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"Rejoicing Over What Jesus Did For Us!"


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          This afternoon, I would like us to focus on one of the tremendous blessings that come to all followers of Christ because of what he did for us on the cross.  This is a blessing that is often not appropriated by the church and therefore not appreciated, but is crucial for joy and spiritual health. The text for this afternoon comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews is burdened to show the superiority of Christ--and the new relationship with God he has made possible through his death, over against the Old Testament way of relating to God through the Jewish sacrificial system of worship. One of the chief ways Christ and what he did at Calvary is superior to the Old Testament system of Jewish worship is that Jesus is the Great High Priest—the fulfillment of all the Old Testament high priests. Aaron and all the subsequent high priests fundamentally served to point to Christ.  By God’s grace, we want to more fully appreciate what it means for Christ to be our Great High Priest today as we look at what the author of Hebrews says in a very important text.  To help us do that, we must first go back and think a bit about some of the duties of the Old Covenant high priest the author mentions here that would have been well known to the original Jewish readers. 

On the Jewish holy day called the Day of Atonement, which is the closest Old Testament observance to what we call Good Friday, Aaron and his successors took off their highly ornate, high priestly garments and after taking a bath, they put on a plain white linen coat with none of the impressive jeweled symbols of their regular high priestly robe.  This was to remind him and the rest of the Jews that the high priest himself was also a sinner in need of cleansing from his sins.  The high priest would then confess his sin and lay his hands of the head of a male calf for his sin and the sin of his household, in effect placing that sin on the bull.  He would then sacrifice the young bull by cutting its throat.  After he collected the blood that drained from the animal, he would then pass through the outer compartment of the tabernacle or tent that God called Moses to make.  He would then, only on this one day each year, take the collected blood into the inner compartment called the Most Holy Place.  In the Most Holy Place, to atone for his own sin, he sprinkled the blood of the calf seven times toward the mercy seat that sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant—where the presence of the Lord dwelt. 

He then followed this same procedure with a goat—sacrificing it outside the tent for the rest of the Jews, then passing through the front compartment of the tabernacle with the collected blood of the animal, to the most holy place where he made a sin offering for the Jews, sprinkling the blood around the mercy seat. While he was in the Most Holy Place, he would then pray for God’s people—making intercession for them.  That is the basic outline of what the Old Testament high priest did every year on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for his own sin and the sin of God’s people.  That procedure is provided most completely in Leviticus chapter 16.  With that as Old Testament context, let’s read Hebrews 9:11-14.  The word of the Lord says, 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

These verses explain the superiority of the new way of relating to God through the New Covenant by Christ’s blood.  First, we want to explain the meaning of what the author says before we linger on the blessing he emphasizes here that we receive from the superior High Priestly ministry of Jesus.  The author says, 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered…”  The author’s main point here is to communicate the superiority of the High Priest of “the good things that have come” These are the benefits of salvation in Christ, one of which he will describe later.  He entered into a better tabernacle than the one Moses built in the wilderness.  This one is “a greater and more perfect tent” because it wasn’t made with hands—it has no earthly origins.  This greater tent into which he entered is heavenly.  To help us better understand this, we need to understand something about the relationship between the tabernacle Moses made in the wilderness and this heavenly one that is “greater and more perfect.”
           The book of Hebrews tells us in 8:5 of the Old Covenant high priests, “5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”   As you read the accounts of the construction of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus with its incredibly detailed instructions, you can’t help but be struck by the fact that God was very particular about what his earthly dwelling place would be like.  One reason God was so intensely concerned with the detail of the tabernacle built by Moses—down to the last pomegranate and brass ring, was that he called Moses to build it as an earthly replica of sorts--after the pattern of the one in heaven.  God did not randomly choose the details of the design of the earthly tabernacle.  God was instructing Moses to build a tabernacle—his earthly dwelling place—in a way that would tightly correspond to his heavenly dwelling that he had fashioned in eternity past.  In Hebrews 8:1 we read about Jesus, “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,  2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” 
          The tabernacle Moses built was in some sense a copy of the true tent made by God.  This true tent set up by the Lord was the reality to which the earthly tent pointed and this true tent was the one into which Jesus, the Great High Priest entered after his precious blood was shed on the cross.  This heavenly tent/dwelling place of God is the great and true structure that befits the entrance of a great and true High Priest.  The verse continues and says that “he [Jesus] entered once for all in to the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood…”  The contrast continues between Christ’s work as High Priest and the Aaronic priesthood.  Whereas in the Old Testament his priests were required each and every year to enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement to make the sacrificial offering for themselves and for the Jews, Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places.”  When Jesus went to the Father, he entered the great and true heavenly tent and presented himself as both the Great High Priest and as the Lamb who had been slain on the cross.  Jesus is both the High Priest and the victim of the sacrifice.

How different that is from the Old Testament Day of Atonement.  The High Priest brought into the tabernacle the blood of a calf or a goat that had been sacrificed.  Jesus the Great High Priest presents himself in the heavenly tabernacle as the Lamb that had been slain.  It was to him—the Lamb of God that all those imperfect, Old Covenant animal sacrifices had pointed.  This Lamb was the fulfillment of all the other sacrificially slain animals.  The Bible teaches that with God there is no remission or forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood.  The reason for this is clear when you understand a holy God’s response to sin.  In the Bible, the penalty for sin is death—Ezekiel 18:4 tells us, “The soul who sins…will die.”   Therefore, for sin to be atoned, God called for the shedding of the blood of the animal because when you drain the blood out of a living animal, it dies.  It always dies.  The life is in the blood so when the blood leaves the animal, it dies.  Shed blood communicates death in the Bible.  When the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the mercy seat, the point was to graphically communicate the truth that something alive had to be violently put to death in order to atone for sin because death is the penalty for sin in God’s court of justice.  The weakness of Old Covenant was however--the blood of an animal was not sufficient to completely cleanse sinful humans from sin.  As we will see, it provided no completely effective spiritual cleansing; only ceremonially cleansings for the sinner, and it was only temporary.  It was ceremonial—external cleansing only and it was temporary--the high priest had to go back and kill more animals the next year.
          The violent death of the animal reminds the worshipper of the seriousness of sin and to encourage the ones making the sacrifice to respond to their own sin by coming before God with a broken and contrite heart over their sin.  This was the Old Testament “sacrifice” for sin that most delighted God as David says in Psalm 51:16-17.  David prays in response to his sin with Bathsheba, “16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  Even in the Old Testament, God’s work with respect to sin needed to be internal if God was to be honored.  In verse 12 of Hebrews nine, we read that Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood.”  One of the truths here is to contrast the sacrifice of the animals with the sacrifice of Jesus.  One point of contrast is that the animal died involuntarily.  No calf or goat ever willingly threw his neck onto a sharp knife to willingly surrender his life for the sin of the Jews.  They were blissfully unaware of their plight until it was too late.  When the moment of the sacrifice came, they had no choice in the matter—their life was violently taken from them. 

By contrast, Jesus, the Great High Priest says in John 10:17, 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”  When Peter rushed to defend him at the moment of his arrest, he told him to put away his sword saying, “53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”  Though Jesus went through his passion silent, as a lamb before its shearers is silent, that silence was not an expression of his weakness, but of his willing submission to his Father’s will.  If Jesus had not wanted to go to the cross, no army of people could have been able to compel him to do so.  Creatures don’t successfully command their Creator to do anything, unless the Creator willingly subjects himself to the demands of his creatures.  Jesus willingly offered himself in death through the shedding of his blood.
          The result of the Great High Priest’s sacrifice is in verse 12, “thus securing eternal redemption.”  In Christ’s death, he secured an eternal, once-and-for-all redemption.  The word “redemption” suggests “liberation at the price of his life.[1]  Jesus’ death brings liberation from the judgment and guilt that sin brings.   The author tells us why it is superior to what was accomplished by the animal sacrifices in the earthly tabernacle.  He says in verse 14, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”  We have heard about the blood of goats and bulls did, but what is meant here by “the ashes of a heifer” here?  The full answer is in Numbers 19 where a fairly complex ceremonial ritual is prescribed. 
          A perfect red heifer who had never worn the yoke was slaughtered outside the camp and after its blood was sprinkled in the front of the tabernacle, the animal’s carcass was completely incinerated.  The priest also threw a number of other items onto the fire including a scarlet thread.  When the entire animal was reduced to ashes, those were collected and dumped into a container of water to form a water/ash mixture.  If a Jew was to have contact with a dead body or according to Jewish law became ceremonially unclean in some other ways, this water/ash mix was sprinkled on those who had become outwardly defiled.  The connection to that with the blood of goats and bulls is that they were all used to sanctify or cleanse from ceremonial defilement. 
          The author tells us that those things “sanctify for the purification of the flesh.” These things only cleanse the person in a very limited way.  They did not bring any internal cleansing of the heart.  It resulted only in a ceremonial or external cleansing that allowed the individual to continue to live in community and worship.  Only their “flesh” was purified.  By contrast or, “how much more” does the blood of Christ do for those who have been cleansed by it through faith.  This is the great blessing of the New Covenant we want to linger over this afternoon. 
           The author tells us that Christ’s blood—Christ’s death does a deep and thorough cleansing that the blood of calves and goats and heifer ashes in water could never do.  The author tells us that this cleansing penetrates all the way to our consciences.  This is far superior to the Old Testament ceremonial cleansing at the tabernacle.  A few verses earlier in Hebrews 9:9 the author is speaking of that old sacrificial system and says,  “…According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper,”  It’s here that many believers are not as grateful as we should be for the conscience-cleansing power of the blood of the Lamb.  We can easily take this for granted because under the New Covenant, it has always been part of what is included in our understanding of atonement for sin.  This is not however, the way it has always been with God’s people.
         In the Old Testament, if you sinned against God or someone and hurt them deeply in some way that was not punishable by death, an animal sacrifice for the sin made you ceremonially clean.  You were able to worship with the people—go to the annual festivals and otherwise remain in the community, but there was no provision for your dirty conscience.  The legal guilt before God and ceremonial guilt was blotted out by the blood of that animal, but the haunting, crippling, inner guilt of conscience was untouched.  It makes you wonder how many Jews, who were by all outward considerations, legally right with God, were in spiritual bondage, bound by the internal torment of their conscience stemming from their sin.  They were restored to a “formal communion with God,[2]” but that inward sense of guilt that causes us to push God away and keep him at a distance was not removed.  There was no inner peace—the internal stain of conscience remained and there was no provision under the Old Covenant to take it away. 
          The reason was because that sacrificial animal could bear only the legal penalty for sin. The animal couldn’t bear the sorrow and the grief that comes from sin—its an animal—God can use it to atone for a sin to restore a legal, formal relationship with him, but it cannot possibly bear a person’s internal sense of guilt and condemnation. When Christ died on the cross, he bore not only the legal and ceremonial penalty for our sins; he did a much deeper work.  Isaiah 53:4 we read earlier says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”  That refers to more than just the pain of a dirty conscience, but it certainly includes the conscience!  Jesus not only died to bear the legal penalty of our sin, but also the wretched, paralyzing inward pain that comes to us—a pain that causes us to push God away because we say to ourselves, “I could never be acceptable to God with that on my conscience.” Christ’s blood is superior to the Old Covenant because we don’t have to go into the presence of God in prayer feeling sheepish on the basis of a previously confessed sin because Jesus, the sacrificial animals took that inner pain upon himself so as to cleanse the stains from our consciences.  We are forgiven—completely forgiven in Christ.  The scarlet stain of sin has been removed and our consciences can and should be as whites as snow after we have confessed our sin. 
          When Jesus was on the cross, he not only paid the penalty for our sin, he also felt the guilt and internal condemnation sin brings.  When Jesus was on the cross, he bore not only the just penalty of our sins; he also experienced the alienation from God that comes from being guilty before God.  That means that once my conscience has done its job as a vessel through which the Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin and I confess and repent of it in the power of the Spirit, I don’t have to allow it to paralyze me any more.  Christ took that disabling defilement upon himself so that I wouldn’t have to.  I have been given the ability in Christ to be freed from the sense of inner condemnation because Jesus bore that for me on the cross.
         There are some in the church with particularly tender consciences who seem to live in perpetual guilt about something.  For some, this must seem spiritual or something.  They walk around feeling dirty and fretful over their previously confessed sins and often experience the sense of alienation from God that brings.  They wonder to themselves if God isn’t mad at them over something they did in the past, perhaps years ago.  These folks often also struggle with having a weak sense of assurance of their salvation.  We must know that this kind of weak conscience is not a sign of spiritual maturity; it’s a sign of unbelief!  Why should we feel guilty for sins we have confessed, when Jesus Christ took upon himself the grief and sorrow for sins?  When we carry around that kind of guilt for sins we have confessed and placed under the blood of Christ, we are in effect saying, “The grief and sorrow Jesus experienced for my sin is not enough—I must complete his incomplete suffering on my behalf.”  That’s not virtue, that’s arrogance.  The blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works—that is, the sin that smells of death and can lead to death.
          The last phrase of verse 14 gives the results of having a conscience that is purified by the blood of Jesus.  Jesus “offered himself without blemish to God, [to] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”  One reason why God has sent Jesus to purify our consciences is so that we might serve the living God.  That word “serve” is elsewhere translated “worship.”  The idea is like what we have seen recently in Romans 12:1 where we are called to “present [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” [same word]  We can’t serve God--we can’t lay down our lives in loving worship of God if we are dragging around a dirty conscience.  It’s as we are liberated from a dirty conscience and the devastating downward spiritual pull of that, that we can know the kind of gratitude to God that fuels enthusiastic and sacrificial service.  If we feel unnecessary guilt, we will feel alienated from God and that sense of distance will never lead to increased worship or service.  If we are dragging around a dirty conscience, then the blessed reality of Christ forgiving our sins will appear small, because we have not been freed from the internal guilt.  As we have seen from Luke 7:47. “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.”  If we love little, we will serve little—we will worship little. 
          Having a clean conscience is crucial to serving God and loving God with all your heart.  A clear conscience allows us the freedom to exult in gratitude to God.  It frees us to serve in the supernatural way provided for us in the New Covenant through the blood of Jesus.  If you are here today and you have trusted in Christ, but are walking around with unnecessary guilt, even after you have confessed and put away your sin, then believe the gospel and receive what God has for you in Christ.  His blood doesn’t just make you clean on the outside—it’s not a ceremonial cleanness.  It goes all the way down to the heart because Jesus also bore the sorrow and pain of our sin. 
            If you are here today and you have never placed your trust in Christ, then the guilt you feel over your sin is deserved.  The only way to a clear conscience is Christ.  Even more importantly, if you have not trusted in Christ, you will bear the legal guilt for your sins before the Judge of the Universe and that penalty for sin is death—eternal death in hell.  Come to Christ today and receive both an internal and legal cleansing from your sin.  Do that today and know the joy and worship that comes from being forgiven of your sins, no matter how bad they are.  On this Good Friday, may God grant to all of us the full blessings of his Son’s sin-atoning death on Calvary.

[1] Carson, D.A. “New Biblical Commentary

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[2] Bruce, NICNT,  Hebrews, p216.