“[The NT motif of redemption] is like an object that is being tossed around just beneath the surface of a turbulent sea; whenever it emerges from the waves it is seen from a slightly different angle, and therefore different parts of it are observed.” – Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments
“Freeeeeeeedom” – Dave Ramsey (/ Braveheart)
Redemption is one of those churchy words we need to keep around. Its basic meaning is freedom won at a great cost. In Biblical terms this means freedom from sin (and its effects) purchased for us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But, as the quote above notes, there are a lot of aspects to redemption, what we are freed from, and what we are freed to.
I would like to add one element to the metaphor employed above. Let us imagine that the object just below the water is a precious jewel, a crystal perhaps, with a light shining on it. The first thing you see is the shine of the light against the crystal but upon closer inspection you see the object in itself, its interior, its essence. The closer you look, the more beautiful it appears.
The same is true for redemption. The “shine” of redemption the way in which we first subjectively experience it, that brings about an immediate emotional response, that first taste of freedom – freedom from the fear of death, freedom from a guilty conscience, freedom from empty religion, freedom from a meaningless life. Closer to the core we see that redemption is freedom from actual guilt, from eternal judgment, and freedom from separation from God. Finally, at its very core we see the fundamental reality of the perfect once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – that immeasurable cost paid as a ransom price for our eternal redemption.
Hebrews 9 and 10, set against the background of the Old Covenant, the law of Moses, and the Levitical sacrificial system, reveals for us a remarkably clear picture of redemption in all its glory.
This post, and two more to appear next week, form the initial structure of my sermon on 11/22 at WPBF. I restructured things since then, but here are some of the main ideas…
Part 1: The Shine
Fear of death
The theme of redemption in Hebrews begins in chapter 2. Verse 14 says that Jesus “shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who has power over death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The author will explain how Jesus’ death frees us from the fear of death and how his death could ever be conceived of as a decisive victory over the devil in due time. For now, let us be the sailors in a great storm who first glimpse the beacon of the lighthouse. It’s not yet clear to us where this light comes but out of the overpowering darkness of the fear of death comes a glimmer of hope. All is not lost.
The Old Covenant, while a blueprint for the good things to come, was ultimately “weak and useless” (7:18) on its own. Instead of actually taking away sin the sacrifice of blood and goats only served as a regular reminder of sin (10:3). The author states that the earthly sanctuary was an illustration to show that the “gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper” (9:9). Instead of a weight being lifted off their shoulders, they continued to feel guilty for sin (10:2). By contrast God offers us redemption by way of Christ, who is able to “cleanse our consciences from dead works” (9:14) which allows us to “draw near to God in full assurance” (10:22). In Christ we experience freedom from the weight of guilt and from shame.
Most of us in Christendom live and breathe the New Covenant. We cannot imagine life in the Old Covenant with its ritual sacrifices, its layers of separation, its dietary restrictions, and its hierarchical priesthood. But that is exactly the world in which Hebrews was written. To those original hearers the pastors claim that Jesus was now the High Priest, that the Old was obsolete and passing away, and that no payment for sin remained must have been both shocking and liberating. To make such a bold claim the pastor needed to argue both for the supremacy of Christ and the inferiority of the Old and, in fact, its inability to save.
After describing the sanctuary and the articles of the covenant the pastor states that this earthly sanctuary shows us that the presence of God was inaccessible to us (9:8), that the sacrifices couldn’t clean our consciences (9:9), and that they were only a matter of ceremonies and external regulations (9:10) which could only make us externally clean (9:13) and that had to be repeated year after year (9:25). Furthermore, the sacrifices could not make us inwardly clean, but only reminded us of our uncleanness (10:1-4). But all of this has come to an end, says the pastor, replaced by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, who is able to make us clean on the inside through a single act.
This internal work of Jesus frees us from external religion, from any need to perform ritual acts in order to earn our salvation. Instead of trying to earn God’s favor we simply receive it. Instead of trying to make amends for our own sin we accept the righteousness of God.
Paul paints a bleak picture of life before Christ in Romans 6. It is not just lawlessness or rebellion, but slavery. “You used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity in ever-increasing wickedness” Paul says. “Sure, being a slave to sin meant you were free from righteousness, but what did it gain you? Didn’t those things just bring shame and lead to death?” Sin is a master, and a cruel one at that, promising what it can never fulfill and only leaving destruction in its wake. The “sin-sick” who flocked to Jesus – the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes – understood this better than anyone else and it was to them that Jesus’ words sounded like freedom. “When you identified yourself with Jesus you were set free from sin,” Paul declares, “and have become slaves to God.” The way of sin leads to death, but the life of holiness leads to eternal life.
Peter states it this way: “You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). The writer of Hebrews agrees: “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!” (9:14).