What is real and what isn’t? Perhaps we think we know the answer to this question but when we come to Christ everything changes. We realize that the things we once thought of as real are in fact illusory and fleeting at best. It is the unseen things of the spiritual realm that are in fact the true and lasting realities, and they cast shadows into this world that are meant to help us turn our backs on the temporary and worthless things here to look towards and to find them. This is the message the author to the letter to the Hebrews brings to us this week. He warns us not to go after a “virtual reality” here on earth which is just a vapor, a shadow that will not satisfy or cleanse our consciences but instead to turn towards and embrace the heavenly things that have true and lasting substance!
LOOKING BACK (Hebrews 9:15-28)
The Old Covenant failed as a way by which people could draw near to God. There was nothing wrong with the covenant itself, but the fault lay with the people (Hebrews 8:8). They didn’t (and indeed, because of their sinful hearts, couldn’t) continue in that covenant. All it did was to expose their sin, pronounce condemnation on them and point them very clearly to the need for something better if ever any descendent of Adam was to be saved from the consequences of the fall.
So God had always planned to introduce a New Covenant in the fullness of time, which could do everything the Old Covenant couldn’t. It would ensure the salvation of God’s people by changing the fundamental nature of the agreement. The Old Covenant was between God and sinful man (who inevitably failed). This New Covenant was between God the Father and God the Son (Who acted for and on behalf of fallen sinners and kept the terms of the Covenant in their place) with God the Spirit implementing the results of the Son’s work in the very hearts of God’s people. It can never fail!
This New Covenant was ratified and mediated by Jesus Himself through His death. These covenants were both like legal wills, only providing the entailed blessings and inheritance when there is a death – demonstrated in the pouring out of blood. Moses inaugurated the Old Covenant by means of the blood of calves and goats, which were sprinkled on both the people and the Tabernacle with its equipment to purify them. The shedding of blood was the prescribed way to purify almost anything and anyone under the law. But the writer has already told us that these earthly tents and services were only copies of the heavenly realities. If blood was needed to inaugurate the Old Covenant, to purify its worshippers on earth, and to secure its promised blessings, what would need to be done for those who would worship God in the true heavenly tabernacle? A much better sacrifice and much more powerful and valuable blood would be needed for that! And so Jesus gave up His life, and took His own blood into heaven. Through this offering He has made perfect forever those who draw near to God through Him!
Jesus so perfectly put away sin by the shedding of His blood (the giving of His life) that it only had to be done once. It is a horrific practice to keep on sacrificing Christ in our worship! We are saying that what He did once on the cross wasn’t good enough or powerful enough or effective enough to save us completely. We are in effect trying to top up the merits of His sacrifice by crucifying Him over and over again. The writer makes it so clear in this passage that Jesus only did this once from the foundation of the world and there is no need for it ever to happen again!
When Jesus does return again, it will not be to die but to save all those who have believed in Him and to judge all those who have not. It will not go well on that day for those whose consciences have not been purged by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Among these would be any of the recipients of this letter who abandoned Christ and returned to an obsolete covenant as their hope for drawing near to God, when a covenant sealed with the blood of God’s only Son is now in force and is presented as a sure and certain way for sinners to draw near to a holy God.
How will it go for you on that day, friend? Has your conscience been cleansed by Christ’s powerful and effective blood? That is the only sure way to be accepted and to draw near!
LOOKING AHEAD (Hebrews 10:1-18)
The writer turns our understanding of how things work on its head in the opening verses of this chapter. We think of shadows as being without substance. They require something physical and substantive to produce them. In the spiritual realm the opposite is true. The “substantive” reality is the things of the spiritual realm that are unseen to our eyes. The shadow they produced was the very physical Tabernacle and ceremonies of the Mosaic law. The shadow was a testament to the existence of the heavenly reality.
In another way, though, the shadow the writer speaks about here is very similar to our usual experience in this world. When we see a shadow, our instinct is to turn away from it and to see who or what is casting it. As a rule, we don’t keep gazing on the shadow (in fact, it is deeply unsatisfying to do this) but we turn from it to the reality that gave rise to it. In the same way, the shadow that was inherent in the Law (note in the passage that the law “has a shadow” rather than the law “is a shadow”) was intended to cause the Jews to look away to the spiritual realities that cast it.
Because they have no substance, shadows in general are incapable of doing anything except shading the land where they fall, but the reality making the shadow can be capable of some quite extraordinary things. So the writer tells us that the shadow possessed by the continuous offerings on the altar day in, day out, served to remind the people of their sin. It also taught them that those offerings in themselves were useless to cleanse the conscience (or they would have ceased to be needed). But they were cast by One Who would do extraordinary things to fully and finally resolve the sin problem!
So when Christ came into the world, He put aside the useless sacrifices required under the law and offered up Himself in their place as the once for all Sacrifice that provided complete cleansing. In token of the total efficacy of the work He did on the cross and in His resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand – His one offering having perfected for all time those who God is making holy and fit to draw near to Him.
Finally, the author reminds us that the complete forgiveness of the sins of God’s people is exactly what God included in the terms and conditions of the New Covenant when He announced them through Jeremiah centuries before. And he stresses that if the sins of the people have been truly forgiven, then logically there can be no place for additional sacrifices – “it is finished!” (as Christ said as He gave up His life on the cross).
So there we have it – the author points us to the reality of a Savior seated in heaven (His work accomplished) Who has fully paid the price of sin, putting an end to the anticipatory but shadowy sacrifices of the Old Covenant by completely outshining them.
The readers, then, were foolishly thinking of looking back to the Old Covenant, to something that could never equip them to draw near to God. Indeed, all of us are all born into this world knowing that we are not right with God and trying to work out our own fixes for our sin problem. But nothing will set our consciences at rest before God except the work of the One Who was fore-shadowed in the law and its sacrifices – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. Are you resting in Him alone as your hope of eternal life? Turn from your sins and useless efforts, come to Him now, and He can be!