Real Forgiveness (Hebrews 9:23-28)

By Marc Chagall, 1941

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 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)

In truth, I could preach on the Cross every Sunday and never exhaust the immensely rich implications of Jesus Christ’s death for us. 

Perhaps, for many Christians, today’s New Testament lesson seems 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, through continual examination of Christ and the Cross:

  • We will know, both intellectually and experientially, that our forgiveness is real. 
  • We will be able, both spiritually and emotionally, to extend real forgiveness to others.

The original recipients of Hebrews were experiencing spiritual fatigue due to their difficult circumstances. The believers were so worn down from swimming upstream of their problems, that they considered throwing in the towel 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 and the Cross. So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has superseded it. 

There are three main distinctions between the old sacrificial system and the new way of Christ so that we will be encouraged to know that our forgiveness is real.

Reality vs. Simulation

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.

The difference between the old temple sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ, is like the difference between riding a mechanical horse and an actual horse. Mechanical horses are merely a simulation of real riding.

Since Christ has come as the real sacrifice for sin, we need no longer be content with simulations and copies of the real deal. The Christian’s forgiveness is neither a simulation nor a copy because Christ is the real thing. 

By Marc Chagall, 1952

Jesus did not just mechanically mouth words of forgiveness to us; Christ secured real forgiveness through his death on a cross. This is no cheap imitation of forgiveness. Christ died an actual 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, knowing that God loves us that much.

Permanent vs. Temporary

Jesus Christ dealt with the sin issue once and 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.

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 a permanent forgiveness, settled once and for all, through his blood.

This old world needs real forgiveness that lasts forever – not a cheap sentimental forgiving that is merely a flash in the pan. 

Salvation vs. 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.

Conclusion

The author of Hebrews meant for the Christian life to be an exciting and abundant adventure of 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. We must recognize that it is the 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.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.

Colossians 1:13-14, NLT

Jesus didn’t die on a cruel cross, then rise from death so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives.

Christ has granted us forgiveness so that we will enjoy the Christian life, appreciate the Word of God; relish in laboring together for the Gospel; and look forward with anticipation to how the Spirit will transform lives through Christ’s forgiveness. 

Real forgiveness opens our minds, hearts, and energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. Clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Don’t Let Suffering Surprise You (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 

If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will, should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (New International Version)

In a culture of toxic positivity, we can never quite bring ourselves around to the reality of suffering. Being uncomfortable with the unwanted emotions associated with suffering seems to be the modus operandi of the Western world.

Like it, or not, none of us gets off this fallen planet without experiencing a host of circumstances we neither asked for nor wanted. And no amount of plastic smiles, fake-it-till-you-make-it approaches, and spin doctoring of attitudes will ever take the pain completely away – or even fully understand it’s mystery. In the long run, whitewashing pain only exacerbates the suffering.

Yet, despite all hardship and hurt, joy and the ability to rejoice still remains a necessary part of life, even in the worst of situations. The problem is: We tend to believe that we cannot hold seemingly opposing feelings at the same time – even though we actually do it all the time.

When the youngest child leaves home and the parents are empty nesters, they feel the simultaneous emotions of proud joy and deep sadness.

And when an aging parent or grandparent dies, the family experiences the bittersweet feelings of knowing that suffering is ended, yet also this dear loved one is gone from us.

Or when you are treated unfairly and spoken of unkindly, there is a mix of emotions from anger about what is happening to some sense of peace that this person or group of people have shown their real colors to the world.

I am going to make one of the simplest observations about God’s people in the Bible: they suffered; they were seen.

Whether Abel dying by the hand of his own brother, Noah enduring the ridicule of his neighbors, Abraham facing an uncertain future, Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem’s calloused destruction, or Paul enduring persecution, everyone who wants to live a godly life will face suffering.

Every New Testament Epistle has a message about how to handle the inevitability of human suffering.

Fifth Station of the Cross, by Candido Portinari, 1953

The Apostle Peter, in his epistle, made it clear that every Christian should neither be surprised nor shocked when they suffer. If our Lord suffered (which he did, even to the extreme) then we, too, will also suffer, as those who follow him. 

Yet, Peter balances the harsh reality of suffering with the need for followers of Jesus to properly interpret that suffering. The Apostle learned the hard way that our means of accepting, coping with, and transcending hardship is by interpreting our personal suffering in light of Christ’s own suffering.

He insisted that the Christian’s suffering is a privilege, even a blessing. It is a mark of belonging – a sign that God’s Spirit is within us. 

If we do stupid things, we face the consequences for our foolishness. But when we do the good, right, and altruistic thing – then suffer some adverse effect – it puts us in solidarity with Christ. We can be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered. It prepares the believer for even greater happiness when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.

I’m under no illusions or delusions here. Interpreting our suffering through specifically Christian lenses is no easy task. Sometimes it’s rough and downright hard. And it gets complicated when the suffering doesn’t let up and is compounded daily for weeks, months, even years at a time.

So, what shall we do in such times? Peter says that if your suffering originates in obedience to God, then keep the faith, keep on doing the right, the just, and the good thing.

A bad attitude, giving up, and revenge are not options on the table for the Christian. I believe most followers of Jesus understand that. The greater temptation, however, is a more subtle and insidious approach toward suffering: going with “meh.”

“Meh” is a spiritual, emotional, and mental stance of simply going with the flow, getting along on the surface of things, and hoping all the unpleasantness goes away soon. In facing the adversity with all it’s painful suffering, the “meh” person just shrugs their shoulders and says, “Meh, whatever; what’s a guy to do, anyway?”

Thanks for asking. We persevere. Don’t let suffering surprise you when it shows up at your door like an unwanted guest. Here’s some practical ways of getting through it:

  1. Tell your story to others and don’t go it alone and be the martyr. We already have a Martyr, and his name is Jesus.
  2. Do something that isn’t nothing. Avoid piddly busywork. Instead, when renewal and rest are needed, read a good book or have a stimulating conversation.
  3. Have a support system in place before suffering comes upon you. Trials to faith will happen. It will be overly difficult to face them without a community of persons around you.
  4. Ask for help, for God’s sake! People are hard-wired by their Creator for community. Rugged individualism is a myth; it doesn’t exist and isn’t even possible.
  5. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Comfort is not the summum bonum of life. Hedonism only masks pain and does not take it away. Expand your ability to handle diverse situations.
  6. Realize that Christianity is a process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a one-and-done uttering a sinner’s prayer and waiting to cash-in a divine life insurance policy in order to stay out of hellfire. If you actually believe this, I suggest reading the Bible.
  7. Keep living your life. The earth is still spinning on its axis. The sun will still come up in the morning. God’s steadfast and faithful love will still be waiting for you when you wake up.

God sees and will vindicate the godly attitude, the ongoing work, and all the blood, sweat, and tears that go with our commitment to Christ and perseverance in the faith.

You’re already signed-up for suffering just by being a person. Welcome to the human condition. What will you do with your pain?

Saving and sustaining God, it is a small thing for me to suffer in light of your great suffering on my behalf through the cross. Empower me, and all your people everywhere, to do right every day so that praise, glory, and honor for Jesus Christ will always be on my lips through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Get Rid of Sin (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)

The Apostle Paul at his Desk, by Rembrandt, 1657

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels, to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one person wise enough to decide between brothers and sisters? Instead, brothers and sisters go to court against one another, and this before the unbelievers.

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and brothers and sisters at that.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (New Revised Standard Version)

The one constant which every Church and each Christian will have to deal with until Jesus returns is the ever-present reality of sin

“Sin” isn’t a word that is much used anymore, even among many Christians. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that we have expanded our vocabulary to better understand the concept and reality; and it’s bad because we sometimes label something as different than what it really is.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church confronts the presence of sin within the congregation. The reason why the letter is so long is that Paul painstakingly deals with every sin that had taken root in the community.

St. Paul at His Writing Desk by Rembrandt, 1630

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul mentions some of those sins, especially tackling the unhealthy way the Christians were dealing with their internal strained relations of each other. One of the ways sin manifests itself is through confronting another’s sin with our own sin. Yeah, it gets complicated pretty quickly when that happens.

In other words, we too often try to meet a legitimate need through illegitimate means. That sort of practice is at the core of many a sinful attitude and action.

So then, there were those in the Corinthian Church who had legitimate grievances but sought to rectify the situation using secular means to handle a sacred need. Instead of focusing on restoration and relationship, utilizing the spiritual implements of gentleness and humility, they gave into the temptation for retribution through unrighteous persons who would level judgment.

None of this is intended for Christians to avoid the established court systems of the land. Rather, it is a warning not to punch somebody in the face when they slap you on the cheek. Seeking punishment isn’t the way of Christ. Reconciliation and restoration has been achieved through the cross of Christ – and Paul expected the Church to live as a new community based in mutual encouragement and accountability.

Paul clearly saw the shadowy places of the human heart and understood that light needed to come to those hidden areas. And he wasn’t about to sit back and let bitterness spread like gangrene in the Body of Christ.

Sin is both things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. 

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as a holy and loving Being. 

Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God. All sin, whether in our actions or inactions, is rooted in an attitude and activity of self-centeredness, of thinking about ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than God. 

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1633

The consequence of this sin brings about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

This means that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality; we fail to live into being ethically virtuous people on any sort of consistent basis. Yes, I know this all sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Well, actually, it’s total depravity. But being depraved doesn’t mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and satisfaction comes through knowing how great our sin is. We live above sin by being set free from it through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

In order to be redeemed from sin, a provision must be made – and sin has been dealt with, once and for all, through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the retribution we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore the believer in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects, consequences, and origin of sin. The sin issue has been handled decisively and definitively; the Christian is now complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

Sin is awful. It ruins relationships and destroys everything it touches. Sin leaves terrible consequences in its wake and a bad aftertaste. Yet, sin does not have the last word; grace does. 

Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the decisive blow to sin’s power. The Church is built on this foundation of grace and reconciliation between God and people. Anything less is neither Christian nor a Church but a country club of people plotting to get back at others while eating tartlets and talking gossip. 

The bad news is that sin is really bad; but the good news is that Christ is really good, and overcomes the worst that sin can throw at him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.