Note: Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.
The mood of this text is one of profound encouragement based on the meanings of Jesus' death on the cross.
The verses describe the divine rationale for the crucifixion, its benefits for humanity and the ways in which humanity is invited to respond to the Cross event.
The text starts at verse 16 but could be prefaced by beginning the reading at verse 15. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in verse 15 as the prompting voice behind the prophetic texts which are quoted in both verses 16, 17. This fact reinforces the author's understanding of the eternal plan of God focused in Jesus Christ. Verse 16 somewhat modifies the text of Jeremiah 31:33, which deals with the covenant God establishes with Israel. The purpose of the covenant is two-fold: to inscribe the covenant in hearts and in minds. In other words, the law will function both affectively and intellectually as a guide to a godly life.
Verse 17 offers another slightly modified text from Jeremiah 31:34b which realistically understands human response to God's gift of the law. It asserts that God will forget humanity's inability to keep the law. But how is this possible? Verse 18 completes the circle of God's intentions in terms of sin and repentance. It reaches beyond the cultic actions of offering animal sacrifices for sin. Verse 18 asserts "there is forgiveness" implying, but not stating, that this comes about not through animal sacrifices in the old covenental system, but through Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross.
In verses 19-21 the preacher goes on to spell out the meaning of this radical change from the former system of the temple as mediating God to humanity. Verse 19 describes the entry way into the sanctuary -- that is to the presence of God -- comes now through "the blood of Jesus." His blood also gives the believer in his sacrifice a new attitude towards God, "...we have confidence...." The Cross event dispels human hesitation before God since God has acted clearly in Jesus with an invitation to relationship.
The writer describes another well-known feature of the old temple system; the curtain which separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. One Gospel account of the crucifixion mentions the tearing of the temple curtain. Here the curtain is reframed with an analogy: the writer notes in verse 21 that the curtain is now "through his flesh."
This comment enables the writer to describe the new curtain in verse 19 as "the new and living way." This is startling language that ranks with the poetic and mystical. It firmly places God in the middle of humanity as incarnated in flesh. While this statement may be taken forgranted by modern day listeners, the writer of Hebrews' thinking was critical in the early debates of the church in asserting that God in Jesus came in the flesh, not merely as spirit.
In summarizing verses 19-21 of this passage, Jesus is described simultaneously on many planes. He is the blood sacrifice which satisfies sinners to God; his flesh has become the new curtain through which access to God is now possible. Finally, in verse 21 he is identified as the welcoming "great high priest over the house of God." In other words, given all these functions, Jesus is the temple of God in its entirety in his flesh. Nothing of the old temple system is needed anymore as his death has superseded all its manifestations and functions. His body becomes the new temple of God.
Verses 22-25 take up the outcomes of Jesus' sacrifice for believers. The preacher uses corporate language -- the "we" -- to invite believers to unify themselves in encouragement around the cross event. Verse 22 repeats the invitation to come close to God "in full assurance of faith." This means faith is fulfilled and blessed in approaching God in Jesus. If preaching this text, research should attend to the term in verse 22 of "sprinkled clean."
This has Old Testament references and does not refer to baptism. The latter mention of this same verse, however, does refer to the cleansing of baptism, "our bodies washed with pure water." Here the writer maintains the historical connection between the cleansing of blood as a ritual form of purification in ancient times with purification through baptism.
Verses 23-25 are directives for Christians supporting and encouraging one another in view of the Cross. They are to remember God, who is faithful; allow the Cross to instigate love and do good deeds; to meet together for the sake of mutual encouragement, and to do so remembering life eschatologically, "as you see the Day approaching."
It is rare to hear any proclamation on Good Friday other than on the Gospel. This text, however, could be used as a preaching text in a service that might contain several brief meditations. One of the benefits of this text is that it spells out the historical and contemporary responses to the Cross event. It describes the "why" of Jesus' sacrifice in historical terms continuous with the Old Testament and what activities are to result for people as a result of the sacrifice.
The orderly arguments of the writer can lead to several different homilies. One might use the first part of the passage to describe the changes in the old covenental system to a new way of life through the Cross event. These verses display the work and presence of Jesus in many ways. Another homily could focus on what human responses are to be towards this act of God's love. Here verses 21-25 can form the outline of a homily.
While many Good Friday services are routinely preached through the Gospel, what would a service sound like if the gospel proclamation was paired with these poetic, well-argued, pastoral and historical words of Hebrews? The writer speaks lyrically and tenderly of Jesus' work on our behalf.