that if he would come back in next week, steps would be taken to immediately heal his marriage permanently.  Do you think he would return the next week?  Or do you think he would cling to that card and just keep reading the steps of the things that he didn’t do and that had caused him to be mired in this mess in the first place?  The Law and the Old Covenant were good and right but they could only show the problem and could not provide a permanent cure to one who was already fallen and sinful.  They could tell you how to avoid a ditch but incapable of throwing down a rope to pull you out.

That is why there was a need for a new covenant.  This was a vital point of understanding both for Jews who had not yet believed and for Jewish Christians who were weakening in their resolve to trust in Christ to understand.  Jesus Christ came to do what no Old Covenant priest could do.  He was a mediator, to be certain, but so were the Levitical priests.  The difference was that he was both mediator of a New Covenant and the ransom that brought that Covenant about and set the captive free from their sin.  He was the prescription and not just the description of the problem. 

The idea of “covenant” is obviously central to this passage but a slight difficulty arises in verses 16 and 17, where the same word for “covenant” is used in those verses as is used in the rest of the section, but it is translated “will.”  It seems likely that Hebrews is intentionally playing off of the double meaning of a word that can mean both “covenant” and “will”.  There is much to attract us to this possibility because using the double meanings of words to make a point was a favorite technique of Alexandrian scholars in the first century (and if Apollos of Alexandria was the author of Hebrews then that would make sense).  If this was the intent then, this would have been considered a rather clever exposition of Scripture.  In this understanding, the author is telling us that the first Covenant is an arrangement that is similar to a will in that it must be enacted with blood, as a will is only enacted with death.  The point is that the death and bloodshed of Christ served as the necessary means to enact the Covenant and the will between God and humanity.  The simple conclusion was that Jesus had to die in order for the Covenant to be enacted (This is a vital point for those that would argue the lack of necessity of being baptized into the life of Christ for the forgiveness of sin based on the instance of salvation coming to the “thief on the cross,” who was never baptized.  But, as Jesus had yet to die, the New Covenant had yet to be enacted and so his salvation at the time was an Old Covenant salvation.)

The substance behind the idea of life and blood being a necessity for atonement comes from Leviticus 17:11, which states “ For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”  What was true in the Old Covenant, is equally true in the New. 

Moses enacted the first Covenant with the blood of animals which served as a substitute sacrifice.  But it pointed to the need for a very real sacrifice of blood to bring about a covenant.  As verse 22 states clearly, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”  This verse brings to mind not only Leviticus 17:11 but the confirmation of Christ himself of this truth: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  This all reminds us of two truths.  The first is that sin is truly a terrible offense that demands a high price.  The second is that forgiveness is expensive because of the high cost of sin.  The blood of Christ, the Son of God, is not cheap thing and without his blood there is no forgiveness. 

The point of all of this is that the sacrifice and blood of animals was a tragic outpouring of blood and life that was brought about by the sin of human beings in their rebellion against God.  The blood of those animals signified that the outpouring of life was necessary to deal with sin, though, was pointing to a deeper truth: those sacrifices weren’t the end in themselves but signposts to the shocking, self-sacrificing love of God.  A covenant, like a will, could only come into force through death and sacrifice and it was the self-sacrifice of Christ that brought about this New Covenant.  The blood of all of those animals under the Old Covenant symbolized and pointed ahead to the greatest sacrifice of all, God’s own sacrifice. 

It is not as though the blood of animals was pointing ahead to a time when humans would actually have to pay the penalty of their own sin.  No, those sacrifices were teaching about the severity of sin and the sacrifice needed to atone for those sins, but that sacrifice would come from God himself.  As mind-blowing as it sounds, God would shed his own blood as a payment for the rebellion enacted against himself, the innocent party.  Before Jesus’ death on the Cross, of course, no one would have or could have imagined that God would become human and give his own life, shedding his own blood and in so doing, all of the symbols and signs would find the reality in the only way that they ever really could.  The redemption of God’s people came at the highest price imaginable, that of the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28).

“Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.”  That is the reality.  Sin is so severe an offense that is requires a life to atone for it.  There are no loopholes, no other ways around it.  Sin cannot be overlooked by good behavior or good works.  The only way that eternal redemption could be brought about was through the self-sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  No amount of ceremony, religion, good behavior, priestly activity, or animal sacrifice will do.  There is no space here for self-sufficiency.  Jesus alone solved a problem that we created and salvation is found in him alone.  That should give us pause as we consider the significance of the New Covenant and the meaning of the death of Christ and how we should respond in our own own lives.

Devotional Thought

It is important to remind ourselves often of the fact that our salvation rests on the sacrifice and blood of Jesus Christ.  How often in our Christian lives, though, do we forget that and start to become self-sufficient rather than completely relying upon God?  Take some time to assess yourself today?  Do you truly rely upon God for everything in your life or do you tend to forget that without the blood of Christ we have nothing?

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