“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” “I’m not holier than thou, I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” Something has gone terribly wrong with our thinking if we believe that the only difference between a believer and a non-believer is that the believer is forgiven and assured of eternal life. That’s a useless, selfish, hypocritical religious idea which deserves a slap in the face. It’s not worthy of the name “Christian,” the name of Messiah, and it sullies the reputation of our holy Master. Hebrews 10:18-31 contains a stern warning and exhortation to the upward call of discipleship and the demands of new-covenant living.
This doesn’t have anything to do with the topic, but I listened to Lancaster’s sermon with my laptop in my sukkah a few afternoons ago. Yes, WiFi is great.
Lancaster started out by discussing a song by Paul Wilbur called I Enter the Holy of Holies. I liked a number of Wilbur’s songs but don’t have an opportunity to listen to them anymore. But this specific reference has less to do with worship music, and more to do with the topic of our study:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…
–Hebrews 10:19 (NASB)
But how can we, or anyone but the High Priest, enter the Holy of Holies? Even the High Priest enters the Most Holy Place only once a year on Yom Kippur. The song is nice. It’s inspiring. But it’s not meant to be a theological roadmap as such. Let’s see a little more context:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.
Lancaster says it’s important to realize that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is speaking figuratively, not literally. These verses aren’t permission for just plain ol’ folks, Jews or otherwise, to go “tramping” through the Holy of Holies. Even Jesus couldn’t enter the Holy of Holies of the earthly Temple in Jerusalem (before or after his death and resurrection) because he is not an Aaronic priest.
These verses are to indicate that we have access to God through the Heavenly Temple and our Heavenly High Priest, who is indeed Yeshua. We can draw near by appealing to our High Priest, our mediator of the New Covenant.
The veil is symbolic of his flesh, as the verses above tell us. Also, to “draw near” is technical language for bringing a sacrifice. When a person, usually Jewish but Gentiles could do so as well, desired an encounter with God in the days of the Temple, they could bring a sacrifice, a korban, to the Temple and indeed, physically, literally, draw near to the Divine Presence.
The readers of this letter are, according to Lancaster, Greek-speaking Jews living in or near Jerusalem, disciples of Yeshua who have been denied access to the Temple. The Hebrews letter writer is trying to reassure them that if they cannot draw near to God in the earthly Temple, they can still do so through their faith in the Heavenly High Priest who presides over the Heavenly Temple.
But this has applications for us as well. After all, there is no Temple in Jerusalem today, so even if we desired with all our heart to draw near to the Divine Presence, it is impossible to do so.
But Lancaster says that we are designed to desire closeness with God. How can we do this? We have the blessings of the New Covenant, but the New Covenant promises have yet to arrive. How do we summon the future into the present?
Through the verses I quoted above. Through having “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…He inaugurated (the way) for us through the veil (which is) his flesh.” We have “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies (are) washed with pure water.”
The writer of Hebrews is speaking about all this in the present tense. We, and the letter’s original readers, are supposed to be transforming into “Kingdom people” right now. That’s how we “draw near”.
For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
The writer of Hebrews could well have been thinking about Ezekiel 36 when he wrote about “hearts sprinkled clean” and “bodies watched with pure water” which is also part of the Yom Kippur service. But the exile hasn’t ended, the Jews have not be regathered, and no, we do not yet have a new heart and a new spirit. That’s for the future.
But as people of faith, we are responsible to live as if the New Covenant age is already here, even though our current world is still full of sin. We must live a transformed or at least a transforming life, rather than a life just like everybody else.
Lancaster calls us tokens of the future in the present world. We are ambassadors of the Messianic future, and that should show in our lives; we should live supernatural lives.
At the very top of this blog post, I inserted a quote that introduces today’s sermon. Lancaster considers it insulting that Christians cheapen themselves by saying they’re (we’re) just like everyone else, only forgiven, as if we live lives identical to our secular counterparts and the only distinction between them and us is that we are forgiven because we believe in Jesus.
Sure, we’re not perfect, but we should be living lives Holy and specifically distinct from our secular neighbors. Just as the readers of this letter were tempted to waver and even to renounce their faith for the sake of possibly regaining access to the Jerusalem Temple (verse 23), believers today waver from their faith and live watered down lives rather than pursuing a closer encounter with God.
Next, Lancaster touched on a subject that has been on my mind lately.
… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Why is the letter writer saying this? In Jerusalem, the faithful among the Jews met daily at the Temple for the prayers. As far as we know, they had no other meeting place, no “Messianic synagogue” as it were.
Why do we worship together? Is the letter writer even issuing a directive that we can generalize to us, to me today? People meet to sing, worship, pray, study, listen to sermons, but most or all of that could be done at home. Lancaster says the Hebrews letter specifies the more important reasons. To encourage one another in our faith and confession. To build each other up. To apply positive peer pressure to live more Godly lives. It’s sociology, not theology.
In my current situation, my most likely options for further fellowship are in the virtual, that is, the online realm, but I don’t know how well that works if verses 24 and 25 are the key reasons for congregational connectedness.
Then Lancaster gets very passionate:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.
Lancaster calls these verses the “smack down” of this chapter. Once we become believers, there’s no turning back. Either we commit wholeheartedly to living a transformed life and continually becoming perfected in our faith, or we join the enemies of God in harsh judgment and its consequences.
This reminded me of how even among different churches and synagogues, people are dancing on both sides of some serious social topics in an attempt to be people of faith and yet fit in with the rest of the world and what the world (though not necessarily God) thinks is important and right. If you are living a Holy life, your life should not be in synch with the popular and progressive imperatives of our secular society (and political affiliation is beside the point).
Now this is interesting:
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is still in the present tense and remember the writer and readers of this letter are all Jewish. The letter writer is impressing upon his audience, using a lighter to heavier argument (we’ve seen this before), that if setting aside the Torah can result in a death sentence, how much more serious is it to trample underfoot the Son of God. Yes, it’s serious for a Jew to violate the Shabbat but it’s even more serious to consider the righteous and Holy sacrifice of Messiah as unclean and common.
This is a stern warning that even under extreme provocation, the consequences of abandoning faith in Messiah are terrifying.
You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
–1 John 3:5-6
This makes it sound like we should never, ever sin, not even once after we become believers, but what the apostle is saying is that we should continually strive to become more spiritually perfected, not that we’ll ever be perfect this side of the resurrection, but that we shouldn’t just put up with a certain level of sinning in our lives as if it is inevitable.
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.
For Lancaster, this is a key statement. We need to keep striving to live by the standard that we are pursuing, the standard of a Holy and righteous life, to live, not natural lives as the rest of the world does, but supernatural lives. This is how we draw nearer to God and draw the Messianic Age nearer to our present reality.
What Did I Learn?
When I was reading in Matthew 27 about the tearing of the veil, I noted the verses that immediately followed:
The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
No other Gospel writer mentions this event, but for Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience just as the Hebrews writer was, one of the strongest promises of the New Covenant is the resurrection of the dead. The death of Jesus was immediately followed by the tearing of the veil and the resurrection of people who were recognizably Jewish tzaddikim must have been terrifically obvious signs of who and what Jesus was and is. Even a Roman centurion present picked up on it:
Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
I had noted each of these events separately, but putting them together relative to the New Covenant gives them a lot more meaning than just a series of supernatural events related to the death of Jesus. This moment in time formally set into motion the beginning of the entry of the New Covenant into our world and these events were part of the evidence.
But that was almost two-thousand years ago and most people in the world today don’t even think of the Bible as evidence of anything real and applicable to their lives.
That’s why they have us.
Lancaster said that we have to make a difference and we do that by adhering to a standard set before us by God, a standard to live lives of Holiness and excellence, as if the New Covenant were already here, as if we had already been resurrected, as if our hearts of stone had already been replaced by hearts of flesh and we were filled with the Holy Spirit to such abundance that we all “know God” in a manner greater than all the prophets of old.
Imagining myself living a “supernatural life” isn’t always an easy thing for me. I can’t picture myself “checking my brain at the door,” so to speak, and just relying upon my feelings as the means by which I draw nearer to God. I know that isn’t what Lancaster (or those few others in my life who encourage me to also be more “supernatural”) is saying, but it feels like what he’s (they’re) saying.
I think what he’s actually saying is that we can live better lives behaviorally, and we can be better people than we think we are. If we tried to be better just by force of will, we might make some temporary achievements, but most of us would fall back into our usual flight patterns after a while. Our natural methods wouldn’t work out in the long run. Only the supernatural methods, by faith, by continually striving for an authentic encounter with God, will grant us access to transforming and perfecting our lives, little by little, bit by bit, until the evidence of God is undeniably visible in everything we do.
Then we will be the evidence that God is real and that His promises are true. They will happen because they’re happening now, through us.