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 So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has superseded it.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.

Hebrews 13:7-21 – Keep On Doing Good

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so, Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (New International Version)

I once rode a horse named “Old Glue.” The tired old horse got his name because he stuck to the ground like glue. I can testify firsthand that it took a furious amount of kicking to get that the old guy to move at all. 

I think about Old Glue every time I look at the final chapter of Hebrews. It feels like the author is firing off exhortation after exhortation trying to kick some life into a group of people who have lost their enthusiasm for Jesus:

  • Don’t forget about your spiritual leaders who faithfully keep watch over you and model how to live the Christian life
  • Don’t be fooled by a bunch of unfamiliar and strange gobbledygook teachings
  • Share in the disgrace of Christ by sharing in his sufferings
  • Keep offering praise to God in the name of Jesus
  • Don’t forget to help others through benevolence and generosity
  • Live a sacrificial life
  • Pray for your spiritual fathers and mothers
  • Be generous
  • Do good!

All these exhortations come kicking one after the other in a short amount of space. The reason why we ought to pay attention to them is that we were bought at the price of Christ’s blood. God has redeemed us with the ultimate price.

Let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up or quit.

Galatians 6:9, MSG

We need to work at becoming holy and to serving with genuine Christian love as if this was the last day of our lives. 

We are to run like wild stallions for Jesus, instead of being stuck to the ground like Old Glue. 

Don’t be hateful to people, just because they are hateful to you. Rather, be good to each other and to everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:15, CEV)

There is no advantage to only moving when there is something in it for “me.” There is no benefit in griping and complaining. Yet there is eternal advantage in trotting along for the Savior. There’s life in following the trail outside the camp and meeting Jesus at the place of humility, disgrace, and suffering. 

After all, if it is God’s will, it’s better to suffer for doing good than for doing wrong. (1 Peter 3:17, GW)

There is no advantage to being stubborn and having to constantly be prodded into moving. However, there is joy awaiting the believer who learns to move with the unforced rhythms of grace.

Don’t be like Old Glue.

Keeping going. Keep doing good.

May Jesus help you do what pleases God. To Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever! Amen.

Hebrews 12:3-17 – Don’t Let Bitterness Take Over

Think about Jesus, who endured opposition from sinners, so that you don’t become tired and give up.

You struggle against sin, but your struggles haven’t killed you. You have forgotten the encouraging words that God speaks to you as his children:

“My child, pay attention when the Lord disciplines you.
Don’t give up when he corrects you.
The Lord disciplines everyone he loves.
He severely disciplines everyone he accepts as his child.”

Endure your discipline. God corrects you as a father corrects his children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you aren’t disciplined like the other children, you aren’t part of the family. On earth we have fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them. Shouldn’t we place ourselves under the authority of God, the father of spirits, so that we will live? For a short time, our fathers disciplined us as they thought best.

Yet, God disciplines us for our own good so that we can become holy like him. We don’t enjoy being disciplined. It always seems to cause more pain than joy. But later on, those who learn from that discipline have peace that comes from doing what is right.

Strengthen your tired arms and weak knees. Keep walking along straight paths so that your injured leg won’t get worse. Instead, let it heal.

Try to live peacefully with everyone, and try to live holy lives, because if you don’t, you will not see the Lord. Make sure that everyone has kindness  from God so that bitterness doesn’t take root and grow up to cause trouble that corrupts many of you. 

Make sure that no one commits sexual sin or is as concerned about earthly things as Esau was. He sold his rights as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterwards, when he wanted to receive the blessing that the firstborn son was to receive, he was rejected. Even though he begged and cried for the blessing, he couldn’t do anything to change what had happened. (God’s Word Translation)

Bitterness begins with a seed of resentful anger…

it steadily grows within the soil of antagonism…

then, buds of hostility pop out…

and a devastating crop of corruption, injustice, chaos, and trouble feeds the community with death.

A bitter spirit doesn’t appear overnight.

Something happens, an event for which a person neither wanted nor expected.

And life becomes more difficult and sad.

A change or a loss occurred. It could be anything: a spouse walks out and asks for divorce; a job transfer or termination happens without any warning or discussion; estrangement occurs between friends; the house burns down; a bankruptcy looms in the near future; it’s hard to make ends meet; items are stolen; assault, abuse, and ridicule violate a person, family, or community.

These and a thousand other events happen in this old fallen world. It makes us angry, and rightly so. And yet, if that anger stews within us for too long, and grudges are nursed and coddled, it turns eventually into the bitterness which gives us gangrene of the soul. Then, like a nasty weed, the bitterness spreads and takes over the garden.

Don’t let bitterness take over your garden.

The ancient Hebrew Christians were in danger of losing their resolve and reneging on their commitment to Christ. Their circumstances had been so adverse, for so long, that they just did not have any more fight in them to keep going. 

The believers were losing their faith. They began holding onto grudges and letting go of their spiritual commitment; instead of holding fast to perseverance and discarding their resentments toward others, and even God.

Yes, life was a challenge. But, no, it wasn’t because God didn’t love them or was in some way just mean or capricious. The struggling believers were invited to see their adversity as education by correction in the school of hard knocks. It was a class in faith formation, and many of them were failing it.

God loves us enough to not always make everything a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or a plate full of bacon. The Lord is going to dish up some broccoli and brussels sprouts and expects us to eat it – even if we don’t like it or don’t want to. We aren’t going to have a healthy faith apart from it, and God is just being a good Father.

It isn’t what happens to us that matters; it’s how we interpret what happened to us that makes all the difference.

Hard unwanted circumstances will either make us bitter, or better. They will never leave us the same.

The path to perseverance, healthy interpretations, and keeping the seed of bitterness away is through keeping our minds on Jesus and being kind to one another. Antagonism cannot grow in the soil of grace and mercy.

Sometimes we might forget that Jesus didn’t have it so easy on this earth. He faced ridicule, insults, hardship, and was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eventually, he was tortured and killed, having done nothing wrong and everything right. And there was absolutely no bitterness in his heart about any of it.

If that was the path for our Lord, then it is silly to think that, as Christ’s followers, we should avoid suffering and hardship. 

So, think about Jesus.

Consider him who endured suffering without resentment.

Don’t give up.

Keep your head and your heart in the game.

Feelings of resentful anger, giving up, and getting back at others only brings self-harm and makes life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Whenever such feelings arise, it is our inner person’s warning that it is time to retreat with God and get a divine perspective on your situation.

Jesus, you are the Suffering Servant who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. In the scope of eternity, it is a small thing for me to live for you and face any kind of ridicule and hardship it might bring to me. I only ask to be in solidarity with you in all things. Amen.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Confidence is necessary for the Christian life. It’s not optional. One can only persevere through trouble with some confident hope.

It’s one thing to bear up under a hard circumstance for a few days or weeks. It’s altogether another thing for that same hardship to continue for months, even years.

Living with such adversity everyday makes one tired… really tired. Feelings of hopelessness slowly creep within. And, after a while, the person or group of people just want the madness to end. So, they simply give up, being lost in their troubles, feeling alone and bereft of options.

Without the confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and that the present is bad.

Instead, we can recall and remember the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity.

In earlier times, they were insulted and persecuted. Yet, they showed solidarity with others in similar situations. The believers were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was so much more than this present life and it’s possessions.

But the persecution and the insults continued… day after day… with no apparent end….

The Christians began to lose their grip on faith. They needed to reconnect with their purpose, with why they were Christians to begin with.

Originally, the reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. They understood that people have eternal value, not stuff, so the believers willingly focused their efforts in helping others.

However, over time, the band of believers lost their focus. All they could see was the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

What to do? Give up? Renege on faith? Adopt a “whatever will be, will be,” sort of philosophy?

No. Instead,

Remember what God has done for you.

Affirm what is right, just, and true.

Embrace faith and patience.

That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. Things were askew and not right. So, he complained to God about it. 

God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. 

The prophet was having a hard time, and it seemed God was only making things worse, not better.

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

Perhaps the most significant faith experience we can have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth we all must eventually come around to is that joy and security is independent of what’s going on around us. 

Even though we face difficulty, and even evil, confidence can still exist and thrive within us. We can still rejoice because we don’t need everything to go our way in order to be happy.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. For them to remain rooted within us, we must affirm our commitment to Christ daily. And that requires remembering.

What’s more, there is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals.

So, be mindful of the things which are most important to you; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety. Don’t throw away your spiritual confidence, just because things are continually hard.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen. – The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr