The necessity of sacrifice

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 9:15-28

The shocking truth

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he was mocked. He wasn't supposed to be there if his claims were true. So they said, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross," and, "Let him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in him" (Matthew 27:40, 42). Two thousand years later, the death of Christ on the cross comes as no surprise to us. We've heard all the stories. If we've spent any amount of time at all in the church, Christ's death has probably lost all of its shock value. The death of the Messiah on a Roman cross would have been a First Century shocker. For the original readers of Hebrews, the shock was probably setting in. They probably wondered, "What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?" So the writer of Hebrews addresses their concern and carefully shows them that the death of Christ was necessary. It was necessary for them. It was also necessary for us. The death of Christ deals effectively with sin and thereby effects salvation.

Hebrews 9:15-28 provides a description of the dynamics of salvation as they effect followers of Christ. In verse 15, the writer provides an overview of the passage, including the three themes he will discuss: death, the effect of death on sin, and salvation The effects of death on sin in the passage include redemption of transgressions (verse 15), forgiveness (verse 22), putting away sin (verse 26) and the bearing of sins (verse 28). The result of death's effect on sin is eternal inheritance (verse 15) and salvation (verse 28). The passage is bracketed in verses 15 and 28 by descriptions of the people of God ("those who have been called," "those who eagerly await him") and descriptions of what they receive from God ("the eternal inheritance," "salvation").

The writer puts forth the necessity of death in both the Old Covenant (verse 18) and the New Covenant (verse 23) and then proceeds to describe the deaths that took place under each (9:19-22, 9:24-28).

The necessity of sacrifice under the Old Covenant (9:15-22)

Hebrews 9:15-22:

(15) And for this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (16) For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. (17) For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. (18) Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. (19) For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, (20) saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you." (21) And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. (22) And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The writer earlier referred to Christ as "the mediator of a better covenant" (8:6). He has described some of the benefits of this covenant in Hebrews 8:6-9:14, but has hardly touched on the means by which those benefits were conferred. The means is the death of the mediator himself, which he describes in this passage.

The death that has taken place for the redemption of transgressions under the first covenant is the death of Christ. The animal sacrifices called for in the Old Covenant did not accomplish true redemption but pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ. The transgressions committed by the Israelites under the Old Covenant, culminating in their complete rejection of the Lord, resulted in their expulsion from the promised land, the ultimate covenant curse. In 586 B.C. Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon, and the Israelites spent 70 years in exile. Although they returned to the land, they returned to a land ruled by foreigners. The people lived as exiles in their own land. But the prophets helped them look forward to the day when the exile would end, when sins would truly be forgiven and when they would be restored to the land, the "inheritance" given them by the Lord. The death of Christ accomplished this, giving God's people, "those who have been called," something the land was only a picture of: the eternal inheritance, the new heavens and the new earth.

So, what does this have to do with God's people who are not Jews but Gentiles? After all, Gentiles committed no transgressions against the first covenant, for they never received it. Gentiles may not have violated the Old Covenant, but they certainly have rejected God and what they knew of his law (Romans 1:18-32, 2:14-17). Thus, all of us were exiled, separated from God and his blessings. The death of Christ achieves redemption for all those who have been called. All God's people, then, receive the promise of the eternal inheritance and will dwell with him in the new and better creation. All return from exile, ultimately to a new and better land.

For this to happen, for the covenant blessing of inheritance to be realized, death was necessary. This is the writer's point in verses 16 and 17. The covenants were the Lord's means of re-establishing relationship with humanity after the fall. They involved terms and promises that governed the relationship. The Greek word for "covenant" can also mean "testament," as in "last will and testament." The writer of Hebrews, without discarding the original meaning of the word, incorporates this new meaning. The inheritance promised in a will is not conferred until the death of the one who made the will. The writer is not saying that God died. God assumed flesh and blood and experienced human death through his Son, but he himself, of course, never died.

In verses 16 and 17, the writer establishes the general premise that death is necessary for covenant blessings to be conferred. In verses 18 through 22, he shows how that premise was applied in the specific setting of the first covenant. "Therefore," because death is necessary in a covenant setting, "even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood."

The writer calls to mind the inauguration of the first covenant, which is described in Exodus 24:6-8. He includes more details than the Exodus narrative, which spoke nothing of water or scarlet wool or hyssop; which said Moses sprinkled an altar and the people, not the Book of the Covenant and the people; and which spoke nothing of the sprinkling of the tabernacle and its vessels. (Of course, the tabernacle had not yet been erected, so it couldn't have been sprinkled at the time.)

Why does the writer include information that Exodus narrative left out? The answer is in verse 22, where he says, "And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." In the Mosaic law, blood cleansed things, but blood was not always necessary. In certain cases, other instruments were used, such as flour (Leviticus 5:11-13) and fire and water (Numbers 31:22-23). In verse 19, water, scarlet wool and hyssop were used, in conjunction with blood, and helped with cleansing. The writer wants to show the necessity and effectiveness of blood, but he is no doubt aware that his readers, who are well-versed in biblical history, know that other instruments in addition to blood were used for cleansing. But his emphasis is blood. That's why he says that blood was also sprinkled on the Book of the Covenant, which comprised the law, and on the tabernacle and its vessels. Exodus 40:9-11 records that the tabernacle, once erected, was sprinkled with oil, but the writer says that blood was at sometime also involved. His point in verses 19 through 21 is that blood was all over the place! He makes that point in order to make another, more significant point: "without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness."

The Old Covenant illustrated that death was required for forgiveness. It did not in itself provide true forgiveness, for the writer will later say that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (10:4). True forgiveness was provided for by the death of Christ, but as the Old Covenant acted out the death of Christ, even at its inception, through the offering of animals, it pointed to the one whose death reaches both back and forward in time to secure forgiveness for God's people from all generations.

The writer appeals to his readers' history to show that the shedding of blood is necessary for forgiveness. This is our history, too. As we become followers of Jesus, we become the people of God, and this is the history of the people of God. These are our ancestors. We are the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). Our history tells us that death is necessary for forgiveness. It tells us that God has told us so. But even if we didn't have the biblical record, doesn't all human history tell us the same thing? Haven't cultures throughout history offered sacrifices of some sort, even human sacrifices? There must be something in the human psyche that says death is necessary. Therefore, we can find death necessary not only in biblical and human history but also in our own hearts. If some kind of sacrifice for sin weren't necessary, then why are almost all of us, regardless of our world view, intent on believing that it is, even though psychological experts scream from the mountaintops that it isn't? Why are we constantly trying to make up for some inadequacy? Why do we try to "make things right"? If there are no absolutes, as everything post-modern keeps telling us, why do we still feel guilty? Why do we punish ourselves with guilt, as if punishing ourselves might somehow make atonement?

Richard Lutrell, a Vietnam War veteran, is one who has been punished with guilt. He killed the first enemy soldier he'd ever seen up close. A photo had been shaken loose from the mortally wounded soldier. Lutrell picked it up. It was a picture of the man and a girl, whom Lutrell assumed to be the man's daughter. He kept the photo and carried it in his wallet for 22 years, though he can't explain why. In 1989, he decided to move on, so he made a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and left the photo there. The night before, he wrote this "Dear Sir" note to the man he had killed: "Forgive me for taking your life. I was reacting just the way I was trained to kill V.C. (Viet Cong). So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt."

That, Lutrell thought, was the end of it. But in the fall of 1996, a friend pointed out to him a picture in a book titled "Offerings at the Wall." It was the photo he had left there seven years earlier, and the past caught up with him once again. "For years I have carried the guilt of taking his life," he said. "It is always with me; like a cancer it eats away at my heart and my mind. ... It's hard to put into words, but deep down, somehow I'm looking for some forgiveness somewhere."

We may not punish ourselves to this degree, but our anguish can be just as real. That we punish ourselves tells us that we understand that sacrifice is necessary. We too are "looking for some forgiveness somewhere."

The writer has established the general necessity of death and the specific necessity of death under the Old Covenant. He has done this to demonstrate the necessity of death under the New Covenant.

The necessity of sacrifice under the New Covenant (9:23-28)

Hebrews 9:23-28:

(23) Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, 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. (27) And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, (28) so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time not to bear sin, to those who eagerly await him, for salvation.

In this section, the writer not only illustrates the death that was necessary under the New Covenant, he illustrates it as a better sacrifice. The better sacrifice cleansed a better place (verse 24), it only needed to be made once (verses 25 and 26), it deals effectively with sin (verse 26) and it results in salvation (verses 27 and 28).

The earthly tabernacle was a copy of the heavenly one (8:5). The necessity of cleansing the earthly tabernacle with blood illustrated the necessity of cleansing the heavenly tabernacle with blood. Why did the heavenly tabernacle need cleansing? Was there something wrong with it? No, there was something wrong with us. It needed to be cleansed so that we could be there. In connection with the first covenant, everything was sprinkled with blood, both the people and the tabernacle. There was nothing between the people and the Lord but blood. The same is true for us. The only thing between God and us is blood - the blood of Christ. And if that's the only thing, there's nothing between God and us, for the blood of Christ is what ushers us into God's presence.

So, what does this say about our entry into heaven? In one sense, of course, we are already there (Ephesians 1:4-6). We have received in the Holy Spirit, the down payment of our eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14). In another sense, we await our entry into heaven, the new creation, which can be understood as the tabernacle of God. (When the Apostle John saw a vision of the new creation, he saw no temple in it. The implication is that the new creation is a temple.)

Perhaps we harbor fears that we might defile the place. But the blood of Christ has not only made us ready, it has made the place ready. Because of the blood of Christ, the Father beckons us to come.

It was necessary to cleanse the heavenly tabernacle with "better sacrifices" than those of animals. The heavenly tabernacle did not require more than one sacrifice (the author in verses 26 and 28 says that Christ was offered up only once); but the singular sacrifice of Christ gathers up all Old Covenant sacrifices and fulfills them.

Why was it necessary for the heavenly tabernacle to be cleansed with a better sacrifice? Because it is a better place. That's what the writer says in verse 24. It is not made with hands; it is not a copy but the original; it is not on earth but in heaven; it is not in any sense defiled by human sin. So if humans are going to be there, and by all means God wants them there, then the place will need a better sacrifice - a human one, a perfect human one.

Christ entered heaven "now to appear in the presence of God for us." The word "now" is used again in verse 26: "but now once at the consummation he has been manifested ... " We saw earlier in Hebrews that Christ now carries on an ongoing ministry of intercession for us, asking the Father that he draw us near (Hebrews 7:25). But the appearance before God that the writer speaks of here is a one-time appearance "now," in this age. The one-time appearance before God in heaven is the fulfillment of the high priest's once-a-year appearance before God on earth on the Day of Atonement. Literally, Christ appeared "to the face of God." This was a face-to-face encounter between Father and Son on our behalf.

Picture what this must have been like. The peak of God's creation, men and women, turned their back on him and decided instead to pursue a course of self-destruction and condemnation. God's heart was shattered. Yet he didn't give up. Relentlessly, he reached out. He put in place a plan, an outrageous and scandalous plan, to rescue men and women and win them back to himself. The plan included covenants and kings and priests and prophets and scripture and sacrifices. But these were only so many chapters leading up to the climax. God himself would become man. The Father's Son would live life as a man and die the death that all humanity deserved. The Father would reach out with the death of his Son. How impossible it must have been for the Father to ask the Son to go; how impossible it must have been to let him go. Such was God's love for us that Father asked, the Son went and the Father let him go.

And now, the Son is back. He has visited the distant and dangerous land, and he is home. He has completed his heart-wrenching mission. He has rescued men and women and won them back to God by acceding to their wishes, hanging and dying on a piece of their wood, and absorbing the anguish and wrath of the Father that were wrapped up in humanity's demise. And he appears before the face of the Father. Because this is a face-to-face encounter, there is no doubt eye contact. The Father and the Son look into each other's eyes. What must they be thinking? They are thinking about us! The Son appears before the face of the Father on behalf of "us." This reunion is filled with thoughts of you! As the Father and Son look into each other's eyes, they are sharing their love for you. And the moment is as full as any in eternity.

The death of Christ was necessary, but it was not necessary for him to make multiple offerings, as it was for the high priest, who made an annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. The Israelite high priests had to offer continual sacrifices for two reasons: The blood they offered was not their own, and even if it were, it still wouldn't deal effectively with sin. Christ's blood is a different matter entirely. Because he was the perfect human sacrifice, no other sacrifice was necessary. If he weren't he "would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world," inasmuch as he is eternal. Inasmuch as multiple offerings proved unnecessary, the evidence is in: Sin has been "put away."

Christ has been manifested, or revealed, at the "consummation," or the end of the ages. Christ's sacrifice didn't come at the climax of history; because Christ sacrificed himself, history reached a climax. The ages were waiting for the sacrifice of Christ. So he has been revealed at the end of the ages for all the ages to see. There is nothing hidden in this. Christ hung on a cross, out in the open. The passersby could see (Matthew 27:39). The passersby of history can see. Christ has been revealed. For what purpose has he been revealed? Has God revealed himself in Christ to take out his vengeance on the world, as we might expect? No, he has revealed himself to "put away" the sin of the world. The word translated "put away" was used in legal circles for "annul." Our sin is annulled by Christ. That means sin carries no legal weight, and it also means that sin will one day no longer exist - all because of the "sacrifice of himself." This must have been one heck of a sacrifice. Christ has been revealed to annul your sin. Don't miss it. Don't miss him.

If we miss him, verse 27 becomes a terrifying proposition. Everyone not only dies; it is appointed by God for everyone to die. We all have an appointment with death. Many people would like to think that's the end of it, "but after this comes judgment," which may not be something to look forward to. For some, there should be a "certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries" (10:27). For all of us, because judgment awaits, we should listen to what God has to say about it. All we need to know about it, really, is written in verse 28.

Humanity's experience of death and judgment is repeated in some sense by Christ, who is our brother (2:11). We die, so Christ died, but his death bore sins. But where's the judgment? Because of Christ's death, judgment has become salvation.

Christ was offered to "bear" sins. Up to this point in the passage, the writer has said that there is redemption for sin (verse 15), forgiveness for sin (verse 22) and the putting away of sin (verse 26). He has said that all of these came about as the result of the death of Christ. But what specifically about the death of Christ provided for these kinds of effects on sin? Where did sins go? Christ bore them. Instead of taking on evil by unleashing all the all the power of heaven, Jesus took on evil by absorbing all the power of hell. The power of hell was focused on Jesus as he hung on the cross, goading him to unleash the power of heaven. Hell took its best shot in order to get the Son of God to play its power game, but the Son of God refused. Love triumphed over evil by refusing to play evil's game. That's how evil died. It had nothing more to give. It dissolved into nothing in the body of Christ. That's where sins went. He bore them, and they dissolved.

So when Christ appears again, he will come "not to bear sin." He has already borne it. He will appear to "those who eagerly await him." These are the "many" whose sins he has borne - the ones who want desperately to see him. Those who want to see him will see him. And when they see him, he will save them. This is not a bad definition of those who will be saved: They are those who eagerly await Jesus. They will be saved from judgment, and they will be changed, receiving new bodies suitable for the eternal inheritance he will give them, the new heavens and the new earth. If this is who Jesus is, the one who provides redemption and forgiveness and annulment of our sins by calling them unto himself, who wants desperately to take us by the hand and bring us into our eternal inheritance, is there any reason we can think of for not waiting for him eagerly? There is no better thing to wait for, no better person to want.

So, can we now see why the death of Christ was necessary? It was necessary for us, for our cleansing, for our salvation. It was necessary for the blessings of the covenant to be conferred on us.

The blessing goes out

When the writer refers to the Son in this passage, he refers to him as "Christ," which is the Greek word for "Messiah." The Israelites anticipated that the Messiah, the king in the line of David, would come to set things right, but they had no idea it would be like this. They expected the Messiah to play the power game, and because he was anointed by God, he would win. He wasn't supposed to be rejected by his people and be executed by the oppressing power. For the readers of Hebrews, these expectations are likely resurfacing. So the writer demonstrates for them the scandalous necessity of the death of the Messiah and shows it to be beautiful.
It's not the animals who die; it's the human! It's not the children or the virgins wh
o die; it's the king! It's not we who die; it's Jesus! He goes into exile for us. The offering goes up, and the blessing goes out. As Michael Card sings, "their wildest dreams had simply not been wild enough."

- SCG, 12-14-97