Priests and Sacrifices: Attempting to Apply Hebrews Today

I just updated a folder name on my computer. It was “Sermons – Hebrews 2012-2013” and it is now “Sermons – Hebrews 2012-2014”. That’s right, I’m entering my third year of teaching through the book of Hebrews. Later in January I’ll be teaching on Hebrews 10:1-18.

One of the biggest challenges of teaching Hebrews is answering the question: “How does this apply to the modern reader?” The original readers of Hebrews faced some challenges that are foreign to us. They faced ever-increasing persecution and the strong temptation to return to the Jewish sacrificial system. They had to be convinced that the Old Covenant system of sacrifices and priests was now obsolete and that sticking with Jesus, despite potential loss of property and life, was both possible and worth it.

While Christians certainly face persecution today in other parts of the world, the persecution we face in America (i.e., the people to whom I am speaking) face at worst peer pressure. Certainly there are signs that persecution is increasing in America but it has certainly not reached the level that the early church faced. Also, I don’t know of anyone in my church that needs to be convinced that the Jewish sacrificial system is now obsolete. The author of Hebrews goes through pains to show the inadequacy of the sacrificial system and I feel myself saying, well, “duh!”

Much of Hebrews is quite easily and obviously applicable but it’s on this particular point that I have, at times, struggled to draw a connection to the challenges of modernity and those who attend Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship.

I want to share a little of how I have attempted to draw those connections as I’ve preached through Hebrews.

First, I observed that while it is true that no one is tempted to return to the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, we still have a works-based/sacrificial system present in what I will call “Modern Moralism.” By “modern moralism” I mean the belief set that has as its creed:

1)      God is good.

2)      I do bad things sometimes – but they’re not that bad.

3)      If I’m really bad God will reject me.

4)      I can do good things to cancel out the bad things I’ve done – and then I’m OK again.

I think many people, even many self-described Christians operate under this set of beliefs. I’m sure that I do sometimes. This set of beliefs can also sometimes be called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Second, I observed that there is some continuity and discontinuity between Modern Moralism and the Old Covenant system.

In terms of discontinuity: The Old Covenant is superior to Modern Moralism because the Old Covenant was given through special revelation to God’s particular people. It didn’t just describe good and bad in general, but defined what they were. It gave us the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Most importantly, it was specifically defined to point us to Christ. The Old Covenant was an objectively good thing – a gift from God. On the other hand, while Moralism recognizes some of the same truths of the Old Covenant, its best solutions are just shots in the dark. It’s a response to general revelation so its attempts at answers are extremely vague, self-focused, and culturally bound.

The other biggest differences between Moralism and Old Covenant are that the Moralism doesn’t have a system of priests and Moralism doesn’t have a system of sacrifices. Or does it?

Priests: What was the goal of the priests in the Old Covenant? To provide a sanctioned mediator between God and man. Since Modern Moralism doesn’t view are sins as being particularly bad, and because we are such an egalitarian society today, we’ve “removed the middle man” believing we can go to God directly. We’ve become our own priests. The problem is that the same things that made the priests of the Old Covenant ultimately ineffective – they were sinful and mortal – makes us ineffective as priests as well.

Sacrifices: What was the goal of the sacrificial system? To provide for the removal of guilt. We are “enlightened” enough to know that animal sacrifices don’t take away sin but we still look for ways to cancel out our guilt apart from Jesus. Moralism makes piety (church attendance, tithing, reading the Bible) or just plain old human kindnesses (helping little old ladies cross the street), a means to atone for sin. We figure if I did something bad on Tuesday we can “make up for it” on Wednesday. Who knows, maybe we just need to feel really bad for what we did. Once again, though, Moralism simply replaces one ineffective way of removing guilt with another.

In terms of continuity: The essential problem with both Old Covenant thinking and Modern Moralism is this: Human effort is enough to make me right with God. In the Old Covenant human effort means obeying the Mosaic Law and offering periodic sacrifices. In Moralism, human effort means obeying some vague cultural “rules” and doing good deeds to outweigh the bad.

Third, I observed that the benefit of both the Old Covenant and Modern Moralism is that, when their insufficiency is recognized, they can both point us to Jesus. On this point the Old Covenant is once again superior, since it provides the pattern of priest and sacrifice fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. However, Moralism has on its side the recognition that God is good and sin needs to be dealt with, it just provides an powerless solution.

Fourth, I made this chart:

Here is my attempt to synthesize the similarities and differences between the Old Covenant and Modern Moralism. It’s also my attempt to show the ultimate solution to the problem of sin made available in the life, death, and resurrection in Jesus.

Category Old Covenant Modern Moralism New Covenant – Fulfilled in   Jesus
Revelatory source Special revelation given through Moses General revelation (Romans 1:18-20) Special revelation given through Jesus
Recognized problem Sin leads to judgment Sin leads to judgment Sin leads to judgment
Attempted solution Don’t break the law

Offer sin offerings

Don’t be “bad”

Do “good deeds” to cancel out the bad

Jesus did not sin

Jesus offered perfect sacrifice

Don’t break the law Follow law of Moses Don’t break cultural values/own conscience Jesus did not sin
Offer sin offerings Animal sacrifice through priests Piety (church attendance, tithing, Bible reading)

Human kindness

Jesus was perfect sacrifice
High priest External:

Sinful/Weak/Mortal

Self:

Sinful/Weak/Mortal

Jesus:

Perfected/Eternal

How to “keep the faith” Try hard not to break the laws, offer regular sacrifices Try hard to “be good” and try to make up for it when you fail Look to Jesus. Go to him to receive mercy (forgiveness) and strength.
Lies/Truth in the solution Mistaken belief that:

1)      I   can do it!

2)      Animal   sacrifices take away sin

3)      The   priest can take care of my sin

Mistaken belief that:

1)      My   sins aren’t so bad.

2)      My   good works can even the scales of my sin

3)      I   can go to God on my own

Truth

1)      I   can’t do it – but Jesus did

2)      His   sacrifice is necessary and sufficient

3)      Jesus   is the perfect mediator

 

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