There are several warnings—and promises!—in Scripture that can cause us to wonder if they apply to us specifically. Not a single word of Scripture was written to us in 21st-century Grand Rapids, yet it was all written for us. This means we must wrestle with a text from our modern lens of the world, including our language and general approach to the world and what happens in it, while trying to understand the text from its first-century—or even earlier—context, including its original language and its original author and its original recipients’ general approach to the world. When we come to a book like the book of Hebrews, we immediately recognize it wasn’t written to us even if it were written for us. It was written to an ancient people who spoke a language we do not speak and who saw the world in ways we do not. For this reason, saying what Scripture says is not always the same as meaning what Scripture means. For example, 2 Kings describes the basin Solomon built for the temple:
Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.2 Chronicles 4:2 ESV
We all learned in math class that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is 3.14159 to 1. A simple in-your-head calculation, then, shows us that if a basin for water is 10 cubits across—that’s its diameter—the circumference of that circle must be 31.4159 cubits around, not 30. If we say what the Bible says here we’re not meaning what the Bible means. We have to take into account culturally acceptable imprecision: “Hey, Solomon, how big was the bronze basin in the temple?” “Oh, it was, like, ten cubits across and, like, 30 cubits around.” “Do you mean 31.4159 cubits around?” “Well, yeah, if you want to be precise…okay.” Scripture is true in all that it affirms or denies. Second Chronicles is not affirming that π = 3.0, but that the bronze basin was roughly this size.
To study Scripture and understand it rightly requires that we put in the work necessary. Yes, we can read the Bible and comprehend its essential message quite clearly, but to move beyond a cursory reading of the text requires effort at understanding its meaning in its original context. This is especially true when we come to difficult texts like the book of Hebrews.
Last Sunday in the sermon we looked briefly at a few verses in Hebrews 10. Dave kept reading and was struck by something and wondered about it. Here’s what he read:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.Hebrews 10:26–27 ESV
His question was about knowing when someone has reached that point where “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins”, which is directly connected with “sinning deliberately”. This is a significant question. To read these verses in isolation can induce a great deal of concern for every one of us who has deliberately chosen to sin—which is each one of us. To answer the question requires the entire book, for no verse is meant to be read in isolation.
One significant hurdle for the book of Hebrews is the book does not identify either its author or its recipients, which has led to lots of speculation about the book and its purpose. In 2004 Carl Mosser submitted his doctoral dissertation to St. Mary’s College at the University of Cambridge. In these 360 pages of pure mind candy he argued that the book was written by an elder from the church in Jerusalem who was in Rome when he wrote it, and he was pleading with the Christians in Jerusalem to leave the city before the coming destruction that Jesus prophesied would come to the city. This destruction happened in the year 70 when Titus and his armies destroyed the temple and the city. During this siege, however, not a single Jewish Christians was killed, for they had all heeded the words of their lead elder and fled to Pella for safety. Reading the book of Hebrews with this in mind opens the book up in some very incredible ways. Short of reading a 360-page doctoral dissertation, however, is it possible to understand the book in its context? Yes, it is, but we have to follow a sustained argument by the author.
The book begins with the declaration that God has revealed himself fully and completely in his Son who is far superior to the angels. In chapter 2 he acknowledges that for a time the Son of God in human form was made a little lower than the angels so that he would be able to suffer and die for his people. Since God’s people are flesh and blood the Son of God participated in that flesh and blood that me might be the sacrifice that takes away sin. In chapter 3 the Son of God now made human is greater than even Moses. Moses was faithful to God, yet Moses was faithful in God’s house as a servant. Jesus was faithful as a Son.
The author argues in chapters 3–4 that the lack of faith on the part of Israel is what prevented them from entering God’s rest, so an entire generation died in the wilderness. Even though Joshua later led them into the land, they did not truly enter God’s rest, for there is a greater Sabbath rest for God’s people. That Sabbath rest came with Jesus and so we all must strive to enter that rest. He moves on to point out that Jesus is our great high priest who is able to sympathize with us for he himself experienced the weakness of human flesh. Though Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi, he was still appointed as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Just as Aaron was chosen for his role, so Jesus was chosen for his.
The author then rebukes the people for needing to hear these basic truths once again. They should not need milk like a child, but real, solid food. In chapter 6 he tells them to move beyond the basic teachings and engage in the heavy lifting of truth, warning that if they leave behind the truth of God in Christ, there is no further opportunity for salvation, for if they leave behind Jesus, they leave behind everything. The promise of salvation in Christ is sure, for God swore by himself. There was no one greater by whom to take an oath so he swore by himself. In chapter 7 this promise to Abraham culminated in the priesthood of Jesus, for his priesthood is greater than that of Aaron.
The reason it is greater is perfection was not possible through the Levitical priesthood. The law of Moses was unable to make anyone perfect, so God promised a better covenant through the priesthood of Jesus. A significant difference between Jesus’ priesthood and that of the Levites is the Levitical priests were numerous because they kept dying. They could only serve for a single lifetime but Jesus’ priesthood endures forever. This is because Jesus is not like the Levites who had to offer a sacrifice for their own sins before offering them for the sins of the people. Jesus offered a single sacrifice—himself.
Jesus therefore received a ministry that far surpasses that of Moses. God found a fault with the covenant he gave Israel at Mount Sinai. For this reason he later promised a new covenant that is unlike the old one, for Israel broke the old covenant immediately and repeatedly. The moment God promised a new covenant the old covenant began to fade:
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.Hebrews 8:13 ESV
The author is telling them the system of sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem would not be around much longer. It would be destroyed in AD 70, thus ending the Levitical priesthood entirely, including the system of sacrifices. He tells them in chapter 9 that this loss of the temple is okay! It is okay to lose what they have always known because unlike the high priest in Jerusalem who was only able to go behind the curtain in the temple one day a year, Jesus has entered into the very presence of God. When he entered in, he did so “once for all”. This makes Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, for all who are in him are ushered into the very presence of God through our eternal high priest. Jesus does not enter into his Father’s presence to offer sacrifices repeatedly, like the Levitical priests had to, for that would require his own death repeatedly. Instead, “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
In chapter 10 he says the law was just a shadow of the reality, and the reality is Jesus. To say it another way, the law offered a mere outline or indistinct depiction of the true sacrifice God required. The law simply could not make perfect God’s people, even though the sacrifices were made continually. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). This is good, however, since God did not actually delight in those sacrifices. Even though the priests offered these sacrifices in the temple day after day, year after year, century after century, they could never take away sins. However!
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…Hebrews 10:12 ESV
While the priests stand daily at their service, Christ offered a single sacrifice and sat down, for his job was finished. The author says this is the new covenant God promised to his people. Because of the success of this single offering, the author says we have confidence to enter into God’s presence, which is something the Levitical priests could never do. They would always have the fear of entering into God’s holy presence. Because Jesus has opened up access to God through the curtain, referring to the curtain guarding the Most Holy Place in the temple, the author encourages his readers to draw near to God with full confidence that comes from faith.
What is the author really driving at? His application is found in chapter 13.
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.Hebrews 13:12–15 ESV
When Jesus offered himself, he effectively ended the need for sacrifices for sin. He accomplished with this single sacrifice what the countless sacrifices of bulls and goats could never do: he reconciled his people with God. He did this “outside the camp”. His crucifixion was outside the walls of Jerusalem. The author calls upon his readers to go to Jesus there—to leave behind the system of sacrifices in the temple. Though they were Christians, they were also Jews and so the temple was a significant part of their culture and way of life. They continued to bring their tithes and offerings to the temple. Not all sacrifices in the temple were for sins, so they gladly worshiped God the way their ancestors had for hundreds of years. The author is pleading with them to leave this system behind, for Jesus is all they need. Jerusalem is no lasting city. There is a city to come, the very city Abraham himself longed for (Hebrews 11:10, 16). They can leave behind sacrifices given as acts of worship, for God desires a “sacrifice of praise”, and this can be done “outside the camp”; it does not require a physical temple and literal sacrifices.
Back to Dave’s question. What does the author mean when he warns that if we—they, really—go on “sinning deliberately” there no longer “remains a sacrifice for sins”? What is the author really addressing with his original audience? They must be willing to leave behind the great city of Jerusalem and its temple—and their entire way of life going back generations. They can do this because Jesus is the final sacrifice for sins. They do not need the temple for their salvation for Jesus is their great high priest. While standing it remained a significant cultural expression for them but even if this cultural expression were taken away, they’d still have Jesus, and he is all they need. Because Jesus is the greatest and final sacrifice, to persist in deliberate sin would be to deny the finality of this sacrifice.
If they would not cling to Jesus and thereby deny a life of sin but instead chose to persist in sinful behavior willingly and actively, they would be demonstrating they were on the side of those—Jew and Gentile—who killed Jesus in the first place. To say this another way, to deliberately choose a life of sin is to deliberately reject the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice that takes away sin. It takes away the guilt, but it also takes away the presence of sin in the life of the believer. This does not happen automatically or all at once. Sinless perfection is not attainable in this life. It is simply unthinkable that a follower of Jesus would willfully and deliberately reject the authority of Jesus. It is true that every time we sin we are rebelling against the authority of God, yet this is not what the author means here. He has already told them how Jesus is “a merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17) who is able “to sympathize with our weakness” though he himself was able to overcome temptation (4:15). Because Jesus is that merciful and faithful high priest,
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:16 ESV
This “throne of grace” he mentions is the space above the ark of the covenant between the two cherubim on it. It is also called “mercy seat” and was believed to be the place where God was seated, so to speak, when the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on it once a year on the Day of Atonement. The difference is they and we do not go the mercy seat in order to sprinkle blood on it for the forgiveness of sins for Jesus offered a single sacrifice for all time and his sprinkled blood that takes away our sins forever. This is why the author says in chapter 12 that when they assemble in the name of Jesus, wherever they are, the Lord enters their presence with the angels and those who have gone before by preceding them in death. He says that in the Lord’s assembly we come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”. Abel’s blood cries out for vengeance and justice whereas Jesus’ blood cries out, “It is finished!”
When the author talks about “sinning deliberately” he does not mean those intentional sins we all commit, but a wholesale commitment to rebellion against the Lord. Dave’s question was how we can know when someone fits this description. When a person willfully and deliberately chooses to sin against God and no amount of pleading will get them to repent and throw themselves upon God’s mercy at his throne of grace, for that person there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, for they have rejected the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.
Like Will Robinson in the old science fiction TV show, we must recognize the danger that is around us. Specifically, we must be aware of the danger having a lazy attitude toward fighting sin is. We must not be flippant when it comes to God’s grace and holiness. When we deliberately sin, we must recognize the danger we are in, but we must also draw near to the throne of grace knowing we have a merciful and faithful great high priest who sat down after offering himself as the final sacrifice for sins. This drawing near does not happen casually, and it necessarily involves genuine repentance, or a genuine change of mind. It is not the attitude of “who cares if I sin; Jesus will just forgive me” but is the recognition that because Jesus has done everything necessary to make me right with God, I do not want to continue sinning. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! Lord, I have sinned; help me sin no more!
You and I are not being called to give up literal sacrifices, but like the original recipients of the book of Hebrews, we are being called to give up a life of deliberate, intentional sin, while knowing that our faithful high priest has offered that once-for-all sacrifice and he is merciful and faithful and recognizes our weaknesses. This is why we must “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:25). The finality of the work of Jesus on the cross for our sins demands a life of faithfulness to him.