The conscience set free

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 9:1-14

'That stuff can drive you nuts'

In the movie "On the Waterfront," Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, faces a personal crisis. He knows that racketeers have murdered a longshoreman, but if he testifies before the crime commission, his career and quite possibly his life will be in danger. A priest, played by Karl Malden, is about to exhort Malloy to appear before the commission, then thinks better of it. "I'm not telling you to do anything," the priest says. "It's your own conscience that has to do the talking." Malloy, who has long been haunted by his knowledge of the murder, mutters to himself, "Conscience: That stuff can drive you nuts."

We'd have to agree. The conscience can drive us nuts. We're always troubled by something we've done or haven't done. Like Terry Malloy, our consciences haunt us. What do we do with a troubled conscience, one that dogs us and constantly tells us we're doing wrong or not doing enough? The writer of Hebrews has an answer for us, and, not surprisingly, his answer concerns Christ. All his answers concern Christ. Only the blood of Christ satisfies a troubled conscience and sets it free to function according to God's design.

In Hebrews 9:1-10, the writer sets forth the limitations of the Old Covenant as it concerns the conscience. In 9:11-14, he proclaims the liberating aspects of the New Covenant as it concerns conscience.

The limitations of the old (9:1-10)

Hebrews 9:1-10:

(1) Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. (2) For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. (3) And behind the second veil, there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, (4) having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron's rod which budded, and the tablets of the covenant. (5) And above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (6) Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, (7) but into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. (8) The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, (9) which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, (10) since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.

In verse 1, the writer introduces two subjects: 1) Regulations for worship. 2) The earthly tabernacle. In verses 2 through 5, he describes the tabernacle. In verses 6 and 7, he describes the regulations for worship. In verses 8 through 10, he explains the significance of the tabernacle and the regulations. In general terms, the significance is that the tabernacle and the regulations involved in it were limited in what they could provide for those who worshiped. In speaking of an "earthly" tabernacle in verse 1, the writer is preparing us for a comparison with the heavenly tabernacle in verses 11 through 14.

The earthly tabernacle was divided into two compartments, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. In verses 2 and 3, the writer describes the fixtures of each. His purpose in mentioning the fixtures is not to discuss their meaning. Certainly they have meaning, but the writer says that "we cannot now speak in detail" about those fixtures. His purpose seems to be that the Holy of Holies is the place to be. Three items are described as having gold in their construction. The gold is in the Holy of Holies. The stone tablets that contained the 10 commandments, the centerpiece of the covenant, are in there. The ark, which served as the Lord's earthly throne, is in there (1 Samuel 4:4, 1 Samuel 6:2). The glory of the Lord is in there. The mercy seat on top of the ark, which was applied with blood once a year for atonement of sins, is in there.

It may be the place to be, but getting there isn't so easy. That's the point of verses 6 and 7. A multitude of priests are "continually entering" the holy place, but "only" the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, and he only enters once a year, and he can't enter unless he takes with him the blood of sacrifice. The priests continually entered into the Holy Place, trimming the lamps, burning incense and placing fresh loaves on the table. No sacrifice was required for them to enter. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the annual Day of Atonement, the regulations for which are described in Leviticus 16. The high priest was to sacrifice a bull for himself and his household, and he was to sacrifice a goat for the people. The blood was sprinkled on the lid of the ark of the covenant. The annual observance was in acknowledgment of the sins of the people.
The writer of Hebrews says that the sacrifice was, literally, for "the people of ignorance." This is most likely not a reference to sins committed in ignorance, for Leviticus makes no mention of this. It is more likely a reference to the root of all sin, which is ignorance of God and his ways, which always involves willful ignorance - a refusal to believe God (Romans 1:18-23). Earlier, the writer said that every high priest, Jesus being the perfect embodiment therein, can deal gently with the "ignorant" and misguided (5:2).

The Holy of Holies is the place to be, and getting there isn't so easy. But even once one gets there, there is only so much that place can do for a person. That's the writer's point in verses 8 through 10. Actually, the writer says, that's the point the Holy Spirit is making. The Holy Spirit inspired the word, which called for the tabernacle and its regulations. The Holy Spirit is also inspiring the writer of Hebrews. And the Holy Spirit is saying, both in the history of revelation and in the revelation now being given to the writer, that "the way into the Holy Place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing."

Literally, the text reads "the way of the sanctuary." Earlier the writer spoke of the "earthly sanctuary" (9:1). Here, the word "earthly" is not used. The writer is speaking of the heavenly sanctuary, "the greater and more perfect sanctuary" that he refers to in verse 11. So he's not talking about a way into the earthly sanctuary but a way into the heavenly one. What does the writer mean when he says that the way "has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing"? First, the way already has been disclosed, for the writer speaks of a "new and living way" that Christ inaugurated for us (10:20). Second, when the writer speaks of the "outer tabernacle" (literally, "first tabernacle"), he's referring to the earthly tabernacle, which is being contrasted with the heavenly. Third, how is it that this earthly tabernacle is "still standing"? At the time of writing, the tabernacle was not standing. The tabernacle was a portable tent that served the Lord's purposes in the wilderness. Once the people became settled in the promised land under Solomon, the permanent temple was built in Jerusalem. Most likely, the temple was still standing at the time of writing, but the tabernacle was not. But neither the earthly tabernacle nor the earthly temple had any legal standing, insofar as God was concerned, once Christ inaugurated the new and living way.

The way into the heavenly tabernacle has been revealed, but if one gives legal standing to the earthly structure, one can't see, understand or appreciate the way into the heavenly tabernacle. The writer is concerned that his readers may revert to thinking that the old way is the better way and discard the heavenly for the earthly. They are investing too much in the earthly, and asking it to do more than it was ever designed to do.

The earthly is a "symbol" - literally, a "parable." It paints a picture of the real thing, but it isn't the real thing. In this parable, gifts and sacrifices were offered, including the annual sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. But all those gifts and sacrifices - and even the best sacrifice on the most special day by the most special person - "cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience."
There's the problem with the old way right there. It can't really affect the conscience. Actually, there's no problem with the old way, because it was never intended to affect the conscience. The old way was only a parable, acted out on a daily and annual basis to tell a story about the real thing. It involved regulations concerning certain food and drink to consume, and certain washings, all for the sake of ceremonial cleanliness. That's why they are called "regulations for the body." They affect a worshiper externally but not internally. The external isn't bad, because it tells a story of the internal. But that's all it does. The external regulations were imposed by God until a time of reformation. The time of reformation has come in Christ, so the earthly and external can be discarded.
But there is a ten
dency not to discard them. There is a tendency to hold on to them. Not only is there a tendency to hold on to them, there is a tendency to want them to do things they were never intended to do, like make one perfect in conscience. Evidently, that's what the readers wanted them to do, for the writer has to explain that it's not what they were intended to do.

What does it mean to be made perfect in conscience? Earlier, the writer spoke of "perfection" (7:11), noting that the law made nothing "perfect," in the context of the fulfillment of God's purpose for humanity (7:19). When the conscience is made perfect, it is complete; it is functioning according to design; it is working well. All the sacrifices, gifts and bodily regulations of the old way could not bring the conscience to completion, because they were not intended to do so.

When we experience feelings of guilt, we want to do something to satisfy the conscience. Or, as a preventative measure, we want to do something so that guilt feelings never appear so that our conscience is not threatened. With guilt feelings, we punish ourselves in order to atone for our sins. We know deep down that someone has to pay for our sins, so we try to pay for them. We punish ourselves with feelings. But we don't like our own punishment, so we invest in earthly and external ways of satisfying the conscience, many of which, like the old ways of the tabernacle, are good in and of themselves unless we make them do what they weren't intended to do, such as resolving our guilt feelings.

In order to relieve guilt feelings, we engage in compulsive and frenetic activity. Or we repress the feelings, doing our best to push them from our awareness, but they always seem to surface in destructive ways, such as a rigid, legalistic, performance-based approach to life that imparts warmth to no one and places demands on many. Or we engage in obsessive thinking, constantly fearing that we will make the wrong decision. Or we project our feelings of guilt onto others, finding the same fault in others that dwells in us. All these are psychological defense mechanisms designed to relieve the guilt feelings that we have developed in order to atone for our sins. All this has its deepest root in alienation from God. After all, if I can atone for my own sins, I don't need God, who I don't want to need because I'm terrified of him.

Judas Iscariot was haunted by guilt feelings and tried to atone for his sin and satisfy his conscience. First, he returned the 30 pieces of silver. When that failed, he killed himself. Conscience: That stuff can drive you nuts.

So we're in bondage to our own consciences, which will not leave us alone. In order to satisfy the conscience and get it working according to God's design, we need an answer outside ourselves. We need "reformation." We need Christ.

The freedom of the new (9:11-14)

Hebrews 9:11-14:

(11) But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, he entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; (12) and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (13) For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, (14) how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

In this section, the writer presents the new way. Everything about it is superior to the old way. It is not a picture; it is the reality depicted by the picture. Every word in this section is designed to illustrate the superiority of the new way, which is part of the New Covenant. The new way is ultimately superior because it does something for the conscience that the old way couldn't.
Christ appeared not just as a priest but as a high priest, one who was qualified to enter the Holy of Holies. He is the high priest of "the good things to come." Those "things" are most likely the fixtures of the heavenly tabernacle. The writer called the fixtures of the earthly tabernacle "these things" (9:5), and he says it was necessary for the "things" of the heavenly tabernacle to be cleansed (9:23). The things to come, the things of the heavenly tabernacle, have already come, being part of the promised reformation.

The earthly tabernacle was described in glorious terms. The Holy of Holies glistened with gold and radiated God's presence. Yet the tabernacle Christ entered, after his death on the cross, was "greater and more perfect." There's that word "perfect" again. How can something be "more perfect"? The earthly tabernacle was perfect for what it was designed for. The heavenly tabernacle is more perfect in that it fulfills a better purpose. That it is heavenly is clear in the statement that it is "not made with hands" and is "not of this creation."

The high priest could only enter the inner sanctum of the earthly tabernacle if he carried with him the blood of sacrifice. Christ, too, entered the heavenly tabernacle with blood - but it was his own blood. Human blood is better than the blood of animals. And this was the blood of one "without blemish."

Christ entered "once for all" into the Holy Place, whereas the other high priests entered "once a year." Once for all is better than once a year, because once for all doesn't need to be repeated. Christ obtained eternal redemption for sins, whereas the other high priests provided a picture of redemption.

The old way, which included the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of heifers, could "sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh." (The ashes of a heifer dealt with ritual impurity, according to Numbers 19:11-21.) The word translated "flesh" here is the same word that is translated "body" in verse 10. Regulations regarding food and drink and washings were for the body, just as these regulations concerning sacrifice and the sprinkling of ashes. It all had an external effect that made one ceremonially, and outwardly, qualified to be in the community and to worship within it.
The blood of Christ, not surprisingly, does something better. It has an internal effect. Christ offered himself through the Holy Spirit, who is called the "eternal Spirit." Christ, who was anointed by the Spirit as priests were anointed by oil, did everything through the Spirit, including this final offering of himself. The Spirit is called eternal because the topic here is heavenly, eternal things in contrast to earthly, temporary things. The animals sacrificed under the old system could not have any external blemishes. Christ, of course, had no internal blemish - no sin.

So what does the better blood of Christ's better sacrifice do? It will "cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." This raises several questions.

First, what are dead works? The writer doesn't define them. His readers, sharing a context and culture, probably understood what he meant, but it takes us a little more work to understand his meaning. Dead works somehow hinder serving God. The word "serve" has the same root as the word for "worship" (9:6) and "worshiper" (9:9). It is likely, then, that dead works involve some kind of attempt to worship God that is not effective. In the context of the passage, what might those dead works be? They are the misappropriation of Old Covenant regulations regarding gifts, sacrifices, food, drink and washings in the hope that they will help the conscience. But because they don't help the conscience, they're ineffective. They are dead. And dead works have nothing to do with worshiping the living God.

Second, how does the blood of Christ cleanse the conscience from these dead works? The sacrifice of Christ cleanses the conscience from any kind of guilt. The atonement required for every evil thought and deed was paid for by Christ. He bore our guilt, and it died with him. In a general sense, the blood of Christ cleanses our consciences. Specifically, it also cleanses our consciences from dead works. We are forgiven for all our misguided efforts to satisfy our consciences - compulsive activity, repression, obsessive thinking and projection, for example. It may come as a surprise to us that what we do to atone for our sin is in itself sin, but it is. The blood of Christ cleanses us from the sin of dead works. Finally, if the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin, the obvious implication is that we don't need to do it ourselves. Dead works are not only ineffective, they are unnecessary.

Third, how does the cleansing of a conscience set us free to worship God? If we think we're guilty before God, we'll do anything but truly worship him. Oh, it might look like worship, but if we feel guilty, the motivation will be something else entirely. The blood of Christ absorbs our guilt, which frees us, as we understand the depth and effectiveness of his atonement, to worship God in gratitude, love and awe.

Our consciences are thereby "made perfect," brought into line with God's intention for them. We were intended by God to be sensitive to his Spirit, but our guilt feelings get in the way. Because of guilt feelings we do all the wrong things - and even all the right things - for the wrong reason: guilt. Guilt feelings are selfish. When we harbor guilt feelings, we're sorry not for how our sin affects another; we are sorry for how it affects us. We are sorry for how horrible we feel about ourselves. What's the right reason for doing the right things? The right reason is love - love for God and love for others. The blood of Christ makes it possible for us to move away from guilt as a motivator and toward love. Although Christ makes this shift possible, it is not a quick or easy one.

Psychologist S. Bruce Narramore writes: "For one terrifying moment we must give up our grasp on the only thing supporting us if we are to move on to something new. But no matter how frightening it is to let go, we cannot know the freedom of a loving morality unless we let go of the old. As one client put it, 'Without guilt, what would I do! I would feel completely at sea!' Yet no matter how new or frightening, it is only at this point that we can begin to switch our motivation from the selfish goal of security through conformity and atonement through self-punishment to a truly Christian motive."

Narramore also writes, "To resolve the problems of guilt and conscience, we must acknowledge that the entire process of passing judgment on ourselves in order to make atonement through self-inflicted feelings of guilt or excuse ourselves by various self-efforts or defenses must come to an end. This system is a consequence of the fall and has no place in the life of the believer. As an autonomous effort to provide peace in our own way, it is part of our sin nature and a rebellion against God's way of sanctification. All these attempts at self-reconciliation are expressions of fallen humanity's hostility to God. It is Christ (not ourselves) who has paid, and the Christian's only hope for peace of conscience is to give up the pattern of self-justification and atonement."
In C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce," a former murderer who now dwells in heaven is asked if he's ashamed of himself. He answers: "No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what it did for me. And that is how everything began."

That's exactly what the blood of Christ does for us. Christ removes our guilt. We don't need to look at ourselves, for there is no guilt to look for. And then everything begins: Our conscience is cleansed and perfected and we are liberated to worship the living God and serve others out of love, not guilt.

Jesus made it possible

This is what Christ does for us. Once we understand it, it's not hard to appreciate. It's not hard, at least, to begin challenging our wrong thinking, for the sake of our own mental health. It's good to understand biblical principles and apply them. But if that's all we did, we'd be little better than computers who process information. It would be a shame if we were to take in a passage like this and apply the more accurate way of thinking to our lives without stopping to worship the one who made this way of life possible. Jesus has made this possible. Worship him.

- SCG, 12-7-97