Doing God's will - and liking it

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 10:1-18

Questions about God's will

We wonder about God's will. Mostly, we wonder what it is. We ask ourselves and others, countless times in life, questions such as, "What is God's will in this situation?" It's a good question to ask. The question implies a readiness to do God's will, if it could ever be ascertained. But perhaps we're too eager to ask the question, presupposing our readiness. When we ask for God's will, do we really want to do it, or are we on some grim march through life to do the right thing no matter how much we hate it?

In Hebrews 10:1-18, the writer tells us that Christ did God's will. He makes the further point that because Christ did God's will, we can as well - and we can enjoy doing it. Christ does God's will, offering his body as an effective sacrifice for sins, that we ourselves may do God's will.

In Hebrews 10:1-18, the writer continues to portray Christ as superior to the priests of Israel. Chapter 7 showed Christ to be a superior priest. Chapters 8 and 9 showed him, as the superior high priest, offering his sacrifice in a superior place, the tabernacle in heaven rather than the tabernacle in earth. Finally, Chapter 10 shows Christ offering a superior sacrifice, himself rather than animals.

In this passage, the writer compares the inadequacy of the priests' sacrifices (10:1-4) to the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice (10:11-14), and he shows that Christ's doing God's will (10:5-10) clears the way for us to do God's will (10:15-18). The structure breaks down this way:

A The inadequacy of the priests' sacrifice (10:1-4)

B Christ does God's will (10:5-10)

A' The sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice (10:11-14)

B' God's people do his will (10:15-18)

The inadequacy of the priests' sacrifice (10:1-4)

Hebrews 10:1-4:

(1) For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. (2) Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? (3) But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. (4) For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Beginning with the word "for," the author offers a further explanation of the inadequacy of the sacrificial system contained within the Mosaic law. The law has a "shadow," the sacrificial system. The earthly tabernacle, part of the sacrificial system, was called a shadow (8:5). The sacrificial system is a shadow of "the good things to come," those things that pertain to the sacrificial work of Christ. Those things, in contrast to a shadow, are the "very form" that casts the shadow. Christ is like a solid object that casts a shadow. The shadow in this case was cast backward in time, so to speak, so that the sacrificial system contained hints of Christ and his priestly work. Thus, the sacrificial system foreshadowed Christ.

Being a shadow and not the substance, the sacrificial system is inadequate when it comes to dealing with human sin. The law called for sacrifices "year by year," a reference to the annual sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, but it can't "make perfect those who draw near"; it cannot "cleanse" worshipers and fulfill God's purpose for them. It can take away neither sin nor the guilt of sin, which would allow worshipers to freely draw near to God and be transformed. The sacrificial system of the law "can never" achieve these things, although sacrifices are offered continually.

The fact that sacrifices are offered continuously, in fact, proves that they are inadequate. If they were effective, they would have ceased, because worshipers would no longer have "consciousness of sins"; they would no longer have guilty consciences. As it is under the sacrificial system at the temple in Jerusalem, the writer says, guilty consciences persist, so the sacrifices continue to be offered. And in connection with the offering of sacrifices, there is "a reminder of sins year by year." The fact that sacrifices for sins are offered, and offered on an ongoing basis, brings to mind not only sin but the uneasy feeling that these sacrifices may not be enough. After all, if they were enough, how come they have to be repeated? How come God calls for them to be repeated? How come we simply feel they need to be repeated?

In verse 4, the author explains why the sacrifices aren't effective. They aren't effective because the blood of animals aren't effective: "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Why, then, did the Lord institute the sacrificial system in the first place? He did so to demonstrate the necessity of sacrifice for sins and provide a "shadow" for the effective sacrifice to come that would atone for the sins of all generations of worshipers and allow people to freely draw near to God.

We, too, can be like the priests, offering up sacrifices that don't accomplish what we want them to. We don't kill animals, but we may try to kill off the sinful parts of us in the hope that God might be satisfied. We try to carry it out by ourselves, on ourselves. We try to pull ourselves together and discipline ourselves to do the right thing, and when we don't, we try harder, or we ask God to help us - all in an effort to be adequate before God. But we're never satisfied even with ourselves, so like the priests, we try again and again. We offer self-sacrifices and punish ourselves with guilt "continually."

The Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the tragic figure in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," offered up such self-sacrifices. Hounded by guilt for committing adultery, "He kept vigils, likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes viewing his own face in a looking-glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not, purify himself." Despite their intensity and frequency, his night-after-night vigils, like the year-after-year sacrifices of the priests, could not cleanse his conscience. Neither do our attempts at self-sacrifice.

Just as the sacrificial system of the law provides a shadow of Christ, our own sacrificial systems can do so as well. Innately, we know that sacrifice for sin is necessary. The fact that we know this - and continually try to do something about it - shows us our need and can lead us to want a better kind of sacrifice, the kind that the writer refers to in verses 5 through 10.

Christ does God's will (10:5-10)

Hebrews 10:5-10:

(5)Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,

"Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired,
But a body Thou hast prepared for Me;
(6)In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure.
(7) Then I said, 'Behold, I have come
(In the roll of the book it is written of Me)
To do Thy will, O God.'"

(8) After saying above, "Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the Law), (9) then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Thy will." He takes away the first in order to establish the second. (10) By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Beginning with the word "therefore," the writer explains how Christ understood the inadequacy of the sacrificial system, recognized what needed to be done and decided to do it. Christ announces his conclusions and intentions "when he comes into the world," the timing of which implies his pre-existence. The words he uses are those of David, from the Psalm 40:6-8, Septuagint (Greek) version. David and others recognized that animal sacrifices apart from a heart for God meant nothing. More than that, they recognized that God wanted something more, better and deeper than their animal sacrifices: He wanted their hearts. In Psalm 40, David speaks to God. So here we have the Son, in recognition of the problem of humanity, speaking to the Father upon his entry into the world. These, then, are intimate words spoken by the Son to the Father, and the writer of Hebrews lets us listen in.

In the first and third lines, the Son speaks of four kinds of offerings, which likely represent the breadth of the sacrificial system. He understands the Father's mind, that the Father has neither desired nor taken pleasure in the offerings of the sacrificial system. God himself established the sacrificial system. Are we now to understand that he never wanted these sacrifices? In a sense, yes. Oh, he wanted them, but they are not what he wanted most. Often in seemingly synonymous lines of Hebrew poetry, the second line brings out a more intense meaning. God established the system by which sacrifices were offered, but he never really "took pleasure" in them. He didn't delight in them. He delights in something else. David said God desired "a body" that God had prepared for him. David recognized that God had formed his inward parts and wove him in his mother's womb (Psalm 139:13). God created and prepared his body, and that's what God wanted from David. It's what he wants from all of us. David said, in so many words, "Lord, you don't delight in my sacrifices; you delight in my body. What you really want is me!" Jesus says the same thing. God has prepared our bodies that we might present them to him.

Knowing what the Father really delights in, the Son says to the Father, "Behold, I have come." He comes to do what the Father delights in. What the Father delights in is spoken of "in the roll of the book," the Mosaic law or perhaps all of the Old Testament. The Son says he comes into the world to do the Father's will. God wants his body, with which he wants the Son to do his will. What God really wants is men and women who trust him and therefore bring their bodies to him in order to do his will. Entering the world, the Son trusts the Father, assumes a human body and determines to do with that body the will of God. His trust in the Father was put to extreme test in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he prayed "not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:36).

In verses 8 and 9, the writer recapitulates Christ's words in a way that emphasizes the order. First Christ said God has taken no pleasure in sacrifices; "then" he says, "Behold, I have come to do your will." The restatement emphasizes Christ's understanding of the pleasure God takes in the doing of his will over and against the offering of animal sacrifices. The writer makes clear that there is nothing wrong with the sacrifices, for they are "offered according to the law" - God's law. He ordained them; he just didn't delight in them. Even under the best of circumstances, when sacrifices were made according to God's law, God wanted something more.

In doing God's will, Christ "takes away the first in order to establish the second." The "first" is the Old Covenant, particularly the sacrificial system it espoused. The second is the New Covenant, particularly the doing of God's will that it promotes. Christ, by doing God's will, makes it possible for us to do God's will - to give God what he really wants.

In verse 10 the writer explains how Christ's doing God's will affected us. He says, "By this will we have been sanctified," or made holy - which means to be set apart for God. God's will sets us apart for him. Up until this point, God's "will" has been to have people who trust him and want to do his will. This tells us that God wants us. We may feel unwanted, but God wants us. Not only does he want us, but he enables us to want him. He wills it to happen. By "this will," God's will, we have been set apart for him. This happened "through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." God may not take pleasure in sacrifices and instead takes pleasure in the doing of his will, but as it turns out, his will for Christ is for him to offer up his body as a sacrifice. Christ recognized that what the Father wanted was his body, and that the Father wanted him to offer up his body as a sacrifice. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins, but it is possible for the blood of a human, a sinless human. So God takes pleasure in Christ's doing the will of God, which is the offering of his body in sacrifice. Christ's sacrifice was "once for all." Paradoxically, God wants a sacrifice after all, but only one - the sacrifice of Christ.

We are starting to see that God's will can be trusted. God says, "I want your body." We may wonder, "Can I trust God with my body." Here we see that God wants us, that he wills us to want us, that he willed for Christ to offer up his body for us. If we are ever going to move toward offering our bodies to God, we have to see him as trustworthy. What he did for us in Christ shows us God's heart. In this section, we see both the will of the Father and the will of the Son, and that these wills, so to speak, are "for all" - they are for us.

We can see the heart of Christ in his words to the Father. He assessed our condition. He saw that it was impossible for animal sacrifices to take away our sins. Therefore, he spoke to the Father, and the writer of Hebrews takes us back to that scene and gives us a chair in heaven so that we may see and hear what it was really like, what Christ thinks of us and what he proposed to do for us. Let's make sure we hear the words accurately, and let them penetrate our hearts. We couldn't do God's will, so Jesus determined to do it for us, culminating in the offering of his body as the perfect sacrifice. So when we hear the words, "Behold, I have come to do your will, O God," we know that Jesus uttered those words in response to our utterly helpless condition and determined to do what it took to bring us to God.

The sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice (10:11-14)

Hebrews 10:11-14:

(11) And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; (12) but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, (13) waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. (14) For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

This section offers the answer to the problem posed in verses 1 through 4. We saw in those verses the inadequacy of the sacrifices offered by the priests. Here we see the sufficiency of the sacrifice offered by Christ. The reference to sacrifices in verse 1 was to the sacrifices on the annual Day of Atonement; here it is to daily sacrifices. There simply is no animal sacrifice imaginable that can ever take away sins. The priests "stand" to offer sacrifices day after day, time after time; they never sit down in either the tabernacle or the temple. This shows that their work is never through.
Jesus, on the other hand, offered only one sacrifice that was effective "for all time." The words "for all time" are the same that are translated "continually" in verse 1, where it was said that the priests offer sacrifices "continually." The priests have to offer sacrifices "continually," but only Christ's sacrifice has a "continual," or everlasting, effect. In contrast to the priests, who stand, Christ "sat down at the right hand of God," indicating that his work was through. It's not simply that Christ sat; it's that he sat at the right hand of God, the throne. As we have seen elsewhere in the book of Hebrews, Christ is the royal priest. Having taken his throne as king, the sacrificial phase of his priestly ministry is complete.

While the priests are "ministering," Christ is "waiting." He is waiting "until his enemies be made a footstool for his feet." Those enemies are Satan, his demons and all that oppose the reign of Christ. Everything that hinders our progress toward fulfilling God's purpose for us will one day be completely eliminated. Everything that God wills, everything that Christ died for, will be accomplished. His priestly offering makes God's royal conquest possible.

Beginning with the word "for," verse 14 explains why no further offering for sin is necessary. It is because Christ's offering was completely effective. By Christ's singular offering "he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" - or, literally, those who are being sanctified. The verb tenses here are quite intriguing. Christ has perfected us, in the past, but in Hebrews 6:1 the writer says "let us press on to maturity," literally, "perfection," placing perfection in the future. We are being sanctified, in the present, but in Hebrews 6:10, "we have been sanctified," in the past.

The word translated "perfection" has to do with fulfillment of purpose. The ultimate human purpose is to love, worship and obey God. When the writer in Hebrews 6:1 tells his readers to press on to perfection, he's telling them to press on toward fulfilling this purpose. In that Christ has perfected us, he has qualified us, by cleansing us from sin, for fulfilling this purpose. To "sanctify" someone is to make him holy. Christ has made us holy. We are in fact holy before God. In that we are being made holy, we are living out the truth of our holiness, learning to love, worship and obey God. Thus there is this "now" and "not yet" aspect that the writer of Hebrews often invokes. (For example, in Hebrews 12:22, he says "you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God," but in Hebrews 13:14, he says "here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.")

If Christ has offered up one sacrifice for sins for all time, if he has sat down because there's no more work to be done, that means we can take a seat as well. We don't have to be like the priests, offering up ultimately ineffective sacrifices day after day, year after year. We can stop trying to kill off the sinful parts of us in the hope that God might be satisfied. We can stop trying to sacrifice ourselves. We can stop trying to pull ourselves together and discipline ourselves to do the right thing. We can stop punishing ourselves and stop trying harder and stop asking God to help us in an effort to be adequate before him. We can rest in the completed work of Christ. Like our high priest, we can sit down and rest from working to satisfy God.

When this happens, something amazing happens: We actually do the will of God.

God's people do his will (10:15-18)

Hebrews 10:15-18:

(15) And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

(16)"This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And upon their mind I will write them,"

He then says,

(17) "And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more."

(18) Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

The Holy Spirit "also" bears witness to us. In addition to the witness of Christ, in his words to the Father, there is the witness of the Spirit, who speaks in the scriptures - in this case, in Jeremiah 31:33-34. The verb tense here is interesting as well. The Holy Spirit "bears witness," in the present, through the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote in the past. This tells us that not only did the Holy Spirit inspire Jeremiah but currently speaks through him to us. The scriptures, though they were written long ago, speak to us today.

In this case, what do they, and what does the Holy Spirit, say to us? The Spirit speaks of the New Covenant. The writer dealt with the concept of the New Covenant in Chapter 8, quoting from Jeremiah more fully. Here he quotes more briefly and arranges it in such a way as to emphasize the chronological order of the Spirit's description of two aspects of the New Covenant.

The first aspect is the internal aspect of God's law. In the Old Covenant, the Lord "put" his laws in the temple and he "wrote" them on tablets of stone. In the New Covenant he puts them on hearts and writes them on minds. The words "heart" and "mind" both refer to the inner life. When the Lord gave his laws to Israel, he did so in an external way designed to penetrate the people's hearts. But the people's hearts were hard, and they rejected the Lord and his laws. Their "obedience" turned out not to be obedience at all but compulsive or perfunctory adherence void of trust in, and love for, the Lord. The New Covenant, brought about by Christ, changes all that. Mostly, it changes human hearts, something the Old Covenant didn't do. That means that New Covenant people have their hearts changed so that they can trust and love God. That also means that they can obey God because they trust and love him, not out of compulsive or perfunctory fear of punishment. That means that we as God's people are in a position to give God what he really wants - a body that he has prepared for us and a heart to do his will with it.

How did we get in that position? How is it that the law came to be written within us? First, the sacrifice of Christ made the New Covenant possible. The Lord said through Jeremiah, more completely quoted in Hebrews 8, that this internal way of life would come about "for I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Hebrews 8:12). It came about because of the forgiveness that the Lord extended through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That sacrifice, then, provided for forgiveness and cleared the way for God to send his Holy Spirit do dwell within his people. It is the Spirit who shows us who God is, who cries out for relationship with God and who writes his laws within us (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 2 Corinthians 3:3, Galatians 4:6). Thus, because Christ did God's will, doing what God wanted him to do with the body that had been prepared for him, going to the cross, we are enabled also to do God's will, and to do it because we love God and love to do it.

In the way the writer presents the words of the Lord through Jeremiah in this chapter, he emphasizes that such will always be the case. Whereas the way he presented Jeremiah in Chapter 8 emphasized that the internal aspect of the New Covenant was brought about because of God's forgiveness, the way he presents Jeremiah here (excluding the words "for I will be merciful to their iniquities") emphasizes the ongoing nature of this arrangement. Whereas Chapter 8 showed that the forgiveness preceded the internal aspect of the covenant, Chapter 10 shows that forgiveness continues. Christ not only makes the New Covenant possible, he makes it eternal. The writer also adds the words "and their lawless deeds" to his quote from Jeremiah, showing that everything from sins to lawless deeds will not affect the continuance of his covenant. It is probably his way of saying that no kind of sin causes God to abandon his people once they belong to him. Literally, God says he will "not, not" remember their sins. The double negative is there for emphasis. The sacrificial system proves to be a "reminder" of sins for people (verse 3), but the sacrifice of Christ causes God to "remember" them no more. If God has forgotten our sins, we can as well.

Finally, the writer says, "Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin." The "things" forgiven are sins and lawless deeds. There is no longer need for any offering for sin because what the offerings pointed to - forgiveness - has been granted through the offering of Christ.

The fact that God will remember our sins no more, then, not only enables the New Covenant, it is a vital component of life in the New Covenant. If we are to live as New Covenant followers of Jesus Christ, trusting, loving and obeying God, we must grow in our understanding that God forgives all sins all the time forevermore. It is one of the things the Holy Spirit, given to us as part of the New Covenant, communicates to us. If we are worried that God might not forgive our sins, that hinders us from giving him what he wants under the New Covenant - bodies governed by hearts that want to do his will. The intimacy that God desires, the intimacy that is necessary for someone to enjoy doing his will, is absent in one who perceives an unforgiving God to be distant. If God is unforgiving, obedience is grudging or under compulsion. God doesn't want that kind of obedience; he loves "a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Cheerfulness is what God is after in the New Covenant. He wants people who enjoy him and enjoy doing his will. Joy is what the Old Covenant, working from the outside in, couldn't create. But the Holy Spirit now is on the inside, showing us forgiveness, grace and love, showing us God as he truly is, showing us his laws to be what they truly are, leading us away from resentment and into gratitude. If he is this kind of God, the doing of his will, then, becomes not a chore but a delight. His will can be trusted and enjoyed. If we know him well, we will want to obey him.
If we are not living in this manner, it could mean, simply, that we don't know we're supposed to live in this manner. It could mean we think we're supposed to feel the awful weight of our sin in order to motivate us to do God's will. It could also mean that though we know we're supposed to live free of guilt and compulsion and grudging obedience, the truth of the New Covenant is still sinking in. In either case, we need to challenge the old way of thinking with the truth of this passage and others like it.

There are things that are quite obviously God's will, because they are written in his word. Under the New Covenant, if we give heed to the truth, we grow in our delight in doing these things.

Also, underneath the umbrella of God's general will, there is his specific will for each of us. It looks different for each of us, because he created each of us different and he has different plans for us. The daily, monthly and yearly discovery of this, also, becomes much more of a joy, for we are learning more and more to trust him. We also, strange as it may sound, begin to trust ourselves. We begin to trust that what we want, so long as it doesn't violate God's revealed will, might be a good thing, inasmuch as the Spirit within us lays things on our hearts. We become less tentative and more confident in decision making, willing to trust our instincts after seeking God's will in prayer. We more clearly recognize our propensity for compulsion-driven decision making and move toward making decisions out of the freedom God has given us. We second-guess ourselves less and trust God's grace more. We try things. We fail, but we pick ourselves up and try again. We enjoy the Lord. We enjoy doing his will.

An 85-year-old woman, looking back on her life, wished that it had been different. In her words, it is evident that she longed for a New Covenant kind of life. She wrote, in a note titled "If I had my life to live over again": "I'd like to make more mistakes next time. I'd relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I've been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I'd have fewer imaginary ones. You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I've had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I've been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have."

Behold, I come

Because Christ did God's will, culminating in the offering of his body as an effective and complete sacrifice for our sins, we ourselves may do God's will, and enjoy doing it. As the truth of God's love for us settles in our hearts, communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, we too, like David, like Jesus, come to God, eagerly and willingly, and say, "Behold, I have come - in the roll of the book it is written of me - to do your will, O God."

- SCG, 6-21-98