Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14
The text of Hebrews is replete with comparisons.
In these four verses we find two examples: a greater and more perfect tabernacle and “how much more” comparing the blood of Christ to the blood of goats and calves. Throughout the sermon the earthly is compared to the heavenly; the past to the present; the good to the better. The author clearly wants to emphasize the significance of Jesus and how his entry into the earthly realm has changed everything, for the better. And yet comparisons are often problematic, sometimes even dangerous. Therefore, this sermon is a cautionary tale; one that should be embraced for all of its challenges and complexities and also for all of the encouragement and hope that it provides.
Going from good to better to best
Comparisons can be dangerous when they are employed as a method of supersession. That is, comparisons should not result in replacing one thing with the other or dismissing the previous and former things as no longer useful. Comparison is about relationships and more often than not are simply a matter of opinion. When a comparison is made we often do not take the time to assess the real meaning of the relationship and instead are left with the idea that one thing should take the position of another.
For example, to declare that Coke is better than Pepsi is a matter of opinion. One is only better to those who drink soda or pop and specifically to those who simply prefer more or less sugar or more or less carbonation (the basis upon which the argument often lies). The reality is that in their most basic form, Coke and Pepsi are of the same substance. What is really conveyed by the comparison is one’s personal preference or one’s personal experiences. Perhaps the more important aspect of comparisons is not what or who is more, better, higher, but to better understand the relationship between the two items being compared. By focusing on the relationship, we can remove any judgment. I think this is important for a deeper understanding of the text of Hebrews.
In a society where we are told to strive for the best, the underlying message can often be that good is not good enough. The reality is that good is just that…good. Going from good to great does not mean that good is no longer good. Like your attempt to describe the best desert you have ever had, the writer of Hebrews in this sermon is attempting to convey that the salvific work of Jesus was/is the best thing that has happened in human history. The writer wants the audience to understand that Jesus’ intervention on the earth creates the possibility of transforming our very lives. This does not mean that we should despise or so easily dismiss those things which came before, the previous forms of sacrifice. These things were all necessary for helping us to relate to who Jesus is and to the work he did on earth and continues to do in heaven.
Purification: appreciate the process
I recently heard a radio advertisement for water that made claims to improve health and wellness. My initial thought was: “Now, that is some impressive water!” However, upon further consideration I thought that clean water can have the same effects, no bells and whistles are necessary. However, a quick stroll through the grocery store aisle challenges this assertion. There are a multitude of varieties of water — infused with fruit, enhanced with vitamins and minerals, distilled, purified, spring, alkaline, ionized, and sparkling. The options seemed endless.
Commodification of a life necessity aside, the very fact that there are so many options inform us of two things: 1) there is a desire (demand) for water that is perceived as “pure” and 2) we drink water for various purposes. Whether it is to simply satiate our thirst or if we desire its other medicinal properties, we drink it for a purpose — sometimes to simply live and sometimes to live more abundantly. But have we considered the processes to create the various forms of water? How does my good and clean tap water compare to these others? Tap water does not magically appear from our faucets; there are water treatment plants that facilitate the process of bringing clean water into our homes. Likewise, there is a process for creating these other varieties of water. We appreciate the end result, but we rarely acknowledge the process for creating it.
One of the accomplishments that the writer of Hebrews highlights in these verses is that the blood of Jesus was offered to “purify our conscious from dead works.” The comparison in this text emphasizes the difference between what the blood of Jesus secures and what the blood of animals produced. Both of these images of sacrifice are horrific; they involve the death of living beings in order to improve the life of another. Sacrifice reminds us that a process of purification can be violent and difficult.
Whether its water or metal or our souls, purification involves the removal of the “bad stuff” (contaminants) in order to obtain a better “thing” — a clean conscious, potable water, or a pure metal. The author of Hebrews offers us an image of “a contrast between what humans can accomplish on their own and what can be accomplished only by God.” We can purify the body, but only God can purify the soul. Jesus has secured the purification of our conscience, and what an incredible gift that is!
A pure conscience provides us the ability to discern what is just and right. It enables us to live lives without guilt and shame. And just like those numerous options of water, this gift was given to us for purpose. It is intended that we use it. Christ obtained eternal redemption not simply for redemption sake. The ultimate sacrifice was not made so that our bodies or souls can simply be stamped clean or labeled pure. We have been redeemed in order to worship and serve the living God. Some days that work will be infused with joy and pleasure and some days we will simply be doing kingdom work. In either case, we have been gifted what we need in order to do God’s work. We have been purified for a purpose.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 236.