Its now been over a week since Britain voted to leave the European Union, and much speculation has begun on what happens next. Politicians, economists and newspaper columnists have all begun to speculate on the relationship we’ll have with our neighbours once Article 50 is ‘triggered’ and we leave the EU. Will our future relationship with them be close - or distant? Will it be warm and friendly - or rather cold and frosty?
Much will depend on the trade deal we’re able to agree with the EU as we ‘Brexit’. Our future relationship with our European neighbours will hinge on the economic system we are able to set up with them. Economists suggest Britain could adopt the Norwegian single market model, the Swiss trading system, the Canadian bilateral deal or some other kind of free trade agreement. It all gets very complicated, but for what its worth I think we’ll go for the Norwegian-style option – although only time will tell!
Today’s passage in Hebrews tells us about another system change, another new deal, and the new relationship that results from it. Because Hebrews chapter 10 describes a change in the sacrificial system that took place 2000 years ago. A sacrificial system that sustains the relationship between sinful human beings and our good God. Our passage today tells us how Jesus’ came to replace and renew the Old Testament sacrificial system. It tells that Christ’s death has created the possibility of a new deal between human beings and God - a new relationship between Christian believers and their Creator.
The Old Sacrificial System (v.1-4)
We all have daily routines, don’t we? We all have things we need to do day-in, day-out. Whether its getting dressed and brushing our teeth in the morning, travelling to work or school, eating our meals, washing the dishes or making our tea – there are some things that we all have to do day after day. Things that can be quite tedious and monotonous after a while.
Well spare a thought for Jewish Priests, and their work in Old Testament times. Because daily life for them was a never-ending sequence of sacrifices. Day after day, year after year, it was their responsibility to offer sacrifices for sin. Whether they served at the Tabernacle tent in the wilderness, or later in the Jerusalem Temple, God’s law said it was their duty to kill bulls, goats and other animals on an altar. They had to shed blood on an altar for the their sins, and the sins of the people.
These sacrifices are described in great detail in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, and had one overriding objective – to keep sinful human beings in a right relationship with God. The sacrifice of an animal was a ritual that the people of Israel believed could to take away their guilt before God. They believed that God’s rightful anger against human wrongdoing was redirected onto the heads of these bulls and goats, so that they could be forgiven by him. Or to use the technical terminology, these sacrifices were believed to ‘propitiate’ God’s anger at their sin and ‘expiate’ or take away their guilt.
But something was wrong. This system wasn’t perfect. It had its limitations. The author of Hebrews helpfully gives us a couple of clues that these sacrifices weren’t perfect.
Firstly, as we’re told in verse 1 today, these sacrifices had to be “repeated endlessly year after year”. Those poor priests never had a chance to sit down and put their feet up - their job was never done! Surely this was a sign that the sacrifices weren’t totally effective. They could not offer full and final forgiveness. They could not make people perfect and blameless in God’s sight. Otherwise, as verse 2 points out, they would have stopped being offered.
Last summer we had the vicarage boiler serviced. Over the space of a few weeks, the diocesan boiler engineer kept coming back at least 4 times. The reason he kept coming back was that something was wrong. The boiler wasn’t working properly - we kept having cold showers - it wasn’t fully fixed. If the job had been finished properly first time, we wouldn’t have had to see him again and again!
The same principle applies to those Old Testament sacrifices. They had to keep being offered because they weren’t doing the job properly. They hadn’t got to the heart of the problem. That’s why verse 2 tells us that Old Testament worshipers still “felt guilty for their sins”.
When you think about it, its no surprise really, is it. After all, how could the sacrifice of animals earn forgiveness for human beings? How could the moral guilt of men and women be taken away by amoral, ignorant animals? Of course it couldn’t. That’s why Hebrews tells us in verse 4 that “it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
But if these Old Testament sacrifices weren’t able to take away sin, why on earth did God ask the Israelites to do them? Well, our reading told us, didn’t it? Look again at verse 4. Because it says there that those Old Testament sacrifices were a “reminder of sins”. They were a regular reminder to God’s people that they needed to seek God’s forgiveness. They were an annual reminder that we all do wrong things, we all need God’s grace to remain in a right relationship with him.
Verse 1 also gives for another reason for those Old Testament sacrifices. It says “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”. In other words, the Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be a foreshadowing - a pointer or prototype, you might say - to a full and perfect sacrifice that was it come. Like an advertisement on TV, or a billboard by a road, the Old Testament sacrifices were designed to raise people’s appetite and expectation for a full and final sacrifice that was yet to come. A perfect sacrifice that took place “when Christ came into the world”.
The Perfect Sacrifice (v.5-13)
If you turned on the TV last Monday evening, you probably had the misfortune of watching our England football team go out of Euro 2016. Their defence was leaky, our forwards had nothing to offer, and their overall performance was poor. Our highly-paid Premier League superstars were outshone by little-known players from tiny Iceland. Roy Hodgson sent his men onto the field, but they failed to deliver. The great expectations of the nation were left unfulfilled.
Thankfully, the same can’t be said of the man God sent into the world. When God sent his son onto the field of human history, Christ performed perfectly. He exceeded every expectation and provided the perfect sacrifice that God’s people had longed for. The letter of Hebrews tells us that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he offered a full and final sacrifice for sin. When Christ shed his blood at Calvary, he did achieved what bulls and goats could never really achieve – he bore the full penalty for our sin and made it possible for people to become right with God for eternity. When Jesus died our debt to God was paid off in full. He opened a floodgate of forgiveness from heaven that keeps flowing to this very day. A tidal wave of grace that anyone anywhere can receive through faith in him.
Verse 5 to 7 today explain why Christ’s self-sacrifice was so effective:
- Bulls and goats couldn’t take away human guilt, but another human being could. Verse 5 reminds us that Christ was fully human – he had a “body” that God had “prepared” for him.
- And verse 7 tells us that Jesus came to earth to do God’s will. He lived a morally blameless, spotless life. He never succumbed to temptation, he never accrued any guilt. You see, Jesus could shoulder our sins on the cross, because he had none of his own to carry there.
Verse 11 and 12 today are a great reassurance that Christ’s sacrifice did its job. Day after day, those poor Old Testament priests had to perform their “religious duties again and again”. Those guys never got a break, their job was never done. New sins meant new sacrifices. But when Jesus “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God”. After his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, Jesus was able to sit down at his Father’s side. Sin had been paid for, the full and final sacrifice had been offered. He had performed the perfect sacrifice – a single sacrifice able to put us right with God, now and forever. His job was done!
The New Deal! (v.15-18)
One privilege of being a Church of England minister is being able to preside at marriage ceremonies. It’s great to see a man and a woman exchange their vows and make a lifelong commitment to one another. Its wonderful to be able to preside over a legal and spiritual ceremony that creates in a new and loving relationship. (It’s a role Ken can look forward to from next Summer!)
In a similar yet far, far, greater way, Jesus has presided over a new relationship between God and his people. Jesus’ death on the cross means he has established a legal and spiritual ‘deal’ between Christians and our Creator. This new deal is called a new “covenant” in verse 16 our passage today:
- A new covenant that was first promised by the prophet Jeremiah.
- A new covenant that was ‘triggered’ and began when Christ died and rose again.
- A new covenant anyone can enter through faith in him.
Verses 16 and 17 today summarise the terms of this new covenant for us and it is spelled out in full back in Hebrews chapter 8, verses 10-12. Listen to what is on offer:
- Firstly, God’s law will be written on our hearts and minds, rather than on blocks of stone. If we are followers of Christ crucified, then his Holy Spirit will put a desire to serve God on our hearts. It will become our delight to please him, and put him first in our lives. He will sharpen our conscience too, so that our minds more clearly recognise what is right.
- And secondly, God will forget our sins. Our “sins and lawless acts [he] will remember no more”. If we’ve come to Christ, we receive God’s full forgiveness. As I sum it up for my children, if we’re followers of Jesus we are God’s forgiven friends forever. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a great deal to me!
Before I finish this morning, we should spend a few moments reflecting on what this new deal means for us. How should we respond to Jesus perfect sacrifice? How should we react to the new relationship with God that is on the table? The British Parliament and people will need to accept or reject whatever deal is negotiated with the European Union, and every individual must accept or reject the new deal that God offers the world through Christ.
So if you are here this morning and not yet a Christian, please do accept the deal God has put on the table. It’s a great offer of eternal friendship and forgiveness because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. An offer we receive by putting our faith in Christ crucified – by putting our faith in him who shed his blood on the cross to wash us clean in God’s sight.
For those of us here who are already Christians, the challenge for us is to keep trusting in Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our salvation. It can be very tempting to think that it is our good deeds, our charitable giving or even our service at Church that puts us in God’s good books. But the truth is that only Christ’s death makes us members of God’s people. Good deeds, generous giving and joyful service should be our response to God’s love and grace – they are not the way we earn it.
I think we also need to be careful about what language we use in Church. We need to avoid words that draw attention away from Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.
- For example, as Mike said last week, it is unhelpful to call Christian ministers “priests”. Church leaders are never called priests in the New Testament. The only individual in the New Testament who’s called a priest is Jesus Christ himself. Because he alone has offered the full and final sacrifice for sin at the cross – the sacrifice of his own body.
- We should also avoid calling our table at the end of church an “altar”. Because an altar is where a sin sacrifice is offered - and since Christ such sacrifices are no longer necessary. We need a table for the Lord’s Supper, not an altar for a sacrifice. Quite rightly, the official laws and liturgy of the Church of England never describe the Lord’s Table as an altar, and nor should we!
Finally, let me finish on a positive note. Because Christ’s perfect sacrifice means every Christian now has first-hand access to God. We can know him intimately as our Father. What a wonderful privilege to know personally the Creator of the universe. So let us draw near to him in prayer, including at our prayer meeting this Wednesday. Let’s delight to sing his praises together. And let’s be passionate in telling others about him - because Jesus’ perfect sacrifice has made it all possible!