Remember now, our preacher is demonstrating the superiority of Christ’s priestly work to that of the Levitical priests. Their sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience from sin, could not bring the sinner to God, could not obtain eternal redemption, and could not make the worshipper perfect. But Christ’s sacrifice of himself was able to do all of those things. (Let me say here, as an aside, that there is a movement today in what I suppose we could call quasi-evangelical NT scholarship to get past the old divisions, by which they mean the argument between Protestants and Catholics about justification by faith. A typical approach taken is to argue that in many cases where we always thought Paul was talking about how salvation happens, and was condemning false views of salvation, he was really more concerned simply to assert that one didn’t have to be a Jew in order to be saved. Don’t you believe it. In many places in Paul and in many other places in the Bible the question that is raised is precisely how salvation happens and how it is obtained and the difference between the true way of salvation and the false way. That is the issue in Hebrews, just as it is the issue in Paul.)
These people were being tempted to return to Judaism, that first century Judaism that had no place for Christ, for a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world, and our preacher is telling them that if they do, they will be relying on sacrifices that cannot put them right with God and cannot get them to heaven. Of course, as we pointed out last time, the sacrifices were never intended to do that in and of themselves – they always pointed away from themselves to the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world – but when people were tempted to absolutize them, and treat them as salvation itself, as Israel had so often done in her history, it was fair for the author, as for the OT prophets before him, to point out how ineffectual the sacrifices are as a basis of one’s hope for cleansing from sin.
v.16 The mention of “eternal inheritance” in v. 15 prompts the preacher to offer, in vv. 16-22 an illustration drawn from everyday life. The particular illustration is suggested to the mind by the fact that the Greek word diatheke, which ordinarily means “covenant” in biblical Greek, more commonly meant in the Greek of that day “last will and testament.” Of course, as everyone knows, a will only takes effect at the death of the testator, the one who made the will.
v.21 Some of this history is not mentioned in the Pentateuch. There is, for example, no mentioning of any sprinkling of the tabernacle with blood. The preacher obviously expects his readers to know what he is speaking about. There were probably other sources of this information that we do not now have.
v.22 The point is clear. Even in the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness, blood – which, of course, is a symbol of life given up, of death – was required for purification.
v.23 Now he returns to the contrast he has been making all along. Christ’s sacrifice was not a copy of the real one and it was not offered in a temple that was a copy of the real one. It was the blood of the perfect, divine substitute and was offered in the heavenly sanctuary.
v.24 As we have already seen, a priest not only offers sacrifices but makes intercession. And Christ’s intercession is made in heaven itself, in the very presence of God.
v.26 The Protestant proof text against the Roman Catholic claim that the Mass is, in fact, the continuing sacrifice of Jesus Christ; that in the mass Christ is sacrificed again.
Here, for example, is the statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.’ ‘In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.”
That is, Christ is actually, physically present in the mass, in the bread and wine, and he is offered up to God to take away our sins in that sacrifice that is made every time the Eucharist is celebrated, God’s wrath is appeased, guilt is removed, and sins forgiven. These are things Protestants do not believe to be true and do believe represent a serious corruption of the gospel as it is revealed in Holy Scripture. Not only does the Bible never teach anything like this, here and in other places, it seems to teach in language one might well think is unmistakable, that Christ’s sacrifice was once for all and infinitely effective at the moment of Christ’s death. Is this not also the meaning of Christ’s resurrection? The sacrifice is complete and the victory over sin and death accomplished.
“end of the ages” suggests that Christ’s sacrifice is the pivot around which all of human history turns. Obviously, 2000 years have passed since then and history continues to unfold. So it doesn’t mean “end” in the sense that history is brought to its conclusion. Rather, what had to happen to bring human history to its fulfillment has now happened and only the Lord’s return remains. That is what he goes on now to say.
v.28 As men die but once, so Christ, who took the place of men, died but once, but his death had an eternal effect. However, the full manifestation of that effect will not be seen until the Lord returns and history is brought to a close.
Note once more the futuristic perspective of Hebrews. Attention is always being thrown forward to the end of the age. We do not yet have salvation in this sense. The better promises are all those promises of eternal life and the better country that no believer has yet received. You must continue in faith in Christ to the very end so that you do not fail to obtain these promises. That is the burden of his sermon and he has repeated it already a number of times and will a number of times yet. Never does he treat salvation as something that we already have. We have it in principle, but we do not have the salvation Christ has obtained for us and will not have it until he returns. “Salvation” as a term, of course, can be used for what believers receive already in this world. For example, when he believes, Jesus says of Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Paul speaks in Romans 11:11 of “salvation” coming to the Gentiles. There are plenty of examples like those. But the term is not used that way in Hebrews. Here salvation always refers to what believers obtain in the world to come. That is one of the characteristics of Hebrews and you begin to understand the book when you remember this.
Now the preacher’s point is the one he has already made several times in several ways. This man is nothing if he is not thorough! The principle, the ground, the basis of true salvation is not the oft-repeated Levitical rituals, just as it is not today the oft repeated ritual of the Lord’s Supper, but the once-for-all, eternally effective self-sacrifice of Christ, sufficient to cover all the sins of all the called for all time. But, since our preacher has repeated himself here, he gives me opportunity to take up some smaller points of his argument this evening.
- The first matter of interest that I draw to your attention is that here, as elsewhere in the Bible, attention falls not on the believer’s death and the entrance of his soul into heaven, but upon the resurrection at the end of the age.
It is true, to be sure, that to live is Christ and to die is gain and that, as Paul says, to die is better than to live on by far, because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Who would not want to go to Paradise, as did the thief on the cross when he died next to Jesus and his body was laid in some pauper’s grave?
But this author passes over all of that, as do other NT writers most of the time. The true hope and expectation of the believer in Jesus Christ is not the entrance of one’s soul into heaven when he or she dies, it is the entrance into eternity of the resurrected body (reunited with the soul) at the second coming of Jesus Christ. In fact, in comparison to the second coming, what Paul calls the “blessed hope” of Christians, the intermediate state, what theologians call that time when the soul, separated from the body, is in heaven awaiting the consummation, gets short shrift.
The largest reason for that, no doubt, is, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5, the soul without the body, even in heaven, has not yet enjoyed the completeness of salvation and has not yet obtained in fullness the eternal life that Christ died to give him or her. When a Christian dies and goes to heaven, there is much, much more to come. Why concentrate on a pleasant stop along the way when it is the final destination for which we are taking the journey?
I love Andrew Bonar’s description of the intermediate state. He likens it to arriving at the grand home of a wealthy friend who has invited you to a banquet. All the guests have not yet arrived. So you stand in the large front hallway of the elegant home, enjoying hors d’oeuvres and drinks and amiable conversation with friends while awaiting the arrival of the last guests and the signal from your host that it is time to take your seats at the table. You are enjoying the moment very much, in other words; you love the setting, you love the people, the conversation is stimulating, you are honored to have been invited, but you are there for the dinner and the prospect of the banquet looms over everything else. You can see the table, beautifully set and being loaded with the finest food and drink through the open rooms; you can smell the food.
That, I think, is a good way of thinking about it. To die is better by far because we will be with Jesus himself and sinless for the first time! But, when we are there, we will be conscious of nothing so much that there is still much, much more to come.
We want to be among those Christians who never lose sight of the consummation, who don’t think only in terms of their immediate and personal departure from this world. We want to be among those who are always looking forward to all that Christ has for us, the better resurrection, the better country, the true and final and perfect fulfillment of everything it means to be a human being in the next world. There we will be with Christ still more fully and more completely.
- The second observation has to do with the nature of faith as “waiting.”
You see it there at the end of the chapter in the final phrase. We might have expected the preacher to say that Christ would bring salvation to those who trust in him or who believe in him, but, instead, he says to those who are waiting for him.
Paul says something similar in Philippians 3:20:
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ….”
And he puts the same idea more beautifully still in his very personal final testament in 2 Tim. 4:7-8:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge will award to me on that day – and not only to be, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
That is, Paul, at the point of his death, when his soul is about to ascend to heaven, is still thinking of the end of history, of “that day” as he calls it, and faith he defines as a longing for the appearing of Jesus.
Now we are used to the fact that faith must often wait. God withholding himself and not coming immediately to the aid of his people is a common motif in the Psalms. Obviously the immediate satisfaction of our desire does not produce a gracious and a holy life. It is essential that we should wait for many things. For some things longer than for others.
“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry,” says David in Psalm 40.
So faith means waiting both for things in this world and for the end of the world. Faith is the confidence that God will keep his promises and until they have been kept, we must wait and, if we have faith, we will wait patiently and in confident expectation, because we know that God will not fail to be good to his Word.
So faith is often waiting and it is, in a certain sense, precisely waiting for those things that are the fullness, the consummation of our salvation that no believer has ever yet seen and without which our faith is null and void. Take all the blessings you suppose you have from Jesus Christ. If he does not come again and take us to heaven as he said he would, if our bodies will not come out of the grave when the archangel shouts, then, as Paul willingly, even cheerfully admits in 1 Cor. 15, we are of all men the most to be pitied. It is not only that we must wait to have our prayers answered, we must wait to the end of our lives in this world and even beyond. The fulfillment of what we hope for lies far ahead of us, unless we are that favored generation who will be in the world when Christ comes again. Until then it will always be faith. You won’t be able to prove your faith to an unbeliever because its final, invincible demonstration lies still in the future.
And so, if we truly believe, we show it by waiting for what we know will come in due time. As the Puritan Richard Sibbes put it,
“[In this waiting] we may discern a main difference between a Christian and a carnal man, who is short-spirited, and all for the present. He will have his good here, whereas a saint of God continues still waiting, though all things seem contrary to what he expects.” [Works, i, 251]
But what does it mean to wait? Well, it means to live in expectation, to live in a manner consistent with what one knows is going to come to pass. Think of the disciples who witnessed the Lord’s ascension to heaven. He told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to be given. And that is what they did. But their waiting was hardly passive inaction. They didn’t sit in the upper room, still and silent, awaiting events. They knew that power was coming from on high to equip them for great work on Christ’s behalf. So they spent that time in prayer together and even in business. They replaced Judas, filled his vacancy among the 12. No doubt they read the Scriptures and no doubt they talked at length with one another about what they had witnessed.
Well, so for us. We await the end of the age and will, perhaps very likely, await it for a long time yet, for years while our souls are already up in heaven and while our bodies sleep in the grave. But all the while we are to live as those who know how history ends and what will become of those who love Jesus and trust and serve him and what will become of those who do not. The second coming of the Lord should be stamped on our daily lives and its fact, for fact it is, should be obvious to anyone who observes how we live. Here is a man, here is a woman who is living for the future, whose life is a testament to the promise of Christ to return for his people and take them to his Father’s house. That would certainly distinguish us in a culture where everyone lives for the present and in which there is little serious thought about the future, especially the ultimate future.
Even Christians have grown used to thinking little about the future and about the second coming. It is such an unabashedly supernatural expectation that it is easy to feel uncomfortable talking about it in a highly naturalistic environment such as our own. But, remember, the Lord Jesus said that he would be long enough in coming back to furnish an argument for skeptics. “Where is the sign of his coming?” they will scoff. It has always been something unbelievers have been unwilling to credit. Tertullian wrote in the 3rd century: “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that Jesus will one day judge the world.” But, the Lord counts your confidence in his return as a great demonstration of your faith in him. It is a mark of a high and deep spiritual life, of a strong faith, when a man or woman longs for and looks for the coming of Jesus Christ and lives his or her life in the active expectation of it. Drop the second coming into your conversation regularly, including your conversation with unbelievers.
Some of you were recently in Edinburgh. Perhaps you went to the Greyfriars Cemetery. It is an important spot for Covenanter history, but tourists rarely learn that. No, the cemetery is famous for another reason. A little dog, who came to be known as Grayfriars Bobbie, came day after day to sit as his master’s grave. For 14 years he did this, waiting for his Master to appear. A bust of the dog greets the visitor as he enters the cemetery. What a charming story of the faithfulness of man’s best friend.
Well, brothers and sisters, if a dog can wait for his dead master to return for 14 years. you and I can most certainly wait for our Master to return. We can certainly trust his promise to return and take us to heaven. Surely he who died and rose again and ascended to heaven was not having us on when he said he would return in the same way that he left.
What does it matter whether Jesus comes back in ten years or ten thousand. The issue is whether our lives in this world were lived in harmony with the fact that he is coming again and whether that fearful, glorious, and intoxicating truth did its holy work in our hearts and lives. We live in three tenses as Christians: we live in the active confidence in what Jesus has already done for us, the past; in the active confidence of his presence with us now and his work in us by the Holy Spirit, the present; and in the certainty that his promises regarding the future will be fulfilled.
John Calvin says that “meditation on the future life” is a primary ingredient in any true godliness and any true fruitfulness just as meditation on Christ’s finished work is such a primary ingredient.
Christ behind me dying and rising again; Christ ahead of me coming to judge the world and take his true followers to the heavenly country at last. With what confidence we should live, with what pleasure in the anticipation of impossibly wonderful pleasures to come, with what eagerness to see the Lord with our own eyes as we certainly shall, with what concern for the salvation of those around us, with such cheerful indifference to the afflictions of this brief life and this world so soon to disappear, and with what determination to use up our short life in this world doing what we are going to want to have done when we hear the trumpet call of God.
You young people, here are your marching orders for life. Live in the active expectation of the return of Jesus Christ. Live knowing that he is coming again; live a life that makes sense in view of his coming again, live the life of godliness, of faithful service, of Christian joy and love that anyone ought to live who knows that after a short time here, one short opportunity to serve Jesus by faith, you will see him face to face. Live with his name on your lips and his cause in your heart. Live as if that day were tomorrow or the next day. For you can be sure of it, you will see that day sooner than you think.