< November 11, 2012 >

Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28

 

The cycle of sin and atonement ends in Christ

Repetition can be a good thing.

Children thrive when they can expect the same order of events in their day. Most adults enjoy the feeling of an established rhythm to their weeks. Congregations, even those who would never describe themselves as liturgical, have a certain repeated structure to the weekly service that cannot change without attracting attention, or more likely, criticism. In other ways, however, doing the same thing over and over again can create a sense of boredom, or even worse, entrapment. Especially true when one is stuck in the rut of a bad habit, escape from the repetition, while greatly desired, at times feels impossible.

The author of Hebrews, were he to use our parlance, might describe sin as being stuck in a rut. He would certainly, however, not view Israel's sacrificial system as part of that sin. It was God's gracious plan to address the reality of human impurity, but it did function as a reminder of the sin rut people lived in. The daily sacrifices culminated in the yearly presentation of an offering in the holiest place in the tabernacle system. Every year the people would mourn their sinfulness as the High Priest, with great trepidation, approached the ark of the covenant to secure God's presence for another year.

The author of Hebrews interprets Jesus' death, resurrection, and exaltation in light of this model. The sacrificial system dealt with the people's sin during the time of the Old Covenant, but it also pointed the way toward the ultimate answer to sin. In the same way, Jesus offered a sacrifice so that sins could be forgiven, but the chief difference is that he did so only once. The cycle came to an end with Jesus.

It seems a bit ironic that a letter so concerned with the end of the repetitive cycle of sin and atonement would be so repetitive in getting that point across. One of my professors often jokingly asked how I could stand working in Hebrews. "It says the same thing over and over again." That charge, I'm afraid, cannot be denied. This week's passage is hauntingly similar to the previous. Both discuss the differences in location, means, and timing between the sacrifice of Jesus and the other priests, a hint that repetition is not always a bad thing.

Granting him the benefit of a doubt, the author must have had a reason, and a plan, for expressing the same ideas repeatedly and a close examination shows that he adds something new to his argument in this exposition.

In between the last description of Jesus' priestly offering and this one, the author presents an artful play on the word covenant. He presents the similarity of Jesus' offering to the blood rituals used in the covenant God established with his people on Mount Sinai (9:18-22), and also its similarity to the death necessary for the enactment of another type of covenant, a will or testament (9:15-18). So, Jesus plays the role of a testator whose death makes the New Testament a reality, and he plays the role of the priest whose offering inaugurates the new covenant.

The author remains with the priestly associations of covenant to explain the ramifications of Jesus' death, resurrection, and exaltation. Just as the earthly tabernacle had to be cleansed with sacrifices, so too does the heavenly tabernacle. This idea strikes us as incredibly odd if we imagine heaven tainted by human sin, but one of the best explanations is that Jesus' offering inaugurates the heavenly tabernacle and prepares it for his eternal ministry as the priest who intercedes on our behalf. Hence, the author reminds his audience again that Jesus serves not in the tabernacle on earth, but in heaven itself, where he appears before the very face of God (9:24).

Next, he emphasizes the once-for-all quality of Jesus' sacrifice. If Jesus were like other priests who presented their offering annually, he would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world -- a subtle reminder that this author viewed the man Jesus, whom other Christians had seen and known in the flesh (2:4), as the bodily appearance (10:5) of the eternal Son of God (1:3). If his sacrifice wouldn't have been singular, it would have had to happen as long as the world itself had existed in need of reconciliation with God. In reality, since he only came once and his suffering culminated in the one and only time he faced death, this showed that time itself had reached a stage of completion. The end of the ages had arrived (cf. 1:2).

Why repeat the point that Jesus presents his own blood, not that of animals, and once, not repeatedly, in heaven, not on earth? In addition to the fact that this was a sermon that most people would hear rather than read, and so repetition helped to solidify ideas in the minds of the audience, the implications of each presentation of the point highlight a different moment in one's life with God. While the first ends with the proclamation that Jesus' offering makes it possible to serve God right now (9:14) the second culminates with the promise that Jesus' offering guarantees salvation in the future. As you serve God, you look forward to the ultimate, final, and permanent salvation Jesus' sacrifice achieved (9:12).

Both the method and the content of this passage have something to say about repetition. The content asserts that Jesus' sacrifice ends the repetition needed to take care of sin. Because he has offered himself blameless to God, there no longer remains any need for any offering for sin (10:18).

All we have to do is remember. Hence, we need to repeat the story of Jesus' offering, in study, in prayer, in worship, in baptism, and in the Eucharist, because this repetition reminds us that we look back to the forgiveness of sin and look forward to the possession of salvation.