Hebrews 10:16-25 (ESV)
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may draw near to you with a true heart in full assurance of faith through the living way of your dear Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Covenants, offerings for sin, entrance to holy places, the use of blood, receiving a new living way, being served by a great priest, having hearts sprinkled clean, and having our consciences and bodies washed with pure water. We have such rich sacrificial language in a few short sentences!
But, do you understand what the author is getting at? Do you know what’s happening here and what it means for us?
Most people struggle to understand, so, in order for us to understand these rich verses, we’re going to make-believe we’re in the desert with the Israelites and that this church building is the Tabernacle.
Let’s see…the walls of this church up to the back doors is the boundary of the courtyard for the Tabernacle, which means most of the church would be in the open air, except for the Tabernacle, which was a tent-like structure. The only people allowed in this courtyard would be the Levitical priests. Everyone else had to stay outside, which is where the twelve tribes of Israel lived surrounding the Tabernacle. They could only come to the entrance and no further.
About half-way between the courtyard entrance and the Tabernacle is the altar for sacrifices.
We’ll make out the area from the front pews to the altar is where the Tabernacle is. This is made up of two parts – the holy place (where the Levitical priests would come to pray), which we’ll make out is between the front pews and the raised section of the altar; and the Most Holy place, or the Holy-of-holies, which would be the raised altar area.
Now, in the Most Holy place stood the Ark of the covenant and it was on the lid of the Ark where God sat. It was known as the mercy seat. And since God sat here, and God is in heaven, then this is the one place on earth where heaven comes down to us. Here at the mercy seat is heaven on earth!
Between the Holy place and the Most Holy place is a curtain which separates the earthly realm from the heavenly realm. The only person who could enter the Most Holy place (or the Holy of Holies) was the High priest, and this was only once a year, on Atonement Day.
Atonement Day was very special because the sins of all the Israelites would defile or spoil these holy things, the holy objects in the Tabernacle. All these holy things, the High priest and the Israelites had to be ‘atoned for’ or made clean or holy again. In fact, Atonement Day is like the Jewish equivalent of our Good Friday.
On Atonement Day, the people would bring a Red heifer and two goats to the priests. The High priest would enter the Most Holy place with incense and burning coals and place them on one of the poles of the Ark, going a certain way through the curtain to make sure he didn’t touch the Ark or allow the people to see into the Most Holy Place. In fact, this path through the curtain was known as ‘The Way’.
It’s important to note anyone who touched the Ark died. So, a rope was often tied around the High priest just in case he touched the Ark of the Covenant. If he accidentally touched the Ark of the Covenant and died, well, at least his body could be dragged out, because no-one else was allowed into the Holy-of-Holies.
Also, since no-one could see God in his glory and live, the Most Holy place would need to be filled with smoke from the burning coals and incense while the High priest went out and got the blood of the Red heifer. The smoke was important as it would hide God from the High priest so that the High priest wouldn’t see God and die.
The High priest would take the blood of the red heifer, which was to atone for, or make clean, the sins of the High priest and all the priests only. He would re-enter the Most Holy place and sprinkle this blood on the Ark of the Covenant and the floor surrounding the Ark.
He would then go out and get the blood of one of the goats and re-enter with its blood, which would atone for the sins of all the Israelite people. Now that the sins of the priests and people have been atoned for, and now that the Most holy place is purified by the blood of these sacrificial animals, the High priest would then come out and sprinkle blood on the sacrificial Altar, which would purify the Altar as well.
Then he would place his bloody hands on the head of the other goat, which was known as the ‘scapegoat’. This goat was then set free into the desert, signifying that all the Israelites and priests were forgiven and all their sins were literally ‘set free’.
This direct access to God and the forgiveness of their sins was very visual to the Israelites, but yet very limited. This access only happened once a year. But the fact it had to be repeated showed it wasn’t very efficient.
What the letter writer to the Hebrews is saying in today’s text is, we now have even greater access than the Israelites ever had. This access is so efficient that no more sacrifices need to be made, ever!
This is because on Good Friday, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world was sacrificed. He was both the sacrifice for sin through the shedding of his innocent and holy blood, but also the scapegoat. Our sins were taken by him into his own body to effect the greatest and most unfair swap of human history.
God the Father laid on Jesus the sins of us all. The death penalty for every sin you and I have ever thought, said or done, as well as every good thought, word and action which we should have done but we never did, was paid by Jesus Christ. It is finished. There’s nothing more to pay. For Christ’s sake you’re forgiven all your sins.
Not only this, but as our Great High Priest, he entered into the Most Holy place, the heavenly sanctuary (of which the earthly Tabernacle was only a limited copy). He sprinkles his own pure and holy blood in the sanctuary where his Father sits. The earthly curtain which separated the earthly and heavenly realms is torn and replaced by Jesus’ own body for he is the new and living way. The way of access to God the Father and all his heavenly glory is now through Jesus’ own flesh, who is both true God and true man. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There’s no other way to get to the Father (and the kingdom of heaven) except through him!
From now on it’s in Jesus where earth meets heaven. He is where we have access to the mercy seat. He now forever intercedes for us to our heavenly Father, and it’s in in him through whom we come into the Most Holy place, into heaven itself, confidently standing in front of the Creator and Judge of the whole earth; our loving heavenly Father.
But what was done as an historical event continues to be effective for you and me today.
You see, you might feel as if there’s still a barrier between you and God. The barrier of fear. The barrier of guilt or shame. The barrier of a troubled conscience. The barrier between an imperfect, sinful person and a holy God. The barrier between ancient sacrificial rituals and a contemporary world which likes to question or reject the justice of a God who demands sacrifices.
Whatever the case, how can you be assured of your open and unhindered access to your gracious and loving God? How can you be assured of your access to the heavenly sanctuary through the curtain of Jesus’ flesh? How can you be assured of your forgiveness?
Well, the Way is through Jesus Christ, but he gives us our heavenly access through him through very real means.
You see, the author of this letter to the Hebrews goes on to say: ‘let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (Heb 10:22).
The sprinkling once done in the Tabernacle is now done to your hearts through God’s chosen means which God gives us through the holy Sacraments.
The sprinkling is done through the waters of baptism and through the words of forgiveness. The sprinkling is done through the body and blood of Jesus which is given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. In other words, the promises of forgiveness through water and the blood of Jesus give you a clean heart and a good conscience.
Through your baptism into the body of Jesus Christ, who is the Way to God the Father, you’re now children of God who have the same right of access into heaven as the only Son of God deserves.
Through your baptism into Jesus, you’re eternally joined to his death on Good Friday (whose warm and freshly sprinkled blood still clings to the heavenly sanctuary), and you’re also eternally joined to his resurrection. Your baptism into Jesus Christ brings you into the very presence of the Father, because that’s where Jesus is.
But now, since baptism joins you to the body of Christ, you can’t be a Christian by yourself. You’ve been joined to each other through baptism, and so, like it or not, you need each other.
In this case, the best Christian communities aren’t a collection of moral or spiritual police who judge everyone else’s sin, they’re not just an efficient club of like-minded people, and they’re not a bunch of blame shifters who act as if they’re more noble or holy than anyone else. Instead, the best Christian communities keep on gathering together physically in faith in order to encourage each other’s faith.
The church community is where God’s purified people reassure each other of our heavenly access to God through our baptism into Jesus. It’s where God’s people, who have been sprinkled with his innocent and holy blood, reassure each other of God’s forgiveness. It’s where God’s people, who have this divine access to God’s grace, confess the common faith in our loving Triune God.
While it’s special to gather today on Good Friday to remember the death of our Lord, let’s never lose the precious gift of meeting together in worship where we can be reminded of our baptism, reminded of the grace which is ours through confession and absolution, reminded of the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection to cleanse our consciences, reminded of the grace which is ours as we eat and drink in faith, and reminded of our right of access through prayer to the mercy seat – the eternal throne of God the Father.
It’s here in Christ-centred worship where Christ brings us into the very presence of God himself, where we can stand before God with a good and clean conscience.
Here we come into God’s holy presence with complete confidence through the blood of Jesus who became human flesh and ‘tabernacled’ among us, because our sins have been forgiven and our bodies purified by the cleansing waters of baptism.
And this is why…
…the peace of God which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds confident in your access to him through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.