Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 19:45 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins with these words: In many and various ways, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets. But now, in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. These are not two different words—one to God’s people of old, by the prophets, in many and various ways; and one to us now by His Son. The Word that God spoke to His people before, in different ways, by the prophets, by the law, by the sacrifices, by the priesthood, by the tabernacle and the temple—it is that same word that He speaks now and forever in His Son, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. God spoke that Word and all things were made, and He spoke that Word into the world in flesh.
This is really the entire theme of the Letter to the Hebrews: that all the ways God spoke His Word under the Old Covenant have now come together in the one Man, Jesus Christ. What He said by all those ways and by all those means has been spoken singularly in Jesus. Here in chapter 9, specifically, it is about the high priest bringing the sacrifice into the tabernacle. The many high priests brought many sacrifices over the years, and particularly on the day of atonement, the high priest would enter the most holy place, the holy of holies, bearing the names of Israel on his breastplate, and pour out the blood on the altar; and along with that, would also confess the sins of Israel over the head of the goat and send it out into the wilderness.
But the proof that these things did not bring the forgiveness of sins is that they had to be offered year after year after year, over and over again. If they did not accomplish the forgiveness of the people, what was the purpose? They pointed to something beyond themselves, to the true Lamb of God who would bear the sins of the world, pour out His blood, and take away the sin of the world. The high priest didn’t come with his own blood into that tabernacle made with human hands. He came with “another blood,” the blood of the animal that was going to be sacrificed.
Sacrificing another blood, that’s something we know about. Any time there’s a scandal around a prominent person, a politician or a celebrity, you can almost guarantee that the PR team for that person is going to try to put the blame and the guilt on someone else. If some sports team is unsuccessful and losing, someone is going to be sacrificed. And if there’s going to be a sacrifice, we will do our best to make sure it’s going to be someone else who will pay. As Bob Dylan sang in the chorus of one of his recent songs, “I’ll pay in blood/but not my own.” That’s what we will always try to do: pay the price for the guilt or the blame, but pay it with someone else’s blood. Someone else can bear it, someone else can be sacrificed, as long as we don’t get blamed. And if you have enough power or enough money, you can probably get away with it.
But even if we get away with it, even if someone else gets blamed or bears the guilt or is sacrificed; even if we fool everyone around us—even if we fool ourselves—God will not be fooled into putting the blame and the guilt anywhere but with whom it belongs. He knows exactly the weight of our guilt and the precise amount of blame. He knows it because He bore it. He knows the weight of your sin and mine down to the last ounce. It is necessary that death, and the blood that is shed in death, be connected to sin. Death follows sin necessarily. So if the Son of God puts on flesh in order to bear sin, it means that He will necessarily bear death.
He is the high priest, and the sacrifice, and the temple, and the place of God’s presence among His people. But He does not come into the earthly temple, with another blood, over and over. He enters the heavenly presence of God with His own blood, once for all. When God puts on flesh to die, it means that the end of the ages have come; in these last days He has spoken by His Son. He is the Lamb of God over whom the sins of the entire world, of every single person, are confessed, and He takes that sin away into the wilderness. We’re always looking for someone to blame, and finally the Son says, I will take the blame. When the price is paid, it is not in our own blood. He pays in blood, but it is His own.
And this sacrifice does not have to be repeated, because it was carried out in the flesh of the eternal Son of God. It is complete, finished, accomplished, and it is sufficient for everyone and for all time. His blood is not like the blood of animals, which had to be poured out on the altar, because it could not give life. In His veins runs the blood of the eternal life of God Himself. So unlike those animals, which died, and so more were needed, the Lamb of God died but did not stay dead. He is the Life, and He rose, ascended, and was glorified in His flesh, in order to give that life to us.
Just as the priests could eat the sacrifice from the altar, but not the blood, because there was no life in the blood, so we have an altar from which we eat. When we gather before this altar, it is not to offer sacrifices—though that is what altars are for. We are gathered to eat the fruit of the finished sacrifice. There is no more sacrifice for sin, nothing for us to offer to make good for our sins. Every person has a sort of innate desire to offer or sacrifice something to make things right. Every religion has some way of pleasing God or the gods. When things are going wrong, we almost automatically wonder what we have to do to change the attitude of God toward us. And the direction is always from us to God, usually upward.
But our God has completely reversed that direction. It is God who gives His own sacrifice. The Son willingly gives Himself into flesh in order to die. And the resurrected Jesus pours out His blood and gives His life to the world. And here, at the altar, He doesn’t sacrifice Himself over and over. He gives the completed and sufficient sacrifice to those whom He has called His holy, priestly people. Here we eat not only the flesh of the sacrifice, but also the blood, because in this blood there is life. In the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, there is eternal life. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and the life is in the blood.
The thing with sacrifices, and especially the sacrifices humans make, whether of themselves or of others, is that they can’t actually make right what has gone wrong. Even when the law demands an eye for an eye, or a life for a life, it is not possible for that punishment to be actual justice. If someone is executed for killing someone else, that execution cannot bring back the person who was killed. We have a desire for vengeance, for justice, for righteousness, but it never actually is accomplished by us. And we never really feel better, even when that so-called justice is carried out.
But the sacrifice of Jesus, which He offers in His own blood, is in fact to make things right. Everyone who dies in this creation dies once, and none of them have resurrection in themselves. Their deaths do not bring resurrection to anyone else. But Jesus rises from the dead, the Lamb and the Shepherd, the crucified one who lives, in order to make all things right. He is going to give back all that was lost, make right all that’s gone wrong, raise all the dead, and give life to those who have died in Him. And it is that fullness, that completion, that fulfillment for which we are eagerly waiting. The once-for-all death and resurrection means the eternal life and salvation of those who wait for His revealing, when we will finally be like Him because we shall see Him as He is. In these gray and latter days, we wait eagerly for His appearance unto our salvation. The resurrected one, who has made these promises, is faithful. He will surely do it.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/6/21