In the first 5 chapters we saw that the key to Christian living is to live actively in a community of believers who help one another to look back to Christ as the author and finisher of our faith.
In Chapter 6 we got another reality check: Living a Christian life requires us to move past the basics of faith and questions like salvation and baptism, and move on to deeper truths.
In Chapters 7-8, we finally got to move out of the simple stuff, the milk-food, and get on to the meaty stuff. We saw here that God has always intended/planned to provide a way of salvation that relies on God’s eternal goodness rather than on our temporal moral and religious goodness. This redemption was handled/taken care of on the heavenly altar, where in some way the cross of Christ is suspended as a bridge that connects our world and the timeless reality that exists outside creation. So our godliness has to do a lot more with how aware we are of God’s centrality for our lives rather than our ability to perform a morally solid lifestyle.
Now, in Chapter 9 we’ll play with three questions about the Old Testament and sacrifices Jews did for centuries, how Christ changed all that, and what is the result of Christ’s work for us today, as modern Christians.
- The Old Testament Law system wasn’t even designed to save. It was only as a reminder/anticipation for Christ’s work. (vv 1-10)
- The work of Christ is done not in a mirror-image temple, but in the real celestial temple, not with substitute sacrifices but with Himself as sacrifice. This act makes it possible for us to really serve God (vv 11-15)
- Animal sacrifices were not really substitute for our death. They were in fact symbols of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Animal cleansing was symbolic, the cleansing with Christ is essential. (vv. 16-26), See also 7:9-10.
- Let’s revise: Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all, eternal, because the heavenly altar is eternal (i.e out of our time). So next time He appears, he won’t bear the cross but bring us salvation. (vv 24-28)
Vv 1-10: Designed to Remind, not to Redeem
In vv 1-10, we are taken back in history to get another lesson of how and why the Tabernacle was constructed. This is an important scene we need to see in order to understand how Christ stands in contrast to this cyclic religious sacrificial system.
The description of the tabernacle is here to show us that there was a great deal of thinking about the whole religious system. It didn’t “just happen” but was built with a purpose. In fact each piece of furniture in the tabernacle had a significance and a role to play in the religious life of the people of God.
Each individual was responsible for their own behavior and religious purity on a daily basis. But there was a greater reality above them: the reconciliation of the nation to God based on a single act of sacrifice done by the High Priest. This is when the sacrifice for the national “repentance by default” was taken to the Holy of Holies, described in these verses.
But, even this national reconciliation day was just a part of a long, annual religious routine. Each year the High Priest would go in to reconcile the people with their God. So even though there was a huge deal of details about religious purity and religious life in general, the sacrificial system with all its complexity simply couldn’t provide a peace of mind for the individual, and for the congregation.
In that sense, the entire religious system built around sacrifices, wasn’t so much a mechanism to solve the problem of sin. It was just a reminder that, regardless of how good a person you are, you still have no peace of mind and no peace with God under that old, sacrifices-oriented religious life.
Today, we can’t say we’ve progressed too far from this point of striving for peace with God.
At one end of the spectrum, we get disillusioned, unbelieving people that throw their hands up and say “This is both impossible and pointless. Why bother with religion when I can never be sure that I’m ever going to achieve perfection. So, why bother? Forget religion. I don’t care about it. I don’t care what others say about my religious wellbeing. I don’t care what God thinks of me either. As a matter of fact, I don’t even believe God exists!”
Others go in another extreme: religious fundamentalism. They focus so much on becoming morally superior that they forget they still live on this Earth. Such people will end up in monasteries, in elitist ivy-tower religiosity and look down at others saying: Look at me, I pray every day, I read the Bible every day, I memorize verses, I write good devotional texts. I live a healthy life, I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t swear etc. I’m way better than most of you.”
In both cases people end up being completely focused on themselves, of what they do, how good they are, etc. and forget the simple things like having:
- A decent dose of skepticism about their atheistic convictions,
- A healthy dose of self-reflection and understanding that, people are different
- A basic dose of understanding that ivy-league spirituality won’t pay the bills, won’t put food on the table, won’t help the others in need.
As we find ourselves anywhere between these two extreme modern-day mindsets (atheism and religious fundamentalism), let’s for a minute turn to God and ask: How do we move on, God?
Nobody is really immune to falling victim of frustrated disinterest in faith. The world is full of people who for one reason or another, lash out at God and believers as if we are to be blamed for their bad childhood, or abusive parents, or bully-kids at school.
Also, nobody is immune to striving for unattainable perfection, like Sisyphus, daily pushing up the rock only for it to roll downhill and undo all the hard work. In all the talk about grace and faith, there are so many people locked up in a mentality of “I can pull myself by the hair onto a higher level of godliness”
Even moderate people steal the joy from their own lives. It doesn’t take much to start thinking about faith and end up to a place of talking in moral absolutes, in a Platonic division of the body and soul and looking down at the body (cause it’s guilty for all that’s bad), and looking at the soul as a poor imprisoned self who mourns under the weight of the filthy body, awaiting bodiless existence. No wonder there are so many people with personality disorders.
Such polarized view of self usually results in one of these two cases:
- Moral carelessnes: Enjoy everything life has to offer. None of that affects the soul anyways.
- Religious fundamentalism: forget the body, it’s temporal anyways. Starve it to death, blow it up to pieces and set your spirit free.
Luckily, our text doesn’t end here. So let’s move on to the next section.
The ultimate point of Christ’s redemption
In 11-15, what is the point of this new covenant that Christ establishes, why was it established, and what sort of “serving God” are we talking about?
Looking at the end result of how things would be if humanity would be left alone, we’d be living in a world full of:
- dull monks locked up in a monastery, who don’t care about anything outside their monastery and the needs of those who support them
- trigger-happy suicide bombers itching to blow themselves up “for God’s glory” at the slightest disagreement with others
- narcissistic self-proclaimed religious divas blindly following their ego and leading others astray
We’re lucky that there was a break in this self-governance, a divine intervention in human history. With Christ entering our world, we are told that things won’t be the same any more. Moreover, throughout the New Testament we hear how Christ has fulfilled prophecies from ancient times. Christ himself says that he is here to fulfill the Law, namely, wrap things up with the old system of religious practice that rested solely on the responsibility of humans.
Unlike a man-made temple that was great at reminding us of how wretched we are, Christ stands for a new system, where the relationship between humanity and God now rests outside of Creation, and in God’s hands. With Christ, the ball is in God’s court now. And He doesn’t miss. Christ restores unity between God and humanity.
There are two wonderful things here:
- The ball was always in God’s court. David’s psalms are full of songs about God’s greatness and love. Thing is, people get so caught up in religious practices and miss the point: living with God.
It’s like a dance couple focusing so much on counting the steps that they forget the music and lose sight that it’s actually a dance, and it’s meant to be a lot of fun!
- In Christ, we can finally stop wondering if we took care of every single sin and repented for it, and we can at last get to the reason of reconciling with God: so that we can live a life of restful service to God.
With Christ in the equation, we can finally lift our head up, stop counting the steps, and let ourselves be swept by the tune where the next right step just flows out of us, while we dance to the music in sheer joy. And the whole point of it all in all the practice was to learn the steps so that we’d dance properly, but dance joyfully.
The service to God is us being like Christ, being devoted to God, as John 4: 23 says, worshiping in spirit and in truth, i.e:
- the “spirit” part: effective kind of devotion that isn’t looking at ways to proclaim oneself a moral Superman, but a spiritual worship that illuminates and preserves peace, love, understanding, practical help to people around us, etc.
- The “truth” part: proper understanding of our relationship to God and His part in it (this is the Truth part)
With the illustration of the dancers, for a most-fun-and-joy Christian life, we need both:
- the training, so we know what to do at each beat, and
- the music, so we’d know what comes next
The practice vs the Real Deal
In 16-26, We get to see a contrast between the cyclic, ritual sacrifices and a one-time sacrifice Christ made as part of the New Covenant.
In the old cyclic sacrificial system, people were focused on guilt and shame: “even your best deeds are like dirty rags to God”.
Now, our renewed relationship with God is built atop Christ, not our ethics, not our morality, or on anything we did. It’s literally a gift.
Why did Christ have to die so that this New Covenant/Testament could work? Because there was a real problem: Sin is not just an invention of an angry or jealous God. Sin goes deep in and redefines what a human is.
- It is the influence of sin that pushes a teenager to strap a bomb and kill himself and others “in the name of God.”
- It is sin that makes a jealous husband beat his wife.
- It is sin that gets people to focus on superficial spirituality and neglect their responsibility toward their family and friends.
If you look deep enough, just about any social issue tracks its roots back to sin. It is sin that takes the joy out of life regardless if you are:
- counting steps and forget the fact that it’s a dance and miss all the fun, or
- ignore the rules saying “let’s all have fun” and trample everybody around you
Fear or anticipate Christ’s second coming?
In 27-28 we get to see yet another idea that differs from what people envision for Christ’s return. Over-zealous preachers over the centuries pushed their congregations for a more ethical life threatening them that when Christ returns there will be judgment and rolling down of heads.
But here, in these verses, believers should joyfully anticipate Christ’s return who is now a savior, not a dreadful judge. Such positive outlook at the future goes hand in hand with the idea that Christ set us free from sin. And since sin has been taken care of once and for all, there is no need of judgment and no need of fear for those of us who eagerly await his arrival.
Some could use these verses to bring up a debate over the universality of salvation. But that’s a discussion for another time.
In our study of Hebrews, and specifically Chapter 9, we’re only looking at the big ideas:
- Religiosity will get you nowhere no matter how hard you try. It’s never been designed to get you anywhere other than at the realization that you desperately need a new plan, one that doesn’t hinge on who you are, what you do, where you come from.
- Christ is the long-awaited new plan that actually deals with sin once and for all. His sacrifice on the heavenly altar dealt with sin once and for all. As Christ’s cross spans from earth into the Heavens (i.e beyond/outside creation), so his sacrifice spans the chasm between us and God. Thanks to Christ, we can finally focus on living a Christian life as an effect of the redemption, not as a means toward redemption. This new kind of life is free from condemnation.
- We can enjoy this life to all its fullness by knowing the steps, and listening to the music as we go through life, being the light and the salt of this world that then helps us experience the peace of God that transcends understanding, rejoicing in the fact that we will once again see our savior, not as a judge, but as a dear friend, a companion, a high priest, our God.
According to Chapter 9, this is how we ought to look at religiosity, the role of Christ, and our life as Christians.