The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday morning, January 10, 2009.
Today, we return to our study of the book of Hebrews. Picking up the book of Hebrews after such a long break is kind of like meeting up with an old friend from college. Generally speaking, we know this person, but in reality, we don’t really know this person at all. You knew all about your roommate in college, but all you know about him now is what you read in his annual Christmas letters of his status updates on Facebook. What you know is dated and very impersonal.
I feel that way about the book of Hebrews. I started preaching through Hebrews in April of last year, and we took a break from Hebrews in September for the “Life’s Healing Choices” series and then for the Christmas season, which means that I have not handled the book of Hebrews in four months. So, in many ways, Hebrews has become an old friend to me. I generally know about Hebrews, but I have really lost touch with it. I don’t really know the flow of thought, and I have forgotten the main points. And what I do remember is dated and vague.
Reintroduction to Hebrews
So, let me re-introduce both of us to the book of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews is kind of the “weird Uncle Al” of the New Testament. You love Uncle Al, you are glad he is in the family, but he is just weird enough to make you want to avoid him like the plague at the family reunion. Hebrews is like that. There are parts of the book that we love like the Faith Chapter (11). And you probably have, what I call “half-memorized” half a dozen verses from the book. But, the reality is that most of the book either totally confuses us or bores us to tears. It reads way too much like the book of Leviticus, which is the one book in the Bible that most of just love to read. Hebrews talks about tabernacles, sacrifices, priesthoods, and covenants. It quotes almost non-stop from the Old Testament. Its line of thinking is convoluted and complicated, and the application is not always obvious or even easy to find. Its like Uncle Al; we are glad its in the Scriptures, but we don’t want to get stuck sitting by it for Thanksgiving dinner.
But the Bible tells us that all of Scripture is God’s breath and is profitable for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness so that you and I can be adequately equipped for every good work and that promise includes the book of Hebrews. Which means that there is truth in here, that if we don’t get, we will not be fully developed followers of Christ. So, we need to understand the truth that is found in this book and to wrestle with how to apply it to our lives.
Let me remind you that the book of Hebrews was written by an unnamed apostle, most likely not Paul or Peter or James or John but an apostle who remains unknown to us today. The letter appears to be written to Jewish Christians living in the city of Rome. The recipients of the letter are Jews who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah, and have become followers of Christ. But, something has happened that has caused them to either doubt that Jesus is the Messiah or to consider returning to pre-Christian Judaism, going back to living under the law. We are not exactly told what these pressures are, but it is quite clear from reading the book that they are considering abandoning the Christian faith and becoming full Jews again, living under the old covenant.
They are most likely living in Rome around 60 AD, either late during the reign of Claudius or early during the reign of Nero. Both of these emperors persecuted the church to some degree, making it difficult to remain a Christian. Both emperors recognized the Jewish religion but did not recognize the Christian religion. So, it would have been much easier to be a Jew in Rome than to be a Christian.
And so the apostle writes to the Christians in Rome reminding them of the supremacy of Christ. The introduction reminds the Christians that Christ is the creator of all things, the radiance of God’s glory, and the sustainer of all things. As the book unfolds, we read that Christ is superior to the angels, superior to Moses, and superior to the High Priest. Christ is the perfect High Priest because He was made like us in every way, yet without sin. And the writer has been building an argument that explains in depth the reason that the new covenant is better than the old. In chapter 8, it reaches a climax because it explains the problem with the old covenant. Remember, the problem with the old covenant was not in the covenant itself. The problem was not that there were too many rules or that it was too strict. The problem was in the people (Hebrews 8.8). The people need a new heart, and without a new heart we would never be righteous, and that new heart was brought to the people through faith in the death, burial, resurrection of Christ.
The conclusion of this is that it would be totally unreasonable for to turn away from Christ and return to the weak old covenant, a covenant that no one was able to keep because the heart of mankind needed a change.
Relevancy? (Or The “So What?” Question)
We pick up the book of Hebrews in chapter 10, which is probably not the best place to step back into our study. Chapter 10 is the conclusion for an argument that began in chapter 8 which contrasted the sacrifices of the old covenant with the sacrifices of the new. Before we get to our text, let me address the ongoing struggle that you and I have as we read the book of Hebrews. The constant challenge when reading this book is the challenge of relevancy. In other words, why is any of this relevant to me?
I doubt that anyone of us questions whether or not the sacrificial death of Jesus was better than the Old Testament sacrificial system. I doubt any of you have considered offering a goat for your sins this week instead of trusting in Jesus as the “once for all sacrifice” for your sins. Most of us are already convinced of what the author of Hebrews is trying to say. We have already bought what He is selling; he is preaching to the choir. So, how can this section be relevant to us if we are already convinced of its argument?
Let me just say it plainly, the relevance is not in the argument itself but in the application of the argument that is going to be stated in one line of today’s text. Yes, we believe these words to be true, but the question is, if we believe them to be true, if we really believe them to be true, then what would become true of us? If we truly embrace it, how would it embrace us? And in that way, the following words are relevant to how I will live my life this coming week. And there is a phrase in our text this morning that is challenging to me, and I think has a word for us this morning if have ears to hear.
Hebrews 10.1-18 NIV
1The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’“
8First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). 9Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
15The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” 17Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” 18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
Exegesis of the Text
The idea of the law being a shadow of the good things to come is often repeated in the New Testament. For instance, in the book of Galatians, Paul writes, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3.24). So, the purpose of the law was to lead us to the good things to come. Or consider in Colossians, where Paul writes again, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2.16-17). So here again, the regulations of the old covenant were pointing to Christ. And with this basic premise, new covenant Christians have no problem.
However, let us not be unclear as to the point of the writer of Hebrews in chapter 10. When the author writes, “the law is only a shadow of the good things to come,” the apostle is not writing about the moral regulations of the law. He is not talking about the foods you cannot eat, or the rituals you have to go through on certain feast days, or the restrictions on the Sabbath Day. In other words, the import of Hebrews 10 is not the same as Colossians 2, that we are free from the regulations of the old covenant, the rules, the “thou shall not’s.” Instead, the point the author of Hebrews is making in Hebrews chapter 10 is that the sacrificial system of the old covenant was a shadow of the good things to come. The law which instructed the Jews to offer a goat for the remission of their sins was in itself pointing towards the good thing to come.
This is why the chapter continues with the words, “for this reason, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year…” The sacrificial system of the law was pointing to the good thing to come, which was the once for all death of Christ. But why was the once for all death of Christ such a good thing? Because the sacrifices of the old covenant were not capable of “taking away sins” (Hebrews 10.4). And notice that phrase in verse 2 where the writer talks about people “feeling guilty for their sins.” Not only were we still liable as sinners in the eyes of God, but our souls also felt the guilt that comes with being a sinner. So there is a subjective and objective problem with the old covenant. And the sacrifices of the old covenant were powerless to do something about it.
The author continues by quoting from Psalm 40 and putting these words in the mouth of Christ. The author of Hebrews takes these words to be Messianic, though he is the only New Testament author to do so. Here, the Psalmists makes a rather odd statement, that the God who established the covenant with Israel did not desire sacrifices or offerings. But Psalm 40 is not the only place where we find this in the Old Testament.
For instance, after David’s sin with Bathsheba, he wrote Psalm 51. In that psalm, David said,
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51.16-17).
In other words, what God wanted from David was not just the blood of a goat but he wanted a broken spirit, a contrite heart, a heart that mourned for his sin and demonstrated true repentance. Or consider the words of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 1 we read,
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1.11-17).
In other words, the Lord hated the offerings from people who never really repented of their sin. “Stop doing wrong,” He says to them. Again, it is the problem of the heart. Or consider the words of the prophet Micah,
“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.6-8).
What does the Lord want from us? Sacrifices and offerings? Or, would He rather have a changed heart that loves justice and shows mercy?
“The point of all these passages is not that God is displeased with the sacrifices themselves, which after all, He had commanded in the first place, but that the sacrifices alone, unaccompanied by lives lived in accordance with His will, were of no use. Indeed, they were an insult to God.” The problem is with the heart.
So, instead of the sacrifices and offerings, God prepared a body for the Son. The incarnation was the answer to the ineffective sacrifices. So, the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ is the once for all sacrifice that can take away sins (Hebrews 10.10). So, with sin taken away, He is able to make a new covenant with mankind where He puts His laws in our hearts and writes them on our minds and He forgets our sins and lawless deeds. Here, the author quotes from Jeremiah 31. The words that begin the section are, “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” It is the same passage that the author already quoted in Hebrews 8.7-12. “God found fault with the people” (Hebrews 8.8) so He made a new covenant with a new heart.
The point in chapter 10 is that with sin forgiven, there is no more need for another animal sacrifice to bring about the forgiveness of sins. So, returning to the old covenant is illogical and powerless.
The Meaning and Hope for New Covenant Believers
Now, at this point, we might not be all that guilty for being a little bit bored with this line of thinking. I know we are not to be bored with the Word of God, but it is a little bit boring. After all, this is nothing really new to the new covenant believer. You and I have put our faith in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We know that the sacrificial system of the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. So, of what use is this teaching to us today?
Now that we understand the argument, let me focus us on one verse. Again, the significance of our text is not the argument itself but the application of the teaching. Read again with me verse 14: “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Let’s break that simple phrase down into two parts. We have already discussed the “by one sacrifice” enough to know that Christ is the once and for all sacrifice for sins. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
So, by that once and for all sacrifice, God “has made perfect forever” those who are being made holy. The word means “to make perfect, complete, to carry through completely, to accomplish, to finish, to bring to an end.” Please notice, this verb is in the past tense. So this means, “By one sacrifice, God has made you perfect, complete, He has carried through completely, He accomplished and finished and brought to an end forever.” You have been made righteous. It is a done deal. Over. Finished.
Incidentally, this word “forever” is not used very much in Scripture, in fact, only by the writer of Hebrews. It is the same word used in Hebrews 7.3 to describe the Son of God who remains a priest forever. So, to whatever degree Christ will remain a High Priest forever is the same degree that you and I have been made perfect forever. So think about that, by Christ’s once and for all sacrifice, you have been made perfect forever.
Now, to whom has He done this? “By one sacrifice, He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This word is the basic word for holy which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God, and to purify.” But notice the tense of the verb. It is a present tense verb, continual action. By one sacrifice, God has forever brought to an end the perfection of those who are in the process of being made holy.
And here we have this incredible conundrum that we are at the same time both perfect in the eyes of God and yet imperfect in the eyes of God. His has made us fully perfect but He is still in the process of making us holy. And that is where our Christian existence lies: having been made perfect, we are now in the process of being made holy.
Now, let me if you will make a couple of observations and applications of this basic truth.
The Gospel Is About God’s Glory And Mankind’s Sin
Jesus Came To Save Sinners
Let me state the obvious here. When the writer of Hebrews speak of the eternal Christ, the creator and sustainer of all things, the perfect High Priest, he does not focus on how this eternal Christ can be of benefit to you. We are in the tenth chapter of the book of Hebrews, and the author has yet to expound on the benefits of following Christ in your parenting, for your finances, for your career, for your marriage, for your health, or for your self esteem. But what the author has been pounding into our heads for the last ten chapters is that Christ is the once and for all sacrifice to save you and to save me from our sins.
We don’t talk like that much any more, do we? Religion has become more and more about self help, about becoming a better me, and less and less about sinners in need of a Savior. The writer of Hebrews is operating on a very basic assumption: you and I are sinners and something has to be done about that sin. Sin is a problem that needs to be solved. And since the old covenant didn’t cut it, Jesus came to take away sin and to give us new birth.
The year 2010 is going to hold all sorts of stuff, but it will be a year that the redefinition of sin will continue. And things we used to consider “sinful” will be increasingly understood as lifestyle choices or stepping into the modern world. We will continue to declassify various behaviors from the category of “sin” to the category of “not very wise” or “optional.” For instance, sex outside of marriage. Is there any evidence that our culture thinks of sex outside of the biblical covenant of marriage is sinful, wrong, worthy of God’s judgment? Or take drunkenness. Does anyone consider it sinful, rebellious, offensive to a holy God to be intoxicated? Or take greed, gossip, malice, pride, anger, lust, or fear. While these things might not be good choices, we don’t label them as “sins” because that implies that they are worthy of God’s judgment. Why can’t we just live and let live? If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, then why is it wrong?
But the Bible paints a different picture. When we sin, we fall short of the glory of God, of the beauty of who God is and what God does. We offend, we pervert, we transgress, we rebel, we disobey the King of Kings. These are not lifestyle choices. These are not differences of opinion. These are sin. And unless something is done about that sin, we will stand before a righteous Judge who will cast us away from His presence. The wages of sin is, indeed, death.
When the “Jesus thing” is all broken down, He was not sent here just to be our example of loving one another, or to show us the way to selfless sacrifice. No, Jesus was given a body in the incarnation to be the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. Why? Because we are sinners, and that sin is a problem that must be solved. If you are uncomfortable talking about sin and wish that we would just focus on becoming better people, you may not fully grasp the good news of the gospel story. Christ has come to take away your sin and make you into a new creature.
Brit Hume vs. Tiger Woods
Let me give you an example of how this plays out. In the last few weeks, the importance of this truth has played out in a very public manner. Over the last month, we have all been watching way too much of Tigermania. And we are all aware of the transgressions of Tiger Woods and his sin of adultery. That has been well documented in the press. And now, as people react to his situation, we are starting to dissect people’s reactions to Tiger’s situation. And perhaps the one person who has created the biggest firestorm over Tiger’s situation is Brit Hume of Fox News.
Brit Hume, a commentator or reporter for Fox News, on a Sunday show made a statement about Tiger Woods that has caused a huge uproar. In cased you missed it, listen to what Brit Hume said about Tiger Woods. He said,
Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer, whether he can recover as a person, I think is a very open question and a tragic situation. He’s lost his family. Its not clear to me whether he will be able to have a relationship with his children. But the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal, the extent to which he can recover depends upon his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger would be, “Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and make a great example to the world.” (Fox News)
Now, as you can imagine, Brit Hume has been lambasted by the media for those comments, but Mr. Hume was saying the very same thing the writer of Hebrews is saying. Hume is being assaulted by the media because they think he was saying that if you joined a Christian church, you would be a better person and not do these kinds of things. But that is not what Hume or Hebrews is saying.
Hume is saying that Tiger, like each one of us, is a sinner in need of help. And the only hope that any of us have in dealing with our sin nature, whether our sin is adultery, or greed, or pride, or fear, or selfishness, or gossip, or lying, or sloth, or gluttony, the only hope that any of us have is the hope of Christ, of being reborn through the once and for all sacrifice that can actually take away our sins. Unless Christ writes His law on our hearts, any system, whether it is Buddhism or Judaism or Scientology or Baptistism, any system that does not deal with our hearts is powerless to change our sin nature. Christ alone offers the forgiveness and redemption, and in that, Hume is absolutely biblically correct.
The criticism that I have heard from people about what Hume said usually falls along the lines that “Christians are sinners, too.” And what they are really saying is that they know people who claim to be Christians whose lives are not all that different than their own. Big shock there. How many people who wear the name of Christ can you name off the top of your head who have been caught in adultery or embezzling? The list is quite long. And again, this is where the relevance of Hebrews is so obvious. “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” That key phrase, “those who are being made holy,” is so important. You cannot rest on the once and for all, finished completed work of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins if you are not also resting in the continuing work of Christ to make you holy.
What the criticizers of Hume’s message are really saying is that they don’t like the people who stand on the first half of Hebrews 10.14 (By one sacrifice, Christ has forever made me perfect) but don’t demonstrate the second half of Hebrews 10.14 (And I am in process of being made holy). And guess what, not only is that offensive to the world at large, it is also offensive to the writer of Hebrews.
The Race is Over, Now Let the Journey Begin
And I go back to this idea that as Christians, we live in Hebrews 10.14. We have been made perfect forever by the once and for all sacrifice of Christ and we are in the process of being made holy. And both sides of that equation are important to drive a support beam through. There are times in your life when the Enemy will accuse you and try to make you feel guilty for the sin in your life and try to make you feel unworthy. And you need to be able to stand upon the truth that Christ has made you perfect once and for all through his death for your sin. When Satan tries to remind you of your sin, you need to remind him of Hebrews 10.14 that you have been made perfect forever. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But we must also drive a foundational stake through the second part of Hebrews 10.14. Christ has forever made perfect those who are being made holy. If part B is not true of your life, then it calls into question whether part A has taken place. If you are not in the process of being made holy, then on what basis can you say that Christ has made you perfect? If you are still enjoying your sin and have no desire to repent and to be holy, then how can you claim that Christ has forgiven you of the sin that you don’t want to confess?
So let me close with this challenge for the new year. In the next twelve months, how are you going to participate with Christ’s work in your life in the process of making you holy? Now that the race for forgiveness or perfection is over, how will you journey with Christ in the process of being made holy? How will you add to your faith this year?
For instance, how is God going to make your mind more holy this year? Romans 12 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. What will you do to put yourself in a position for your mind to be more like Christ, to be transformed, to be renewed?
How is God going to make your heart more holy this year? What will you do to put yourself in a position for your affections and desires to beat more with the desires of Christ this year?
How is God going to make you more holy in your behaviors or in your speech or in the ways in which you are entertained or in your friendships? How will you participate in that process?
What a wasted year if we celebrate the race to perfection that was finished in Christ but we fail to begin the journey of being made holy. The race is over, now let the journey begin.
 2 Timothy 3.16
 The phrase, “body prepared for me” is found in the Septuagint while the original Hebrew text reads, “ears you have dug for me.” Psalm 40.6 in the NIV is “my ears you have pierced.” The LXX reading lends itself to a more messianic reading. In other words, God did not desire sacrifices and offerings but instead sent the Son incarnate to make the once for all sacrifice for sins.