Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus’ death enables a living faith

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

November 4, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14

Jesus’ death enables a living faith

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). The juxtaposition of these two verses elicits a common idea, albeit a misinformed one, that we should think of faith as the antithesis of works.  The Epistle to the Hebrews rarely, if ever, plays a role in this classic debate, but this week’s passage helps us better understand that believers should make a distinction not between works and faith, but between dead works and living works.

This passage in Hebrews begins with the leitmotif of the letter that God’s messiah, Jesus Christ, has become God’s High Priest. No other book in the New Testament explicitly calls Jesus a priest, let alone a High Priest. For this sermon, however, Jesus’ priesthood becomes the primary vehicle for explaining the meaning of his death and resurrection. Priests were powerful figures in Israel and in other Greco-Roman societies, exercising both spiritual and political power over the people. Proclamation that Jesus is High Priest boldly asserts his position of power.

A detailed description of the tabernacle system (9:1-6) and its most important annual offering, the Day of Atonement ritual (9:7-8) lays the groundwork for a comparison with the priestly ministry of Jesus. The means and the location of his ministry combine to create a different result than that achieved in the priesthoods previous to him.

The location of his ministry

The author claims that Jesus serves as priest in a tent that hands did not build, that is not part of this creation, and that is greater and more perfect than the tent that Israel used in the wilderness. Scholars debate whether these assertions give evidence of Platonic themes in the letter — the belief that a heavenly realm of ideals constitutes reality at its best and most pure — or if it provides evidence of a connection to Jewish apocalypticism, which imagined heavenly structures as the dwelling place of God and his hosts.1 Whatever the background, the key difference lies in the fact that only Jesus serves where God actually dwells (cf. 9:24).

The means of his ministry

While the other priests bring the blood of bulls and goats into the sanctuary, Jesus brings in his own blood to God, serving as both priest and sacrifice. By offering his blood, Jesus is offering himself (9:14). The presentation of the sinless (4:15) Son of God constitutes a blameless sacrifice, and, consequently, it only has to be offered once (9:12).

The results of his ministry

Because he offers the perfect, ever-sufficient sacrifice, he secures two different results for those who stand under his priestly ministry.

First, whereas the old system performed the vital reconciliation of the relationship between God and his people, described as atonement, Jesus’ sacrifice also enacts redemption. According to the author, Jesus’ sacrifice brings about an ontological change for its participants. Previously, humanity had been bound to the devil by the fear of death (2:14-15), but now they can live free as children in the household of God (3:6). Moreover, this redemption lasts forever; it is eternal, it can enable them to reach the heavenly city of God (12:22-24).

Second, whereas the old system made their flesh pure and temporarily prepared them to encounter the manifestation of God’s presence in the tabernacle, Jesus’ sacrifice purifies their consciences. Now, with the cleansing of their hearts and minds, as the prophet Jeremiah anticipated (8:8-12), they can minister to God with the sacrifices of praise, good works, and fellowship (13:15-16).

For the congregation in the first century who heard this sermon, sacrifice was a familiar event.  Jews would have been familiar with the texts of Leviticus, and Gentiles would have encountered sacrifice in the various cults or bought sacrificial meat in the marketplace. Consequently, the image of Jesus offering himself before the very throne of God in heaven — so unusual, so unsettling, so profound — would have created a deep sense of thanksgiving that this sacrifice achieved what others had not: permanent and thorough change in the relationship between God and humanity.

The challenge for preachers today is to elicit that same sense of thanksgiving from this passage for congregations who find sacrifice obscure or even cruel. Congregation and preacher alike would certainly benefit from a walk through the Old Testament. Preaching the texts of Exodus 25-31, 35-40 or Leviticus reveal the holiness of God and the great care humans must exercise to approach it. These lessons create the rich soil out of which the truths of Hebrews can flower. God does something new in Jesus but only by following the same system he had used with his people for thousands of years in which fallen humanity and holy God met through the offering of a life.

That connection to life and death provide another anchor for proclamation even if the preaching schedule does not allow for a comprehensive foray into the Old Testament background. The author promises that Jesus’ sacrifice will redeem from dead works so that participants can serve the living God (9:14). Hebrews helps us see that the difference is not between believing verses doing, but between performing dead or living deeds. Humans, whether they be Jews from the Old Testament with a written list of sacrificial practices or Christians in 2012 with a mental list of deeds that should be performed, all have a propensity toward dead works, actions performed by rote lacking any internal motivation. These are the works that are incompatible with faith.

But Jesus’ sacrifice opens another way. Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses the external and internal so that we can offer our whole selves to God, just like he did. It is not really about what we do; the same action can be a dead work or a lively praise, but it is about surrender. We can ask ourselves and our congregants: Are you doing works just to do the work or are you doing them because you are surrendered to the living God? When we surrender ourselves as Jesus did, it becomes possible to serve the living God with a living faith.

1David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in Hebrews (NovTSup 141; Boston: Brill, 2011), 15-17.