We are in a sort of postscript to the sermon of Hebrews. Following the final main section of exposition and application, that ended at 12:29, our preacher added some general exhortations to brotherly love, to sexual purity, and to financial contentment. We considered these last time. Now he moves on and returns one last time to the main subject of the entire letter or sermon.
v.7 These leaders are not the present leadership of the Jewish Christian community to which Hebrews was sent, but the men who first evangelized this community and established it as a Christian church. They were mentioned obliquely in 2:3. They had adorned their teaching with the holiness of their lives and had proved that doctrine’s power. The preacher is asking his readers to remember the example they set and to remember what it had meant to them at the time. Imitate their faith. It is not enough simply to remember the heroes of the biblical history; we know Christians ourselves who have lived this faith and whose lives have recommended it to us. Whether by “outcome of their way of life” he means that they suffered martyrdom or simply that it was an impressive and enduring godliness that they all saw in them, these are men who now, apparently, are numbered among the spirits of just men made perfect. For that reason they are further examples of Christians who persevered to the end as he is calling upon his readers to do.
v.8 This great statement, in context, is primarily designed to reassure his readers that, amidst all the uncertainties of their lives in this world, the character and promise of Jesus Christ are absolutely unshakeable certainties. Just as the Lord protected and vindicated previous generations of believers who trusted in him, so he will do the same for these believers.
But, in the context of Hebrews and the total teaching of the NT, it is also an important theological confession that is made here: Christ is the same yesterday, as he is today, and forever. We know he is the eternal God, we know that he created the heavens and the earth, we know that he was the person of the Godhead directly involved with Abraham and the history of Israel, we know that he delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, we know that he gave the law at Mt. Sinai, we know he spoke to Moses in the tabernacle, we know that Moses loved and served him, we know that he was the object of Israel’s faith when she was believing, we know that it was his glory that was revealed from time to time in Israel’s history: all of this we know by the explicit teaching of the New Testament, some of which is in Hebrews. However true it is that in a particular moment in the middle of history, the Son of God appeared in the world to die and rise again and so redeem his people from their guilt and sin, the Son of God has always been the Savior and the ruler of his people. The blessings and benefits of his redemption have been spread backward as well as forward in time and his people, both before and after his incarnation, have known him as Lord and Savior. As true as it is, as John the Baptist put it at the appearing of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” so it is also true that he is the “Lamb slain before the beginning of the world.”
Any correct understanding of the theology of the Bible and the history of salvation must do justice to this fact: that Christ did not begin to be his people’s savior or the object of their faith when he came into the world as the son of Mary. What he did by his incarnation, suffering, obedience, death, and resurrection, was the basis for the relationship he has had with his people since the days of Adam and Eve. That has been a key assumption in the argument of this sermon we know as “Hebrews;” no wonder it should be this preacher who, in his conclusion, confesses that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
v.9 Now our preacher returns one last time to his great theme. He warns his readers once more, as he has a number of times already, against the fatal error of attempting a compromise with Judaism. Since salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, putting confidence once again in the saving power of ceremonies, and particularly the saving power of ceremonial regulations concerning food and drink, amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the gospel. Here the author of Hebrews takes similar ground as that occupied by Paul in Galatians and Colossians.
Remember, there was no problem with Jews continuing to observe Jewish ritual life. Paul had no objection to Jews continuing to practice circumcision or Passover or the other sacrifices – he practiced them himself. So did the other apostles as we know from Acts. Paul’s objection was to the demand that such ceremonies be observed by Gentile converts because that demand could only be made on the strength of some theory of justification that founded our peace with God on human obedience in addition to the merits of Jesus Christ. In the same way, here, the problem is not the Jewish ceremonies in their own right. The problem is that someone is demanding that these Jewish Christians return to the practice of them and that demand must be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and the way of salvation. The fact is, as everyone knows, first century Judaism did not practice the rituals of the OT and rabbinical law as sacraments of evangelical faith in Christ. They practiced them instead as a means, in their own right, of securing peace with God.
It is the saving efficacy of these rites, in and of themselves, separated from Christ and faith, that this preacher has been protesting in his sermon and he protests it once more. That is why he can say these regulations are of no value. No value at all? Were they not biblical, after all? Yes but not as means, in themselves, to take away sin. Not as rituals that took away sin by the very act of performing them. As he said emphatically in chapters 9 and 10 and earlier in chapter 7, as the basis of salvation, such rituals were worthless. It is always from that vantage point from which they are viewed in Hebrews. They could not make a sinner right with God, could not cleanse the conscience, could not take away guilt. They may have an entirely proper and holy and happy use, but, in the present case, no one is thinking about that use, but rather about the use they had in Jewish theology of the first century, a use in which they replaced Jesus Christ and made him unnecessary. That view of the rituals, after all, was the present temptation of these Jewish Christians. As we have said many times so far, one could easily make precisely the same argument made in Hebrews but make it about the Lord’s Supper instead of the OT sacrifices. View the Lord’s Supper as a ritual separated from living faith in Christ and it too is worthless.
v.10 Our altar is the heavenly one, where Christ’s sacrifice was made for us (9:24). Those who trust ceremonies instead of Jesus have no rite to the sacred food of that altar. Whether this is a veiled reference to the Lord’s Supper has been long debated. I don’t think so myself. If there is a book of the NT that would seem, especially according to its customary interpretation, to cry out for a mention of the Lord’s Supper, it is Hebrews. After all, our preacher, at least many think so, is supposed to be contrasting the OT situation and the NT situation. If he mentions OT sacrifices as much as he did, surely he would say something about how they have been replaced and fulfilled by the Lord’s Supper. But it is not mentioned and this can hardly be accidental. He is steering his readers away from ceremonies to the substance of our faith, Jesus Christ himself. The last thing he wants to do is replace a confidence in the ceremonies of the Mosaic law with a confidence in the new ceremonies. That mistake would be made in the church, of course, and on a much larger scale than it was made in OT times. You can commit precisely the same spiritual error with the Lord’s Supper and baptism that the Jews committed with circumcision and Passover and vast multitudes of Christian church members have committed it.
Rather the contrast is, as it has been all through this sermon, between a false and materialistic faith and the true, living faith in the person of Jesus Christ, his work and his promises. Christians in those days had none of the visible apparatus that signified a religion to most people in the world of that time. They had no temples, no sacrifices, and no priests offering sacrifices. Their pagan neighbors thought they were atheists and their Jewish neighbors would also have scorned their faith as lacking all the signs and marks of true religion. No doubt they put it just this way: “You Christians have no altar…” When Archbishop Laud, the high churchman who executed Charles I’s policy of restoring a fully Episcopal church in Britain, visited Scotland, he said that its benighted residents “had no religion at all that I could see – which grieved me much.” What he meant, of course, was that it did not have the outward, visible trappings of ceremony and sacrifice that Laud associated with religion. The church through the ages has often been tempted to gather confidence from its outward trappings instead of its faith in Christ. [Bruce, 400]
Oh no, our preacher is saying. We have an altar and a temple and a priest far better than the altar and temple and priest of those who, for all their ceremoniousness, have no living faith in Jesus Christ.
v.13 This is another reference to the ritual of the Day of Atonement. In 9:6-12, 23-28 the author has already demonstrated that this ritual prefigured the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Now he draws a further contrast between the type and the antitype. The carcasses of the sin offerings – the rejected part of those offerings – were burned outside the camp while Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem. The point seems to be that Judaism, as a whole, had rejected Jesus. Once before in Israel’s history, remember, God had left the camp of Israel and taken up station outside the camp (Ex. 33:7-11). Christ’s sacrifice of himself, not in the temple, but outside the city was an enacted parable expressing God’s judgment on the people’s unbelief.
The exhortation is clear enough. To make peace now with the people and the religious system that rejected and crucified the Messiah would be to make common cause with those whom God has declared to be his enemies. No, the time has come to make a clean and permanent break with those people and that religious thinking that makes salvation a matter of the blood of bulls and goats.
v.14 Such a break will be painful, but any pain is worth the promise of eternal life in the city of God. As the NT teaches in many places, it is those who confess Jesus Lord who are the true Israel of God and in rejecting worldly peace and comfort for the promise of eternal reward, they would be following in the footsteps of the faithful men and women of Israel who have gone before them (chapter 11).
v.16 They may not have animal sacrifices to offer to God any more, but they have better sacrifices than those to offer: worship and good works. Notice how the language of OT worship is brought over into the NT world. This is another demonstration of the fact that the liturgical teaching of the OT is still valuable for us in teaching us the principles and practices of worship. There is nothing unbiblical in calling what we do in this sanctuary on Sunday a “sacrifice.” What we are doing today is of the same nature as what the godly did in worshipping the Lord in the ancient epoch. You can use the same words to speak of worship in both epochs. And it is a good exercise for us to ask whether our worship on Sundays is, really, “a sacrifice,” that is, an offering made to God. What is more, as in ancient days, the worship of God’s people should have a direct relationship to their daily living, their good works. They should both be sacrifices, both offerings made to God. David makes this point and now so does the preacher of the sermon to the Hebrews.
Now, you are going to hear me once more on the right interpretation of the central argument of Hebrews. This has been a constant theme of mine in these studies and I don’t apologize for that. Hebrews is so often misunderstood and that misunderstanding so often contributes to a serious misunderstanding of the Bible as a whole. The mistake is supposing that argument of Hebrews concerns, among other things, a contrast between the religion and the religious world of Moses and that introduced by Christ and his apostles, a contrast, that is, between what we call the OT and what we call the NT. But this is never discussed in Hebrews. When a supposed contrast between the epochs in the history of salvation is introduced into Hebrews – and it has to be introduced because the author says nothing about it himself – the result is that the real contrast that this author is concerned to describe is seen and understood less clearly. The real contrast in Hebrews is between true religion and false; between an understanding of salvation that views it as accomplished by ritual action and an understanding of salvation that sees it as the achievement of Jesus Christ received by living, persevering faith in him; between works and faith. That was the contrast in the days of the OT and it is the same contrast in our day. Those who believe are saved those who do not are not. Those who, though in the church, turn away from Christ will fail to enter God’s rest. That was Israel’s fate in the wilderness and will be the fate of church members today who imitate Israel in her failure to mix the gospel with faith. The spiritual world and the principle of salvation has always been the same. That is why we can learn all about salvation – what it requires, how it is lost, and how and when it is fulfilled, as well from the history that comes before the incarnation as from the history that follows it.
We have before us this evening the last text that is regularly misinterpreted according to that paradigm that sees a contrast between OT and NT in Hebrews, between an inferior epoch in the history of salvation and a superior one, between the supposedly more legal and outward religion of Moses and the more spiritual, inward religion of the NT.
Many understand verse 10 as implying a contrast not between two ways of salvation but between two epochs in the history of salvation, between the religion of Moses – even rightly understood and practiced – and the religion of Christ and his apostles. So, when we read “We have an altar…” we are to understand that our situation is much better than the situation of the believer in the OT. He was stuck with ceremonial food only whereas we have Christ himself. He was left with only the type and shadow, we have the substance. Verses 11-14 are then taken to mean that NT Christians need to get shut of all OT ideas and attitudes. They lived in a type of bondage, even the believers; we have been called to freedom.
And then those who read this text that way begin to spin out their applications. They end up being sacramental minimalists who construct a view of Christian life and worship that leaves the Lord’s Supper out almost altogether and, at most, leaves it as an unnecessary detail. The Quakers go further and leave out the sacraments altogether.
I have a book on my shelf entitled The Open Church. It was circulating a few years ago. Its argument was that Christians today shouldn’t meet in church buildings, but in homes; shouldn’t have ministers in the formal sense of the term, and so on. It purported to show that all of that outward, formal, ritual stuff came from the OT and should have been left behind when the church moved into the NT.
Now, to be fair, most commentators know that isn’t right. Even if they take vv. 9-14 as speaking of a contrast between the OT and the NT, they know that you can’t make these verses an argument against the Lord’s Supper or against church buildings without committing the logical fallacy of accent, that is, the error of taking statements out of their context in order to make points the passage was never intended to make. [Copi, Introduction to Logic, 77] But, even they find in these verses some contrast intended between the religion of Moses and the religion of Jesus. They may not be able to explain what the difference is. They may not be able to account for the fact that Hebrews speaks of Moses preaching the gospel. They may not be able to explain why the city we are looking for is precisely the same city the saints have always looked for and that we must look for it in the future just as they did. But they are sure that in some way we are being told that we live in a higher, more spiritual, freer religious world than did the saints who lived before Pentecost and the incarnation.
Now, as I have said many times, this understanding, this kind of thinking breaks down just as soon as you actually begin to think more carefully about it. It is not what Hebrews teaches; it seems to be, in fact, the reverse of what Hebrews teaches. No one has ever been able successfully to explain precisely what the difference is that is supposed to exist between the spiritual worlds of Moses and our own day. And nowhere in the NT are we actually ever taught that there is such a difference.
Fact is, the problems being addressed in Hebrews are the very problems often faced in Israel’s history and that have been faced many times in Christian history since. The gospel is always being corrupted into some version of self-salvation because of a lack of living faith in the church. The OT warns of that as surely as the NT does. In fact, there is more teaching in the OT to the effect that sacrifices won’t save you if you don’t have living faith than there is in the NT. What we get in the NT, what we get in Hebrews is just more of the same, which is why the OT is cited in Hebrews, always, without exception, as the living Word of God to be believed and obeyed. It is never cited as something that used to be true but no longer is.
The great danger of imagining that Hebrews is talking about some relative difference between the OT and the NT is that we will not fully appreciate that we are in precisely the same place God’s people have always been in, are exposed to precisely the same dangers and must persevere in precisely the same faith or precisely the same fate will greet us that greeted the apostates in the ancient epoch: we too will fail to obtain God’s rest. The temptation that Israel faced in the wilderness is as real today, as powerful today as ever it was in Moses’ day.
And we must do in our day, precisely what the faithful did in long ago days. Imitate the faith of those who persevered. Nothing less. That is the argument of Hebrews.
I can think of so many fine Christians who have inspired me and shaped my own understanding of the Christian faith and life. Dr. Wilbur Wallis, my NT professor in seminary, just celebrated his 90th birthday. A godly man and a man who loved the Word of God. I have always wanted to be more like him in several ways, but certainly in his faith in the promises of God. Or think of Khen Tombing of Manipur, whom many of you know, and the consequential life that he is living because of his sturdy trust in the Lord.
Or, think of Jack Paist, that good man who came to retire with his dear wife at Panorama City in Lacey way back near the beginning of my ministry here. He became an elder quite soon thereafter and helped us immensely in moving forward as a congregation. He died right about the time my youngest son was born. Not so long ago, Mrs. Paist showed me something she had found in one of his little notebooks, something he had written something more than a year before he died.
“March 7, 1983. It seems to me to be an appropriate time to set down some thoughts of my God. The one whom I desire to honor and to serve, yet whom I fail so miserably day by day.
My God is Jehovah the one who, out of nothing, brought into being everything that is. He is the one alone who sustains and holds together the whole creation. He is a personal God who knows the mind and heart of everyone. He has absolute control over everything infinitely and eternally. He has all wisdom, all power and is perfect love. All praise is due to him.
I have committed my life to him and pray for his grace to think, speak, act, and desire that he will be served, honored and adored. I pray that I will love Jesus, God the Son, my Lord and my Savior more and more each day. My love seems so cold to me but maybe it is that I am not a warm and emotional person. I ask the Lord for grace to grow warmer and more loving during the next year that he may be glorified in me.”
Moses thought and felt the very same thing. And so did David and Jeremiah. And so did the men who first formed the church to which Hebrews was sent. And so, we believe, did many in that church and the more so after they had read this marvelous sermon. And so must everyone who wishes at the last to see the gates of the eternal city open for him or for her.