The Letter to the Hebrews: Believe in Better 6
A better sacrifice
Offering sacrifices to the gods/God is an alien practice to us in the modern world. Civilisation has moved on. Sacrificing animals, or children in some cases, seems barbaric to us now. But back when the Hebrew slaves were delivered from Egypt, this was how people related to their deities. If a natural disaster occurred, the people offered sacrifices to appease the gods and put an end to this punishment. If the harvest was good, the people offered sacrifices to thank the gods for their goodness so that the gods wouldn’t get angry and send disaster. This relationship with the gods was purely transactional. When God established a new way of being in relationship with His people, he created a framework for these sacrifices that was more stable and trustworthy. He created a boundary around the sacrifices so that the people would know when they had done enough and would be able to live in safety. This was a huge step forward at the time. We read the Book of Leviticus as a set of constricting, controlling rules, but what if these rules created more freedom and stability than what had been going on before?
This framework of offering God the correct sacrifice for the correct occasion continued on and became a key part of the Hebrew tradition.
Until Jesus came and changed everything.
Hebrews 9:1-10 explains in some detail the rituals of the Priest and the tabernacle. Tom Wright talks about these practices as temporary measures, put into place by God as part of a perfect plan until the work is finished – rather like traffic diversions in a big city that will get you from A to B until the new direct highway is completed. This included the Day of Atonement, where the High Priest offered a sacrifice one day a year for any sins that had been missed by the regular sacrifices. The writer points out that all these sacrifices “were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper” (9v9) demonstrating that it was effectively a losing and ineffective battle. He holds Jesus up as the perfect sacrifice for sin in v14. This would have been shocking for the Jewish recipients, as human sacrifice had never been tolerated in the history of the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, the writer drives the point home, that Jesus offered himself as a ’once and for all’ offering for our sins. (9v26). He then goes on to develop the argument in more detail in Chapter 10:1-18. He compares the language of ongoing sacrifice – ‘repeated endlessly’ (v2), ‘day after day’, ‘again and again’ (v11) – with the definitive sacrifice of Jesus Christ – ’once and for all’ (v10), ’for all time’ (v12) ’no longer any sacrifice’ (v18). From The Letter to the Hebrews: an evaluative outline of the key themes and theological insights by Helen Redfern
It is helpful to think of the laws and practices established in the Leviticus and the other Books of the Law as temporary measures. This was the first time in human history that any tribe was being asked to believe in one God rather than a collection of gods, one benevolent God who was not playing games with human beings for His amusement but wanted to create a loving relationship with the human beings He had so lovingly created. These temporary measures were part of this process of moving into a new and radical relationship with the one true God.
And then here was Jesus, presenting the next step, a new and living way. What Jesus did changed everything forever.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Hebrews 9:13-14
So that we may serve the living God.
That’s the purpose of what Jesus did.
Let’s get to it!