Therefore [referring back to verses 19-20 where the book of the covenant and the people's bodies and the tabernacle and the vessels were sprinkled with blood, in view of that God-ordained practice, he says] it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these [i.e., these sprinklings from these animal sacrifices], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. 26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Star Wars and Hebrews
I want to make sure as we begin this message that you know the difference between Star Wars and the book of Hebrews. For many today there is no significant difference. That is, both are myths. And a myth is a story (it need not be true in the sense that it really happened), a story that provides symbols for interpreting the world. You don't need Truth, with a capital T. You only need a symbolic system to help you order your world. Now this may sound like fancy academic talk that comes from a philosophy class or a class in advanced linguistic anthropology. But it's not. It's straight out of yesterday's newspaper about the new release of Star Wars and the meaning it has for kids.
Here's a key sentence: "For some pre-adolescent boys, Star Wars . . . functions as a kind of religion, giving them spiritual nourishment and opening the door to questions of redemption, forgiveness and morality, sometimes more potently than their formal religious upbringing ever has. They're finding their myths in an unexpected place" (StarTribune, 2/1/97, p. B5).
Now what interests me in this sentence is not that Star Wars is a kind of religion for some kids. Nor even that for some it seems more exciting than what they learned in Sunday School. (That can easily be accounted for by the difference between computer-enhanced cinematography and flannelgraph.)
Myth or Truth?
What interests me is the assumption of the writer that finding your religion is like choosing among many myths. "They are finding their myths in an unexpected place." And the question is not one of ultimate Truth, but rather of what story or symbolic system works for you. You can find your myth in the Biblical story of creation by a sovereign God, incarnation of a real personal Son of God, redemption by the real shed blood of Christ and by his resurrection, and faith in this Truth. Or you can find your myth in the story of Star Wars. The issue today, inside the philosophy class and inside the movie theater, is not usually Truth, but rather finding a satisfying myth, a story that helps you interpret the world, to make it livable and, if possible, enjoyable.
So the article quotes one professor who compares not only Star Wars, but TV in general, to religion and says, "It does what religion does: provides a symbolic system through which you interpret the world." That's all religion is for many people: "a symbolic system" a cluster of metaphors and narratives and experiences that touch you deeply and help you make some sense of your life. Truth is simply a non-issue.
If that kind of thinking were confined to a few scholarly books or a few advanced classes, I would not bring it in here. But since I know it is simply in the air we breathe, I think you need to put it before you and realize that as you read this text, and as I preach this message, neither the writer of this book nor the preacher of this sermon thinks that way. We are not offering you another possible myth you can choose from to help your life go better. The writer of this book and the preacher of this message aim to describe real persons and historical events and divine intentions that really happened in history. And we aim to reveal an unseen heavenly realm above history that is more real than all we see and touch in this life. This story is more real and more exciting and more terrifying and more life-changing than Star Wars will ever be, no matter how many enhancements they make. And I urge you, in the name of God, to hear the strangeness of this text as the strangeness of Reality, not as the strangeness of an unreal truth.
For 1,400 years or so, God willed that the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, be foreshadowed and anticipated in history among the Jewish people through their animal sacrifices and their tabernacle and temple worship. The writer says in verse 23 that these things—the tabernacle and vessels and relics—were all "copies" of an even greater reality in heaven. As copies they could be ceremonially cleansed by blood from the sacrifices of calves and goats. That's the way God ordained it.
But then he says that these kinds of sacrifices are utterly inadequate to deal with what ultimately matters: not the copies, but the "heavenly things themselves" (verse 23). To deal with the heavenly things themselves and to cleanse them, there will have to be "better sacrifices." These "better sacrifices" are what Christ offered once for all in his own death. And with this one great offering, verse 24 says, Christ "did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us."
Why Does the Heavenly Holy Place Need Cleansing?
This is troubling at first and then tremendously comforting. It's troubling because it raises the question why the heavenly holy place would need to be cleansed You see verse 23 says that the copies of heaven must be cleansed with the blood of animals, but "the heavenly things themselves [have to be cleansed] with better sacrifices." Why is that? Is heaven defiled? Is there sin in heaven? Some have suggested that it's because Satan has been there. Others have suggested that it's because there are "spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
Maybe. But I think the most important thing to see is what verse 24 focuses on. Why did Christ enter [that heavenly] holy place with his better sacrifice the sacrifice of himself? It was "now to appear in the presence of God for us." The words "for us" give the key to why there has to be cleansing in heaven. We are going to be there.
Here is a great comfort and encouragement to us. It is not complimentary. But it is wonderfully hope-giving. If you want to be made much of, rather than having the mercy of God made much of, you will not want to listen to this. But if you love the mercy of God and admit the misery of your own condition, you will love this. Verse 24 says that Christ enters the holy place of heaven with his better sacrifice "to appear in the presence of God for us." This means that he will cleanse us there. We are what needs cleansing. And to the degree that we might defile heaven, Christ in that sense cleanses heaven.
Now listen to this. He is speaking to those of you (all of us, in our clear moments) who feel so dirty and so deeply bad that you would only pollute heaven if you got there. O how many people are kept away from Christ because of this! I pray that you will see what an invitation this is. This is God's way of saying: "Come, you dirty ones. Come, you defiled, you deeply evil ones. Come, you who have soiled yourselves and who have been stained by others. Come to my heaven! For my Son is there. And he has not died in vain. He stands guard over my holy place, not to keep you out, but to make you clean so that you can be with me in perfect holiness forever. Come."
This is why he died. I did not send him to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners (Luke 5:32). Come." Underline those words at the end of verse 24 "for us." "Now to appear in the presence of God for us."
How Can Sinners Be a Welcome in Heaven?
Then in verses 25-26 comes the description of how Christ achieved this great welcome for defiled sinners in heaven. You see it isn't to be taken for granted that there should be a welcome for sinners in heaven. God is holy and pure and perfectly just and righteous. He hates sin and lives in absolute perfection. Yet the whole story of the Bible and of the book of Hebrews is how such a great and holy God can and does welcome dirty people like you and me into his presence. How can this be? Answering this question is what history is all about.
Verse 25 says that Christ's sacrifice for sin was not like the sacrifices of the Jewish high priests. They came into the holy place yearly with animal sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. But these verses say Christ did not enter heaven "that he should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world." If Christ followed the pattern of the priests, then he would have to die yearly.
And since the sins to be covered include the sins of Adam and Eve, he would have had to begin his yearly dying at the foundation of the world. But the writer treats this as unthinkable. Why is this unthinkable? Because it would make the death of the Son of God look weak and ineffective. If it has to be repeated year after year for centuries where would be the triumph? Where would be the glory? Where would we see the infinite value of the sacrifice of the Son? It would vanish in the shamefulness of a yearly suffering and death. There was shame in the cross (Hebrews 12:2), but it was triumphant shame. "He despised the shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." One shameful death and then enthronement!
Christ's Sacrifice Shows His Glory
So the passage (verse 26) ends with a description of how Christ really did it, how he really made a sacrifice great enough to cleanse all the defiled sinners who hear the call to enter the fellowship of God in heaven. And the writer mentions four aspects of this sacrifice that show the glory of Christ. He says, "But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself."
1. He says that Christ did this great work "ONCE" not repeatedly but once and once only. And the point is that this sacrifice is so great, that it need not be repeated not for all the redeemed in the past from the foundation of the world nor for all the redeemed in the future. It is enough. That's how great it is. Unlike Star Wars, the death of Jesus will never do a rerun, because it is so great that it cannot be improved on. There are no special effects lacking. It's effect is so huge that it goes on year after year, century after century doing what it was designed to do, save sinners and present them faultless to God.
2. Verse 26 says that he was manifested "at the consummation [or the end] of the ages." The death of Jesus is not just one event in a line of similar historical events. When it happened, history came to a climax. The first coming of the Messiah and the second coming (that we will look at next week) are seen in the Bible as one great closing act at the end of history. The time between the two comings is seen as a kind of extension of the end a great mercy, gathering people from all the nations before the end is completed in the judgment of the second coming. So the glory of Christ is seen in the fact that his coming and death is the decisive act to end history. It is not just another merely human event. It is the consummation of history.
3. Verse 26 says Christ sacrificed himself, not the blood of another. This underlines the glory of Christ again. Not only was his sacrifice once for all. Not only did it mark the consummation of the ages. But it was a sacrifice of the most valuable person in the universe the Christ, the Son of God. If you ever doubt that you as a sinner could be made clean before God, ask yourself, "Which is greater, the evil of my sinfulness and defilement, or the value and virtue of the blood of the Son of God?" Then beware lest you blaspheme.
4. Finally, verse 26 says that Christ gave himself once at the consummation of the ages "to put away sin." The glory of Christ is seen in this: that the problem of sin is dealt with as a whole. The whole sin issue is taken care of. It is put away. Meditate on this for your joy and for the liberty of your soul and for your assurance in the face of death, and for your struggle over particular bad habits. In one act—the sacrifice of himself, the consummation of history—the Son of God put away sin. All the sins of those who believe (Hebrews 4:2; 10:38), those who are called (Hebrews 9:15), are "put away." They are canceled, nullified, covered.
This is the gospel of the glory of Christ, the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). I pray that, no matter how dirty with sin you are, you will see the light of this glory and believe. Come.