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Spiritual Priesthood

Just as Christ is the great High Priest, the greater than Moses and Levi, so also are those who are in Christ part of a greater spiritual priesthood offering up a greater sacrifice to God.  Join us as we continue our discussion of the book of Hebrews, talking about the nature of the spiritual priesthood, the way in which we offer sacrifices to God, and the reasons why Christ’s bloody sacrifice can never be repeated.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold

Episode: 93

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Fifth Sunday in Lent: Hebrews 9:11-15

The carefully organized argument of Hebrews seeks to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Those who saw the things of the old covenant as the epitome of God’s revelation have not yet understood their purpose. “They serve a copy and show of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). When the new has come, the old must pass away, not because it was evil, but because it always pointed toward what was to come.

Hebrews 9 opens with a description of the Tabernacle, drawing on details from passages like Exodus 25-28, Leviticus 16:12-13, Exodus 16:33-34, and Numbers 17:10. “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5), but they figure into the overall picture. These things are not there to make the Tabernacle look nice, as if they spruced up the room or made it more conducive to devotion. They, like the Tabernacle, looked forward to the coming fulfillment in Christ.

The primary focus, however, is on the curtain that seperates the Holy of Holies. There is nothing barring entrance for the priests into the first section, but the curtain sets the inner section apart. Into this section, only the high priest may enter but once a year “and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7). So long as the first section remains, the way into the second section is not yet open. As long as the God-given commandments regarding the old covenant were still in force, the curtain remains standing. The fulness has not yet come. Everything within the first section applies to the old regulations “for the body,” thing which cannot perfect the conscious. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that we can easily miss the point of this passage if we assume that the entire point of the first section is in its “looking forward.” If the Tabernacle only has meaning within the New Testament, then why would God command it, since the Old Testament Church could not understand it? Their knowledge was incomplete, of course, but the ark as a way of showing God’s presence among His people had meaning also in its own day. The argument here in Hebrews is not that the first section only has meaning in the new covenant, but that the old covenant taught through these types about the coming Christ. The old covenant is not the whole of God’s revelation, as the unbelieving Jews thought, nor are types limited in their meaning to only what is prefigured!

When Christ the Great High Priest appeared, however, He entered into the heavenly Tabernacle of which the earthly one was a copy (Hebrews 8:5). Like the high priests of the earthly tent, He also entered carrying blood, His own. What had been prefigured was now a reality. Animal blood could “sanctify for the purification of the flesh,” making one eligible for worshipping the Lord, but it could not clear the conscience. Only the blood of Christ, offered once and once only, purifies the conscience, because only the perfect blood of Christ could wash away sin. The constant repetition of the sacrfices of the old covenant showed that they were incapable of forgiving sins, because they were incomplete. Sin is not a matter of balancing the checkbook once a year, because sin is not a matter of line items. We are not guilty of a certain, albeit large, number of sins to which we continually add, but we are guilty of sin, because a failure in one point of the Law means becoming guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10). The repeated sacrifices could not forgive sin, therefore, because either sin is forgiven or it is not forgiven. It cannot be partially forgiven. Christ, offering up His blood once only, covered over sin as a whole.

Therefore, because Christ’s death covers over the “transgressions committed under the first covenant,” the old covenant has come to an end. There is no longer a need to continue those things, because the imperfect and partial has given way to the perfect and complete. The things which belonged to the first section have served their God-commanded purpose, and therefore are no longer needed. We no longer need fear, because the way through the curtain has been opened by Christ (Hebrews 10:19-20). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:22-25).

Third Sunday in Lent: Ephesians 5:1-9

Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” because that is fitting for those who are beloved children of the Lord.  Christ first loved us and offered Himself up on our behalf, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).  Yet as Christ Himself is a pleasing odor, so also Christians, being in Christ, are called to be a pleasing aroma to God.  This seems to be the guiding thought behind the epistle lesson for today.

Following the flood, Noah offered up some of every clean animal which was with him on the ark, and “when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,” He inwardly promises never to curse the ground again on account of sin (Genesis 8:21-22).  Yet the odor of sacrifice is not pleasing for its own sake.  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:21-24).  “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:11-15).  For the smell to be pleasing to the Lord, the one offering it must be acceptible in His sight, fit for His worship.  Christ alone is without any blemish or spot, the perfect lamb offered up to the Father for the sake of sinful men.  Christians, then, being in Christ, have been made fit for His worship, clean in His sight, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The burnt offerings of Leviticus 1 waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but the shedding of blood points to the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10).  Such an aroma properly belongs to Christ alone, since through Christ we have been reconciled to God.  The grain offerings of Leviticus 2, on the other hand, also waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but for a different reason.  Grain offerings involve no shedding of blood, and therefore are not meant as forgiveness, but rather as thanksgiving.  Only one who has already been made fit for the worship of God, ceremonially clean, is able to offer such a sacrifice to Him.

Salt formed an important part of such sacrifices.  Leviticus 2:13 states that “you shall season all your grain offerings with salt.  You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Within the context of the New Testament, therefore, salt shows the purpose of grain offerings within the Christian life.  Christ tells us to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).  Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).  If our speech and conduct is to be salted, then they form our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, which Pauls says in Romans 12:1 and Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5.

If our speech and conduct are the substance of our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, then it also follows that such sacrifice, like the sacrifices of old, should be without blemish or spot.  Offering lame or blind or sick animals, for example, is offensive to God (Malachi 1:8).  More specifically with regard to grain offerings, leaven or honey rendered them unfit (Leviticus 2:11).  A little leaven, after all, leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Participating in sin blemishes the spiritual sacrifice and renders it unfit for God.  Yet Paul emphasizes that even speaking of such things are not fitting for a Christian for the same reason.  Paul rebukes such things, as is fitting, but to season our spiritual sacrifice with leaven is decidedly dangerous.  Leaven, having leavened the whole lump, renders one not only unfit for worship, but outside of the inheritance altogether.  To use a different metaphor, it is far better to resist sin being planted in the first place than to attempt to cut down the plant when it is in full bloom!

It must be remembered, of course, that even within the context of the old sacrificial system, only those who have been made fit for the worship of God were able to come into His presence.  Christ offered Himself up for us and made us to be His own through the shedding of His blood.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Only through the working of the Holy Spirit are we able to resist sin at all.  Yet seasoning our sacrifice with yeast rather than salt seems tantamount to tempting the Holy Spirit.  Paul says later in this chapter:  “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).  Speaking of such things in a way that does not rebuke them as darkness is akin to participating in them.  “For what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)?  Christians must resist the temptation of sin even in its earliest stages, because Christ has made us to be His own, even while we were still His enemies.

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity: Micah 6:6-8

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:1-2). Moses, like Micah, had also called heaven and earth as witness against Israel. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19)! But Israel has not chosen life, but rather the way of death.

The language of “indictment” is, of course, a legal term. The Lord has brought a suit against His faithless people. Assyria must come as a punishment, which Micah clarifies in the previous chapter, but now the legal reasoning of this judgment is laid bare. God brought His people out of Egypt, out of the iron furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51). He sent Moses and Aaron (Psalm 106:26-36), and their sister Miriam the prophetess (Exodus 15:20). When Balak sought to curse, Balaam spoke a word of blessing contrary to his will (Numbers 22-24; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15), despite his idolatry which even later proved a snare (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14). But what has Israel done in return? She has whored after idols, from the Baal of Peor in Shittim (Numbers 25) to their godless and false worship in Gilgal (Hosea 12:11).

Micah, under the weight of this great accusation, therefore asks the question of a soul realizing the depths of sin: “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? His three questions, increasing in severity, point to the fruitlessness of any manmade way. Burnt offerings, though commanded by God, will not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They do not save in and of themselves, in some magical fashion, but point to the blood of Christ which alone takes away sin. Even thousands upon thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil cannot accomplish this. Nor can sacrificing even what is most dear, a child, count for anything when it comes to righteousness before the all holy God. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?

Micah’s injunction to do “what is good,” therefore, is not a call to make amends with God through obedience. He has just expressly rejected such a conclusion with the three previous questions. Rather, he calls Israel as a defendant to do what she should already be doing. It is not a word spoken to an unbeliever, but one who knows the will of God already, though he is not following it as he ought. It is a call to return to the way things should be already, for “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 4:1-15

Genesis 4:1-15 is part of the last section of the “generations of the heavens and the earth” beginning in Genesis 2:4.  Throughout this section, man moves from the perfection of Eden to an ever-increasing sinfulness, culminating in Lamech’s boast of killing a young man who had only struck him (Genesis 4:23-24).  Cain murdering Abel, therefore, seems to be a confirmation that the curse of Adam has begun to spread to his descendents (Romans 5:12).

Eve bears her first born son and names him Cain.  This is a cause for giving thanks to God, because sin has not ruined the Lord’s first blessing of fruitfulness (Genesis 1:28).  Even in the midst of sin, God continues to pour out His blessings to accomplish His purposes (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17).  Therefore, Eve names him Cain, which sounds similar to the verb translated here as “I have gotten.”

There are a couple of difficult points here, however.  First, the verb translated “gotten” can mean something more like “to acquire” or even “to buy.”  It is a transactional verb, especially focusing on possession.  It is related to the noun translated “livestock” in Genesis 4:20 and “possessor” or “creator” in Genesis 14:19, among others.  However, this is a strange way of speaking, and Eve’s meaning is not entirely clear.  Why would she say “I have taken possession” when speaking of a son?

Second, the word translated “with the help of” here can be taken in a few different ways.  The first, more common, is a word showing a direct object, sort of the like the “m” in the word “whom.”  If taken this way, the sentence would read “I have acquired a man, the Lord,” which Luther famously used as proof that Eve was expecting the Messiah in the birth of Cain.  Another, less common, but still well-established, is to translate it as “with,” which is how it is frequently translated here, even in the Septuagint.

Luther’s interpretation, “I have gotten a man, the Lord,” may be too clever by half.  First, it assumes that Eve names her second son Abel, which means “wind” or “vanity,” out of seeming cruelty.  Cain is the Messiah, so Luther argues, and Abel is more or less dirt.  This doesn’t jive well, however, with Eve’s grief in Genesis 4:25.  It is just as likely that Eve’s joy in the birth of Cain has turned more reflective with the birth of Abel, causing her to say with the Preacher that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).  There are certainly other examples of mothers naming children after their grief, such as Ichabod, that is, “where is the glory?” (1 Samuel 4:21) and Rachel wanting to name Benjamin Ben-oni, that is, “son of my sorrow” (Genesis 35:18).

Second, it assumes that Eve has a fuller knowledge of revelation than she may in fact have.  The Lord moves through history in a progressive way.  He says to Moses that “by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3).  Jesus makes this clear as well when He says to the disciples:  “I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).  God spoke through the prophets, but now He has spoken the fuller revelation through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).  This hardly means that Eve did not believe or could not believe, but rather that revelation moves in stages, the impartial giving way to the fuller.  Do we know all that can be known about the Last Day?  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What we are told clearly enough in the Bible is that Abel had faith while Cain did not.  Abel’s blood is “righteous” (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:50-51).  “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).  “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).  Cain offers up a sacrifice to the Lord, but as Jesus warns:  ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

There may be something to the point that Cain offers grain while Abel offers an animal.  Grain offerings in Leviticus are offered in thanksgiving (Leviticus 2).  On the other hand, animal sacrifices offered with their blood are meant for atonement and forgiveness, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).  Is Cain attempting to skip over atonement and go directly to thanksgiving?  However, the same word “offering” is used for both kinds of sacrifices here in Genesis, and the Bible is perfectly clear that faith is the key element.  “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  It is an observation and cannot be made more certain than that.

Three brief notes.  First, even though Abel does not speak at any time, his blood cries to the Lord because of His faith.  God will not forsake those who believe in Him.  As Moses says of Israel in Egypt:  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).  Second, though we are not told how Cain killed Abel, the earth opens its mouth to receive Abel’s spilled blood.  This strongly suggests that Cain had some sort of killing object in his hand, which only intensifies his guilt and gives the avenger the undeniable right to strike him down (Numbers 35:16-21).  Third, Cain’s cry that “my punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13) is not a cry of repentance, but a cry of fear.  Job recognizes that God’s judgments are just (Job 1:21).  It is the unbelieving heart which complains that the judgment is not in proportion to the sin (Ezekiel 18:25-29).

Finally, Moses does not tell us what the “mark” placed upon Cain is.  It is, on the one hand, a sign of mercy, because it effectively protects Cain from any avenger seeking his life.  On the other hand, it is a physical sign of some kind, because it is placed “upon Cain.”  The same word is frequently used of other signs, such as the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:11).  But with regard to Cain, it must be a sign of unbelief.  God has set Cain apart from the rest of mankind, together with his descendents.  If the mark was passed from generation to generation (though we are not told if it did), this would render the guilt of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men even greater, because God would have given them a physical sign of unbelief which they ignored (Genesis 6).  Lamech certainly distorted the sign as a token of God’s favor, so that his sin became that much greater.  Even if we have no such physical mark today distinguishing believers from unbelievers, those who walk after Cain are like goats and weeds, waiting for the Last Day when all will be revealed as clearly as the physical mark set upon Cain.