Hebrews 7:23-28 – Jesus Is Better

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (New International Version)

Several years ago, I enjoyed serving communion with a retired minister in the church for which I was serving at the time. When we were in the middle of it, I leaned over to him and gave him a bit of instruction on what we were about to do. After I finished, he leaned over to me with a smile and said, “I didn’t hear a thing you just said, but I’ll figure it out!”

When it comes to the Christian life, I think we can learn something from the old Pastor. We are neither always going to hear well everything which is in the Bible, nor are we going to understand everything which is happening around us as Christians. 

The Jewish Christians, for which the book of Hebrews was originally preached, had a difficult transition from Judaism to Christianity. In Judaism, they knew what was happening. The sacrificial system was detailed and meticulously planned. The priesthood was clearly observed with men from the tribe of Levi. Worship was predictable.

However, becoming a Christian changed a lot of things. Being a Christian meant relying on the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God. There was no longer a tangible sacrificial system. Jesus is the high priest, but the believers never see him. 

There was so much living by faith, and so little understanding of what was going to happen, that the Hebrew Christians’ resolve began to break down. They became discouraged and started to lose patience with Christianity.

“The Painter and the Christ” by Marc Chagall, 1975

Today’s New Testament lesson is in the middle of an extended discussion by the author of Hebrews about the priesthood and sacrificial system. The Christian Jews were thinking about reneging on their commitment to Jesus and returning to their previous way of life in Judaism. 

So, central to the author’s exhortation is to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to everything in Judaism. Jesus is better than any Old Testament priest. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins. Jesus is better because his priesthood is permanent, and his sacrifice is perfect.

In the ancient world, sacrifice was at the center of everyone’s belief system. Every pagan religion had some sort of sacrificial practice to satisfy the god(s) and ensure deliverance and/or prosperity. Jews, of course, had an elaborate sacrificial system of their own with detailed prescriptions of how to go about it.

We need to feel something of the original force of Christianity. It was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Everyone understood that sacrifices were temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again. Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice. No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no physical sacrifices whatsoever. 

In Christianity, Jesus as the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices was such a crazy notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it. Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a progressive idea. It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because some individual became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

“The Martyr” by Marc Chagall, 1970

All the things the old sacrificial system did for worshipers are now completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Condensed in just a few verses of Scripture, we have a very rich picture of Jesus:

  • Jesus is not a temporary priest, but a permanent priest, the one who is able to intercede continually on our behalf without us having to perform a ritual sacrifice.
  • Jesus lives forever, which enables him to never cease his intercessory work.
  • Jesus saves completely.
  • Jesus meets our need.
  • Jesus has been made perfect forever.

Yet, sometimes Christians go back to the old sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true. We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves. Although Jesus has saved us fully, and therefore, there is no longer any need for sacrifice, yet we still try:

  • To appease God through church attendance or other works, as if the Lord needs to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.
  • To satisfy God through our giving so that the Lord will not have a furrowed brow against us.
  • To assuage our guilty conscience through Christian service, believing this will give us some leverage with God.

In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.

Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin. Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace. That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice. 

There is no longer ever a situation where we must run to some spiritual liquor store to pick up a Captain Morgan because the Captain of our souls, Jesus Christ, has already given us everything we need.

Since Jesus has been made perfect forever; is our great high priest; and is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we have all the grace we need. 

We need not worry anymore about being good enough because Jesus is perfect. Christ’s work is made complete in us. The constant anxiety of feeling we don’t measure-up is not from God. The person and work of Jesus is sufficient to deliver us from guilt and shame.

“Well,” you might say, “if everybody believed that, then nobody would ever do anything.” No, it’s just the opposite. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more. A low level discouragement sets in, and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough. We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything. 

“Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall, 1961

Just like the Hebrew Christians of the first century, we consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us. Yet, when we grasp Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips. 

It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

The old system wasn’t bad. It served a purpose. Now, however, the old has given way to the new, and there is a better hope by which we draw near to God. The sacrificial system pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice by a permanent priest that would bring us to God forever.

Going back to the old system is like living permanently in a tent, and believing you are home.

Therefore, we must choose what is better. The options are not so much between what is bad and what is good, but between what is good and what is better than good. It is possible to do all kinds of good things and miss the better thing God is doing. 

So, how do we choose the better thing? How do we embrace the new, which is Christ, and not the old, which is the sacrificial system?

  1. Learn to say “no” to the treadmill going nowhere. Since we do not need to impress God, we have the freedom to say “no” to keeping up with the spiritual Jones’s; “no” to cajoling God’s favor, approval, or attention.
  2. Learn to say “yes” to engaging in spiritual practices which remind us of Christ. Say “yes” to the new way of the Spirit, which is by faith and not by sight. This present spiritual age is often intangible, ethereal, and unseen. It requires a new set of spiritual eyes to see.
  3. Let Christianity be about Jesus, and not about us. Resist the allure to rescue others, or have others rescue you. The work of rescue has already been done. Christ saves, we don’t.
  4. Know the better thing over the good thing. Pause before acting or re-acting. Are we expecting someone else to do what Christ has already done? Are we looking to do something we think will make God like us better? Remind yourself of Jesus and his redemption every day in small ways through Scripture reading and prayer, fellowship, and loving service.

Good people can love God, and yet, miss the opportunity to see they are already justified through Christ’s blood. We do not need to justify ourselves. We need to live into the justification we possess by grace through faith.

May it be so to the glory of God.

The Greatest Ever

John 3:16 by Holly Rhodes

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV)

John 3:16 is a Bible verse so familiar as to be cliché. But when Jesus originally said these words, they were both tremendously freeing and incredibly scandalous. When something is familiar, we tend not to explore it any further. We need a closer look at the message of John 3:16 so we can not only see why some people embrace its light, but why others remain in darkness.

Perhaps another examination the gospel will dispel dullness and impel us toward praise, as well as to share its life-giving message not because we must, but because we want to. John 3:16 contains nine of the greatest spiritual realities we could ever experience.

1.“God” is the greatest subject ever.

The Bible contains lots of messages, promises, and commands. However, those are not the primary purpose for having the Holy Scriptures. The Bible has been given to us as a revelation of God to us so that we might know God. Every time the Scriptures are used, read, quoted, prayed, taught, learned, and heard – we know God a bit better. Anything short of knowing God falls short of the Bible’s intended purpose.

I constantly encourage a regular daily regimen of Bible-reading because it is the primary means of knowing God. Yes, we get to know God in creation and through experience, yet one of the best ways of experiencing God is through taking time for reading, meditating, memorizing, and praying of the Scriptures. Some of my most encouraging times are when I hear what people are learning about the Lord in God’s Word. With the Holy Spirit being our teacher, we discover more and more that God is the greatest subject we could ever learn about, talk about, and give our lives to.

2. “So” is the greatest extent ever.

There is a great wideness to God. God is a huge Being! Nothing is outside of God’s reach. So, when God decides to do something, nothing can stop it. We might be limited in our strength and abilities to accomplish things. But God’s extent is limitless. Knowing God means becoming familiar with an all-knowing and all-powerful Being. Prayer, then, becomes a response to God. God speaks to us through the Word, and we speak back with prayer so that the Word and prayer go like a hand in a glove. Our extent is temporary and small. Yet God takes our human prayers and uses them to accomplish divine purposes on this earth.

3. “Loved” is the greatest demonstration ever.

There is no greater demonstration of love than our triune God loving us with a sacrificial self-emptying love that saw our great need for deliverance and went to the greatest lengths possible to accomplish it. Our own love for God, each other, and the world is a direct result of God’s love for us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 3:16; 4:9-11, NIV)

Where there is a lack of love there is an absence of God. Every human on planet earth needs the love of God in Christ. Without it we are lost. You are loved with sacrificial love. The greatest thing that can be said of you is that you are “loved.” Whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen that breaks you down, belittles you, hurts you, or causes you to feel like the north end of a southbound cow, is not what defines you. All may be going to hell around you, but nothing will change the unalterable reality that in Christ you are “loved!”

4. “The world” is the greatest object ever.

Up to this point you might not have sensed anything scandalous about this message of God’s grace and love. But this was the game-changing term for the original hearers of Christ’s words: God so loved the world. Many of Christ’s listeners could easily understand God loved the nation of Israel. But to say that God loved the world was going too far. It meant God loved Gentiles, specifically, Romans who occupied their land and oppressed them.

To capture the punch of this, it would be like Jesus showing up in our world today and saying that God so loved whomever we despise or hate. We often tend to assume that God hates who we hate. Right? Wrong. Yes, God hates evil and is opposed to all that destroys. Yet, God loves people for whom is placed the divine image within. For God to love the world is an incredible because there are so many unlovely people in the world.

Since God loves the world and demonstrated it in through Jesus, Christ’s Church is to reflect and embody this same love for the world. This has enormous implications for followers of Jesus. The Church is must embrace the same pejorative title as given its leader, Jesus: “Friend of Sinners.”  People come to know Jesus through the love given us in Christ. Since this is our title, Christian ministry then becomes not about my personal preferences but about what will most effectively love the world to Jesus.

5. “That he gave his one and only Son” is the greatest gift ever.

 

John 3:16 by an 11 year old

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17, NIV)

We do not get God’s leftovers or second-hand items. God gave the dearest, best, and most beloved gift he could ever give: his Son. Therefore, the greatest and dearest gift we can give to another person is Jesus. Sharing such a gift Jesus must come freely from the depths of divine love. Apart from love we are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If it takes cajoling and exhortation for us to give the gift of the gospel, then the problem lies in our hearts. It takes coming back to God’s Word and knowing the love of God in Christ through the Scriptures.

6. “That whoever” is the greatest opportunity ever.

If the greatest gift a person can receive is Jesus, then the best opportunity one could take advantage of is Jesus. We are all at differing places in our relationship with Jesus. Yet no matter the person, the opportunity for grace and love is more than anything you could hope or ask for. 

We are fortunate to have such a grace to know Jesus as Lord, Savior, teacher, healer, and friend. Those familiar with the name of Jesus all their lives but it has not gone much further than that, then the next point is vitally important….

7. “Believes in him” is the greatest commitment ever.

Jesus wants more than our acknowledgment of him; he wants us. Whenever I go home, my dog, Max Power, gets extremely excited. Honestly, I don’t really get excited about him. My typical response to him is, “Yes, Max, I acknowledge your existence.” I say it in hopes he will just kind of leave me alone and let me go about my business. But Max wants more. He wants my affection, my love, and my commitment. He wants a pet, a walk, food, and water.

God does not want to be treated like an annoying puppy. God wants our commitment. The Lord desires more than the tepid response, “I acknowledge your existence.”  The most common response I get from people when sharing the gift of Jesus is “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”  It is their way of saying they acknowledge his existence but are not much interested in giving their lives to him because they want to go about their business without God pestering them about anything. But God does demand something from us – our very souls. If we gain a view of God as gracious and loving, then we willingly desire an intimate commitment.

8. “Shall not perish” is the greatest rescue ever.

People perish not because God is unloving but because their theology is twisted – not to mention that we like our sin, and we don’t want to accommodate a holy God. The Titanic lost hundreds of people not for a lack of lifeboats. In fact, most of the lifeboats went into the water about three-fourths capacity. Many people simply did not believe they were perishing. They trusted in the ship’s reputation as being “unsinkable.” Jesus is our lifeboat.

9. “But have eternal life” is the greatest promise ever.

The promise begins now, not someday. Everlasting life means experiencing a life-saving and life-giving relationship with Jesus today.

Conclusion

If you ever had the feeling there is something more to life than what you are experiencing; if you ever wished you could start over; if you ever felt you cannot do this on your own; then, I have the greatest news ever. God has made a way to handle all your guilt, shame, and darkness. God loves you deeply in the person of Jesus Christ. There is new life in Jesus.

Hebrews 9:23-28 – Once for All

Ethiopian Orthodox Church icon of Christ’s crucifixion

It was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world.

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (NRSV)

Once for all. Those few words are some of the most gruesome and beautiful in the entirety of Holy Scripture.  The sacrifices of bulls and goats in the Old Testament had its place. Yet, those were mere shadows pointing to the reality of the Messiah – the one whose sacrifice is so potent as to do away with sacrifice forever.

The cross of Christ was the once for all sacrifice that has settled the sin issue forever.

This is the heart of New Testament good news. Forgiveness of sins comes through the sheer grace of God in Christ. Through faith, we have the privilege of entering new life. Jesus has paved the way for eternal life, everlasting salvation, and complete remission of sins.

If it has not yet become self-apparent as to why Christ’s once for all sacrifice is such a game changer, then let’s perceive the cross from this angle: guilt is done away with, forever. Do you believe your life would change forever if you never had guilt hanging over your head?  What if all your past indiscretions, unhealthy life decisions, failures to speak or act when needed, overt things done which you cannot take back, or even the little things said or done in anger or hate were all washed away, forever?

Just as Jesus was nailed to a cruel cross, so guilt and shame was nailed there – once for all. There are three options of dealing with a guilty conscience when it happens…

Rationalize

First, you can rationalize it away, as if you have no responsibility or no culpability. One simply ignores their conscience. This is a one-way path to hardness of heart. Whenever we sin in speech or in action, and do not acknowledge it as our fault, then there is a little piece of us which hardens. The next time it happens, it’s a bit easier to respond with callousness. If you’ve ever encountered someone who seems utterly unfeeling to your situation, then there has likely been a pattern in that person’s life of keeping distance from pain. It only leads to hardness of heart.

Punish

A second way of facing guilt is just the opposite of rationalization. It is to punish and beat yourself for your faults and sins. Heaping abuse on ourselves for our sins takes two different tracks with either: discouragement, defeat, and depression resulting in inaction; or, working like crazy to try and earn God’s favor with hyper-activity. Both ways are a kind of self-imposed penance to try and atone for one’s sins or failures.

Confess

Fortunately, there is a better way to face and deal with our guilt. When there is true guilt for things done or undone, said, or unsaid, we must confess it, repent of it, and believe God has taken care of it. Unlike dealing with guilt in unhealthy ways resulting in callousness, discouragement, and hyperactivity, the path of confession and repentance allows the person to have a clear conscience, resulting in freedom. Christ’s once for all sacrifice is completely able to clear the conscience of the worshiper so that they may live into the grace and freedom of an enjoyable daily life. 

Nothing needs to hang over the believer’s head because Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our salvation, has accomplished deliverance from and forgiveness of sin, once and for all. Jesus didn’t just put a nice-looking veneer over sin; he took care of it, thoroughly and completely. Jesus didn’t whitewash things so that we looked okay; the salvation he offers is permanent.

The cross which held Christ’s naked and tortured body exposed the true violence and injustice of sin. The cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness and sin, and, a God of extreme sacrificial love and grace.

What I believe this world, including you and me, need more than anything else is forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving, but a real forgiveness which lasts forever.

To justify or to judge is God’s business. Our business is to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings permanent and lasting forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, might experience deliverance from sin and its horrible effects.

“For he delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14, NIV)

May you know the freedom and joy today which comes from knowing Christ as Savior.

Hosea 6:1-6 – “I Desire Mercy!”

By Brazilian street artist Edward Kobra, building in New York City, 2018

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (NIV)

My favorite word in all Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word chesed.  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth.  So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as mercy, grace, steadfast love, covenant loyalty, kindness, compassion and more. It is no wonder, then, that since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward others. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was calling and wooing wayward people to return to a divine life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not putting the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner, but committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants is not simply going through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor. Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

Chesed by Havi Mandell

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity and is profoundly pained when people whore after other gods to meet their needs and love them. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ. The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions. Mercy finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, Advent is a season of anticipating the great love and mercy of God through the incarnation of Christ.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-12, NIV)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:2-7, NIV)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear. Grace and love create connections – reconnecting the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment but mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life. God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace.  May the result be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One.  Amen.