For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (New International Version)
Jesus is the central figure of the Bible. I could preach on the finished work of Christ every Sunday and never exhaust the immensely rich implications of his death for us.
Maybe today’s verses seem like a re-hashing of things we already know. Yet, it is important to keep plumbing the depths of Christ’s once for all sacrifice because it is through continually examining Jesus that we will experientially know our forgiveness is real. Having this reality sink deep into our souls enables us to extend forgiveness to others.
The original recipients of Hebrews were experiencing spiritual fatigue due to their difficult circumstances. The believers were so tired from swimming upstream that they considered quitting and giving up on Christianity (or at least the Church).
The author of Hebrews truly believed that the way to combat this tiredness was through a robust understanding of Christ. So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has even superseded it.
There are three main distinctions between the old sacrificial system and the new way of Christ. They are meant to encourage us so that we will know our forgiveness is real. This awareness will help us persevere and live for Jesus in all we say and do, until he returns.
First Distinction: Reality versus a Simulated Copy
The Old Testament sacrificial system, and its worship rituals in dealing with the sin issue, were only a copy and a shadow of the real sacrifice, which is Christ. The Temple sacrifices, in other words, were merely a facsimile of the real thing.
When my girls were small, they always enjoyed going to our local large grocery store. At that store they had a row of mechanical horses that only cost a penny to ride for one minute. Riding the horses was always the highlight of shopping for them. Their Aunt once came for a visit and brought a coffee can full of pennies and took them to the grocery store just to ride the horses for an afternoon.
All three of my girls are now grown adult women. They do not ride mechanical horses anymore. They now ride real live horses. My daughters, as excited as they were to ride mechanical horses as small girls, now have no desire to do so because those horses were only a simulation of the real thing.
As Christians, since Christ has come as the true and real sacrifice for sin, we are no longer to be content with simulations and copies of the real deal. And we are to know the difference between them. Our forgiveness is neither a simulation nor a copy because Christ is the real thing.
As my girls were growing up, my wife and I had a certain process we went through with them when they did something wrong toward one another. We would talk about the offense, and then they would need to say the words, “I am sorry.”
However, the matter was never over until they hugged each other and told each other they loved the other. If they could do that, it was the real deal. You see, they could mouth the words to get us off their backs, but to hug and express love was the reality.
Jesus did not just mouth words of forgiveness to us. He secured it through his death on a cross. It is not a cheap imitation kind of forgiveness. It is real. Christ died a violent death. The emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people.
Yet, we need to understand that the brokenness of this world is so bad that it requires drastic action. Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity. Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with great humility and joy that God loves us that much.
Second Distinction: Once versus Endless Repetition
Jesus Christ came to deal with the sin issue once for all through his blood. He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it. The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.
We are familiar with temporary arrangements. For example, annual fees need to be paid and renewal stickers have to be put on a car’s license plate every year. Christ’s atonement, however, is no temporary arrangement. The forgiveness Jesus offers is permanent.
There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.
Author Henri Nouwen once told a story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the military regime there and its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge on him by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. Enraged townsfolk wanted to turn the boy’s funeral into a huge protest march, but the doctor chose another means of protest.
At the funeral, the father displayed his son’s body as he had found it in the jail—naked, scarred from electric shocks and cigarette burns, and beatings. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress from the prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display.
The cross that held Christ’s naked and marred body exposed the violence and injustice of this world. The cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, and a God of sacrificial love. Because Jesus was willing to do this on our behalf, we have forgiveness once and for all through his blood.
This world needs forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving but a real forgiveness that lasts forever.
Third Distinction: Salvation versus Judgment
A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God. Part of the good news is that, in Christ, we do not need to fear the future. We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus. Through Christ’s sacrifice the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open. The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth to come to God.
Jesus, unlike any Levitical priest, has entered God’s presence, providing access to the living God. Christ did not need to offer sacrifice for his own sins but offered himself solely on our behalf. Jesus did more than offer the sacrifice; he himself became the sacrifice. It was a sacrifice to bring deliverance to humanity, not judgment.
Either to justify or to judge is God’s business, not ours. Our concern is to believe in the once for all sacrifice of Jesus that brings a permanent forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, can experience deliverance from sin, death, and hell.
We can have such a hard time forgiving others because we struggle with experiencing our own forgiveness. The path to extending grace to others is in deepening our knowledge, understanding, and awareness of God’s grace in Christ.
The author of Hebrews meant for the Christian life to be an exciting and abundant adventure following Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation. And yet, many Christians do not know anything about this kind of life. They only see the Christian life as a duty and a chore, a kind of cross to bear.
It is important we recognize it is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, who has delivered us so that we can live a new life of freedom enjoying our forgiveness and inviting others on the journey.
There was once an immigrant that booked passage on a ship with just enough money to buy a ticket, a block of cheese and some crackers for a long voyage. The first few days at sea the crackers and cheese tasted good, but eventually they became stale.
As he watched the porters carry large steaks, lobsters, chicken, beautiful salads and many other delicious foods to the other guests, he became so hungry that he finally stopped one of the porters. “I’II do anything to get one of those steaks,” he said. “I’II wash dishes, clean rooms, even mop the deck.” The porter replied, “You bought a ticket, didn’t you? The meals come with the ticket.”
Too many people today are cheese and cracker Christians—missing out on all of God’s steak dinners. All the resources of God are available to us, yet far too many of us live in self-imposed spiritual poverty.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14, NIV)
Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives. He has granted us forgiveness so that we will eagerly enjoy the Word of God; enjoy laboring together in the Gospel; and look forward to how the Spirit will transform lives through Christ’s forgiveness.
Real forgiveness opens our minds, hearts, and our energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.