Hebrews: Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

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I’d seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they didn’t prepare me for the breathtaking sight when we visited the real thing. Every perspective we got as we moved around the rim was beyond description. The pictures were beautiful but they couldn’t do the real thing justice. The writer of Hebrews had set up  two tabernacles in his message – one on earth – a man-made structure with beautiful tapestries and rich gold and silver, and one in heaven: “the greater and more perfect tabernacle . . . not a part of this creation.” He did not attempt to describe it, but I am sure that he could have never adequately portrayed the heavenly dwelling place of God in mere human words.

Likewise, the work of the high priest ministering in the earthly tabernacle was a pale substitute for the work of our Great High Priest ministering in the heavenly tabernacle. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with animal blood because blood was necessary to purge the sin and make the people clean – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). But why? “The life of a creature [human or animal] is in the blood (Lev 17:11). Blood is synonymous with life – any physician will tell you that when the body runs out of blood the life is drained with it. This is the price of our sin.

Let’s spell this out. In God’s holy covenant only “blood makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:14). God in His mercy allowed for animals’ blood to stand in for our blood, but its effect was short-lived and only partially cleansing. But God had planned a better way; a way that would atone for sin “once for all” (Heb. 9:12), but it required perfect blood that was only available through a divine and holy being – but there’s a problem.  God can’t die. So His one and only Son became a man – a man with divine blood – that He might atone for humanity’s sin. He hung on a cross and dripped that perfect blood from His broken human body. Then He collected it in a bowl and took it into the heavenly tabernacle into God’s very presence. No other sacrifice would be needed. Jesus had done it all.

The blood of Jesus still stands as the only way to be clean before a holy God. But it is enough. Come, Beloved, and be washed in the perfect blood of Christ.

Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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“Keep out!” I stood there with my hands on my hips staring at the signs on my brothers’ fort. “Boys only!”  I yelled into the curtained doorway, “I don’t want to go in your fort – it should say ‘Stupid boys only!’”  But the truth is I did. I wanted to go in just because they said I couldn’t. I wanted to go in to show them they were not better than me and they couldn’t shut me out.  But mama said “No. Give the boys their space.” Fine. It was probably full of stupid boy stuff anyway. 

In the center of the people of Israel stood an elaborate tent – a tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord God. Not just anyone could enter the tabernacle. Only “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry” (Heb 9:6). Within the tabernacle was another space, and it was even more exclusive than the outer space. “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year” (v. 7a). There might as well have been signs saying, “Keep out!” “High Priest only!” Why so particular about who entered and when? Because this was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord God dwelt. Admittance was strictly limited and access carried great responsibility. The writer of Hebrews noted that when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement he was “never without blood which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (v. 7b). It was a ritual that had to be followed to the letter with the high priest bathing and putting on his holy garments, presenting the blood of animals first for himself and then again for the sins of the community (see Leviticus 16). The people were declared clean for another year, but they were still kept out of God’s presence. Why? Because, while the sins were atoned for by the blood of the sacrifices, the guilt of their sin remained.  They would never have “a clear conscience.” The memory of their sin would always be with them, like a stain that could never be washed away and no one can enter God’s presence with stains. Something more was needed, something that could do what the blood of goats and bulls could not – make men clean enough for God.

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Hebrews: Jesus Understands

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Joy helping Nana make “pankins”

Every Saturday Joy and I make “pankins” (pancakes) for breakfast. She loves to dump all the ingredients into the bowl and “crush” the eggs” then stir the batter. It is our tradition and I love it probably more than she does. I handle the skillet, which is positioned out of her reach, always telling her, “Don’t touch the skillet, it’s very hot. It will hurt you.” This past Saturday, she discovered that for herself. Before I could stop her, she stretched across the counter and barely touched the edge of the skillet. She didn’t have a mark on her fingers but it sure scared her. Later, watching me clean up, she said, “Careful Nana, dat skillet is hot.” I’m pretty sure I won’t have to tell her again not to touch it.

The writer of Hebrews, in discussing Jesus’ final hours, said “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him . . .” (5:8). Just as we saw back in 2:10, Jesus was, is, and will forever be the perfect Son of God. So why would the Scriptures say He had to “learn obedience” – wasn’t He already obedient? Absolutely. He didn’t learn obedience for His sake. He learned it for ours.

Remember, the author has been building a case that Jesus is a worthy, compassionate high priest who can sympathize with us in all of our human struggles. He had previously said that “He had to be made like His brothers (us) in every way” (2:17). Including obedience. He didn’t need to learn obedience to keep him from the harsh consequences of disobedience like my granddaughter learned. No, it was to give us a high priest we could identify with. Perfect people are not much help to imperfect folks like you and me. His struggle to submit to the Father’s plan gives us the confidence to call out for His help when we are in the same battle. The best high priest is the one who can help us out of His own experience.

Beloved, what is that thing you’re clinging to that is so hard to submit to God? What has God called you to that you’re not sure you’re willing to do? Jesus understands. He can help you be obedient. He’s not so far above you that you can’t reach Him. He’s right there in the garden, on His knees.

Hebrews: Jesus – The Forever High Priest

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I used to be so star-struck when I was younger. I bought every magazine that would tell me all about my favorite singers and actors. I watched every award show and marveled at the beautiful people. Then I grew up. I began to see how egotistical these stars were. I lost interest in the glory-hogs of the entertainment world. Those who seek fame and notice will gladly sell their soul to get it.  I wish we could say that preachers and people in ministry are immune to the lure of fame, but we know that’s not the case.

In our last Hebrews devotional, we discussed the calling of the priestly line of Levi and especially of the high priest. The author said, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (5:4). The office of the high priest became increasingly political as foreign rulers appointed high priests who would best serve their purposes. But Jesus was called to the position.  “So Christ did not take upon Himself the glory of becoming a high priest” (v. 5). Jesus didn’t go after the position of the high priest out of ego or political ideology, but, in keeping with the nature of the role, out of humility and obedience. The author quoted a verse from the Psalms: “You are my Son, today I have become your Father” (v. 5b; also Psalm 2:7). This is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus which authenticated His claim to be the Son of God. He also identified Jesus as “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (v. 6; also Psalm 110:4). Melchizedek was an Old Testament king and priest who appeared in the account of Abraham in Genesis 14:18-20. We’ll dig into his story in chapter 7, but the point is that Jesus, like Melchizedek, was appointed to the priesthood – and in Jesus’ case anointed as a high priest by God Himself. The high priest served until his death – but Jesus is alive forever so His priesthood lives on eternally. That means in His role as high priest He forever advocates for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). I find a lot of comfort in that because I am very human in my weaknesses and failures.

Beloved, you are never without your great high priest. When you fall, Jesus leans over to the Father, shows Him the scars on His hands, and says, “She’s covered by my blood.” I believe that makes the Father smile.

Hebrews: Church Secretaries and High Priests

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Me and Carol Dehner hard at work at Tallahassee Heights United Methodist Church

I worked in church administration for more than 25 years. I often considered myself a Levite. Levi, one of the sons of Jacob, would become the priestly line for all of Israel. It was “the family business.” God called Aaron to be the first high priest, his sons to be “assistant” priests, and the remaining Levites to be their assistants “doing the work at the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 8:19). They managed the mundane details of the tabernacle so Aaron and his sons could perform sacrifices and offerings to the Lord. Like a Levi, I was the creator of bulletins and newsletters, handler of mail, and keeper of the membership records. I freed up the pastor to focus on the ministry of the Word, care of the members, and leading the church as God directed. It was not the weighty stuff the pastor did, but it helped the church run (fairly) smoothly.

Like a pastor, the high priest had a serious responsibility and it was not a job for just anyone. It was a divinely given role. In our ongoing study of Hebrews, the writer said, “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” (Hebrews 5:1). It was the most important position in Israel. The high priest represented the people before God and represented God before the people. In addition to interceding for them, He also taught them about righteousness. “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray,” (v. 2a). Because of who he represented, the high priest was expected to be holy – to be set apart from the common and certainly from sin. But at the end of the day, he was still a flesh-and-blood man like every other man. Listen to the second half of verse 2-3: “since himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest had ”to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”

A Christian pastor is likewise called to his position. “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was” (v. 4). After many years of working with pastors, I can testify to the fact that it is not a job; it is a holy calling. (I could rant about pastors not being fit for the position, but I won’t.)

You’re probably wondering, what does my career and an OT history lesson have to do with the church today? I’m glad you asked, and I will answer – in our next Hebrews devotional.

Hebrews: Jesus is Enough

I have great respect and appreciation for my pastor. He preaches the Word of God without compromise. He serves his church wholeheartedly. He has been a blessing to my family in times of need. He encourages me and cares about me. But he can’t save me. He can’t take on my sin and declare me righteous. He can’t bear my burdens and weaknesses. He can be my pastor, but he can’t be my high priest. But Jesus can. 

The author of Hebrews said, “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . .” (4:14). That probably doesn’t mean much to us as twenty-first century Protestants, but context is important. The Jewish people, like all people, were a sinful bunch. God made provision for them through the high priest, who, once a year, entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the place where God dwelled and presented a sacrifice for the atonement for them. This was repeated every year because, as we’ll see later, the blood of animals was a temporary solution to an eternal problem.

Jesus is our “great high priest” who didn’t just enter the earthly dwelling place of God, but He went right into heaven, into God’s very presence to present Himself as our sacrifice of atonement. Once. But once was enough. He alone could do that for us because He is the Son of God. Remember that the original readers were Jews who depended on the yearly sacrifice and atonement. They needed to hold firmly to their confidence that what Jesus did for them once was enough to make them righteous – and keep them righteous before God.

What does that mean for you and me? The same thing. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, which He presented personally to His Father, we are righteous. We have to hold firmly to that as our defining truth. Not just in an ethereal way, but in practical ways every day. When we face choices we remember that we have been declared righteous, and we choose accordingly. When the flesh craves something ungodly, we remember that we have been declared righteous and we deny our flesh. When we would react out of anger or fear or discouragement we remember that we have been declared righteous and we respond as a child of God – with peace and trust and hope. Jesus did it all for you, Beloved. Now hold firmly to Him. He is enough.

Hebrews: Awe and Wonder

Quick! What are you thinking about right now? Right now, I’m thinking about the pain in my knee. I’m thinking about my next course coming up in two weeks. I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t get done this weekend added to all the things I need to do this week. I’m thinking about getting Joy to her nanny and me to work on time.  

The writer of Hebrews said, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1). One of the first things we learn in Bible study is to pay attention to the word, “therefore” and ask ourselves, “what’s it there for?” Therefore always refers us back to the previous text – in this case, the author has just listed eight reasons why God would send His one and only Son from glory to earth. He is saying, in light of all that Jesus is and has done, our natural response is to “fix our thoughts” on Him, meaning to mentally focus with intentional consideration. That sounds a lot like studying algebra to me.  I would stare at my textbook for hours but just could not wrap my mind around those useless equations and formulas. Thankfully, that’s not what’s happening here.

Glance back just a few words, where the author, speaking to his “holy brothers” (and sisters), said that they – and we – “share in the heavenly calling.” That calling is a divine invitation from heaven to consider all that Jesus is. Redeemer. Savior. Brother. Victor. High Priest. Sacrifice. Helper. Apostle. The book of Hebrews is all about discovering Jesus. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, we keep turning the dial and seeing new and wonderful sides to Him.  

Fixing our thoughts on Jesus is more than a mental exercise we have to push ourselves through like my algebra book. It’s lifting our thoughts above the mundane things of this world and filling our minds with awe and wonder at the Son of the Most High God. It’s not something we have to do, it’s something we get to do! What a high and holy privilege we’ve been given.

That brings me back to the question we opened with. Beloved, what are you thinking about right now?

Hebrews: When You are Tempted

One of the foundations of recovery programs is the helpful presence of those who have “been-there-done-that. The former addict can uniquely connect with and help the one struggling to break free from drugs. The same applies to recovering from alcohol, pornography, and all manner of bondage.  I have a dear friend who turned the shame of abortion into a powerful post-abortion ministry – she could offer another woman her hand and tell her, “been there, done that, let me tell you how God set me free.”

The author of Hebrews pointed to another reason that God sent His one and only Son to earth – “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). This verse is important because it also highlights the humanity of Jesus, that He was made as we were, and suffered just as we do.  Therefore He is in a unique position to help us when we suffer, especially when we face temptation.

What does it mean that Jesus “suffered” when He was tempted? The word used means “to experience or endure” often with a negative experience. Let’s be honest – most of us don’t  “suffer” with temptation. We don’t “endure” through it. Most of us give in to it without much of a struggle. Jesus faced temptation from the devil, but He did not give in (Matthew 4 and Luke 4). He also faced temptation in the garden before His arrest and crucifixion, but He did not give up (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22).  

It is important to note that while Jesus suffered with temptation, He never sinned. If He had He could not have been our high priest and Savior. Peter said of Jesus, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).  He experienced the full onslaught of temptation such as you and I will never face, and He overcame it. How? Love for His Father who sent Him and love for those He came to save. Indeed, He is able to help in our time of temptation.  If we will allow Him to. An old devout saint was once asked, what is your secret to living a godly life? He answered, “Every time I am tempted I look to God and say, ‘Your property is in danger.’”  Beloved, the next time you are in danger from temptation, reach out to Jesus. He understands and He will help you.

Hebrews: Jesus the High Priest

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If I were God, I would choose people who were not so messy. I would pick the ones who were grateful for my help and didn’t keep jumping right back into the same pit I had just pulled them out of. People who were easily moldable and not so resistant and hard-hearted (and headed). In other words, I would have picked anyone other than me.

The writer of Hebrews said, “For surely it is not angels he helps but Abraham’s descendants” (2:16). God helps fallen human beings. Why in heaven’s name does He help ungrateful, selfish, messy people like you and me? Are we somehow more worthy than angels? Hardly. God helps us because we are the ones who need Him.

“For this reason,” the writer adds, “He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God . . .” (v. 17a). He became like us so that he could help us. We’re going to talk more about the humanity of Jesus in a later chapter, but for today we’re looking at another reason that God sent His Son to earth. To take up the role of the high priest. In God’s original design the high priest was the mediator between heaven and earth. The high priest represented God before man and represented man before God. Under the old covenant, high priests offered sacrifices that satisfied God’s justice and demonstrated His mercy. He showed the people the love of God in His merciful kindness every time he offered sacrifices to atone for their sins.

But somewhere along the way, the priesthood became more about status and power than about kindness and mercy. Instead of becoming the bridge between God and man through atonement, the priests became a wall keeping men they deemed unworthy of God from Him. Jesus brought back the lost mercy and faithfulness to the office of the high priest.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not God. It’s even a better thing that God made provision for messy people like me to be made right with Him. Jesus stands in the gap between us and God – not to block the way, but to be the bridge that allows us to cross the chasm and stand in His presence. And that’s a very good thing.