Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C)

During the Advent and Christmas season we have a wonderful opportunity to think through and speak about the meaning and purpose of the life of the Lord Jesus.

Crypt, Siena
"Crypt, Siena." Fresco of the Visitation (c.128) in the crypt of Siena Cathedral. Image by Holly Hayes via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

December 20, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10

During the Advent and Christmas season we have a wonderful opportunity to think through and speak about the meaning and purpose of the life of the Lord Jesus.

And yes of course folk will be expecting preachers to retell the story of the conception, and birth, the stable and the wise men and so on. It’s what people are used to. But, the passage before us today takes us directly to the heart of how the Lord Jesus understood his life and ministry. This passage is at one time both potentially controversial, but also massively encouraging. It can speak to us about our own lives and how we should respond to the incarnation of the Christ.

Jesus: the faithful One

Hebrews is a book that is fundamentally about the Lord Jesus — who he is, what he did and how he did it. Particularly relevant to our passage is the recognition that Hebrews speaks of the Lord Jesus as one who was faithful to God. Hebrews 2:17, “faithful high priest in the service of God”; 3:2, “faithful to the one who appointed him”; 3:6, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son.” That this faithfulness to God is at the heart of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus is seen in the statement in 5:7 that Jesus cried out to “the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” That is: it was faithful submission in the life of the Lord Jesus to the will and purposes of God that gave him the confidence that God would hear his cry and ultimately raise him from death.

Faithful Obedience

This passage speaks to us first, that God’s purpose and pleasure rests in faithful obedience. Our passage has Christ speaking with voice of the Psalmist acknowledging his primary purpose, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). This is then repeated in verse 9, “See, I have come to do your will.” But, our congregations will be left asking, “So, what is the will of God for me?” Perhaps the most succinct, accurate, and also universally applicable answer that can be given to this perennial question is found in the verses immediately preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The one who questions Jesus affirms that the Law clearly teaches that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). But then Jesus strikingly responds with, “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Thus, in one simple statement Jesus reveals his understanding that our key purpose is to love and to love no matter what. This is surely at the heart of our passage: The desire of the Lord Jesus to root his life in love as the key to his life purpose and the answer to what it means to obey God.

Obedience in Action

Second, this obedience takes bodily form in response to the deep desire to obey God. In Hebrews 10:5 the writer has Christ accepting that his life of loving, faithful obedience is to be lived out in a body, “a body you have prepared for me.” Now, we shouldn’t make the mistake of diving straight towards the death of Jesus and an understanding of that death as an atoning sacrifice as the intended destiny of the body. For, as Hebrews 10:7 makes clear (repeated and thus emphasized in 10:9) “I have come to do your will.” Not simply in death, but throughout his whole life we see the willingness of Christ to do the will of God in his body. After all, how else would Christ do the will of God? For us too, our life of obedience must take bodily form. Our acts of love are not merely thoughts and desires, but practical actions that help, serve, and impact the lives of others.

Absorbing the word of God

This may be a minor point, but it is worth noting that obedience to the will of God comes through hearing and absorbing his word to us. Interestingly, the citation in these verses takes us back to Psalm 40:6-8. But, we note there that what has been rendered here as “a body you have prepared for me”, is with a literal translation of the Hebrew text of Psalm 40:6, “you dug ears for me”! What this seems to mean is that God gives the psalmist the power to listen intently and to take into himself the words and thus the will of God. It is necessary for us, as also with Christ, to absorb the whole word of God and to make it part of our being. In this way we can act out of the merciful words of God that we have welcomed into our own hearts.

Offering the Whole of Life

What then should we make of the references in these verses to sacrifice? Well, clearly we are to understand that God is no longer interested in the offering of sacrifice. If we understand this passage rightly God does not desire sacrifices and offerings (Hebrews 10:5), God takes no pleasure in them (verses 6,8), and Christ has abolished them (verse 9). Rather than offer a sacrifice Hebrews 10:9 tells us that Christ came to do the will of God. How then do we square this with verse 10 and the offering of the body of Jesus Christ? We should reflect seriously on the proposition that it is the entirety of Christ’s life of obedience, devotion to God, and commitment to love that is “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). And this may prove controversial, for it suggests that we cannot focus solely upon the death of the Lord Jesus for our salvation. But rather, and importantly as we reflect on the incarnation during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Jesus lived his entire life as an offering of faithful obedience to God. And this example calls us to offer own lives, in their entirety, in faithful obedience to God.