I’ve pointed out before that at the end of the book of Hebrews the writer refer to what he’s written as a ‘word of exhortation’. So, he’s written this letter to exhort his readers and to encourage them strongly and to appeal to them. And, in particular, he wants to warn them about something and to exhort them to do something about it. He wants to warn them about drifting away from Christ and from the truth faith by returning to what they once believed.
Most of the commentators believe the book of Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians. That is to say, it was written for Jewish people who had been converted to faith in Christ. However, they were now being tempted to abandon their faith in Christ and to return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. So, back to the religion of the prophets and angels and of Moses and Joshua and of earthly priests serving in an earthly sanctuary. But why go back to them when Jesus Christ is so much better? He’s better than the prophets and angels, because he’s the Eternal Son of God in whom God has spoken his final and definitive word. And he’s better than Moses, because Moses was a servant in God’s house, whereas the Lord Jesus is a son over God’s house. And he’s better than Joshua, because Joshua could only lead the people into the land of Canaan to enjoy a kind of rest, whereas the Lord Jesus leads all of God’s people into God’s eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. And he’s better than the Levitical priests because they only ever served in an earthly copy and shadow of the true, heavenly tabernacle, whereas the Lord Jesus has entered heaven itself. And they only ever offered animal sacrifices, whereas the Lord Jesus offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins. And whereas they died, and were replaced, the Lord Jesus lives forever and he intercedes for us forever. And they were associated with the old covenant, which the people broke, whereas the Lord Jesus established the new covenant in his blood whereby God promises to remember our sins no more. And so, why would they go back to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament when the Lord Jesus is so much better?
And throughout the book, the writer has been exhorting his readers about this. So, we must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest we confess. We are his house — his people — if we hold on to our confidence in God’s promises and the hope of which we boast. See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage one another daily so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter God’s rest, so that no-one will fall. Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity. Again and again and again he warns his readers and he exhorts them. You need to stand firm. You need to persevere. You need to keep believing. Don’t drift away. Don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart. Don’t let go. Pay attention to what you have heard. Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Keep believing God’s promises. Keeping believing in the Saviour. Keep learning about the Saviour. Don’t turn back.
And he resumes the exhortations at the end of today’s passage. So, he’s coming to the end of the section of his letter which began in verse 14 of chapter 4 which is all about how the Lord Jesus is greater than the Old Testament Levitical priests. And now that he’s reached the end of that section, he goes back to exhorting his readers. So, look at verse 19: since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us do three things. Let us draw near to God. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. Let us not consider how we may spur one another on which means we must not give up meeting together.
Those are the exhortations, but before we get to them, he summarises what he’s being saying about Christ as our great high priest.
Verses 1 to 4
In verse 1 he tells us that the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming. When he refers to the law here, he’s referring to the Old Testament law concerning the priests and the sacrifices and worship in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. And, of course, shadows are not permanent. They appear for a while when the sun shines, but then the sun moves behind a cloud and the shadow disappears. And everything the Old Testament said about priests and sacrifices and worship in the earthly sanctuary was only ever meant to be for the time being. Those things were not meant to last. They were not permanent. They were to make do until Christ came into the world, because he is the true priest; and he offered himself as the true sacrifice for sins; and he has now entered the true sanctuary, which is heaven itself, where he stands before God on our behalf. So, they were only shadowy, temporary copies of the real thing. But now, in Christ, the reality has come.
And the Old Testament law concerning priests and sacrifices and worship could never make perfect those who draw near for worship. So, no one — as a result of the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year — ever received the forgiveness of sins they needed to be able to come into the presence of God. When the writer refers to sacrifices being offered year after year, he probably has in mind the Day of Atonement when the high priest would offer sacrifices for himself and for the people. And only then, once the sacrifices had been offered, was he would be allowed to enter the Most Holy Place.
Now if that kind of sacrifice was able to make the worshippers perfect so that they could approach God, then there would have been no need to repeat the same sacrifices year after year. Repeating them annually signified that they weren’t really ‘fit for purpose’. They couldn’t really take away the guilt of the people. If they could, then they would have been offered once and never again. As the writer says at the end of verse 2: ‘For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.’ But those sacrifices made no one perfect and the people continued to feel guilty for their sins and they knew they were not fit to come into God’s presence.
In fact, the writer tells us in verse 3, those sacrifices were only an annual reminder of sins. Instead of taking away their guilt, they reminded the people of their guilt. They reminded the people that they were sinners who were unable to come into the presence of their holy God. Instead of taking away their sins, those sacrifices reminded the people of their sin and guilt.
And those sacrifices were not able to take away their sins because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. It is impossible. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. It’s impossible. What it takes to take away our sins is the blood of Christ. What is takes is his death on the cross when he gave up his life to pay for all that we have done wrong. That’s what it takes to deal with our sins, not the offering up of a bull or goat.
Verses 5 to 10
And since it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away our sins, Christ came into the world on our behalf. And when he came into the world, he said:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you have prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am — it is written about me in the scroll.
I have come to do your will, O God.
Those are words from the Greek version of Psalm 40. And the author of Hebrews, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, puts those words on the lips of the Lord Jesus. Now, on one level, the psalm refers to David who gives thanks to God for delivering him from trouble. So, at the beginning of the psalm, David says he waited patiently for the Lord to rescue him. And the Lord rescued him. And David knows that to obey is better than sacrifice. So, while God had laid down rules and regulations about what sacrifices his people should offer him when they sinned, what God really wanted was their obedience. That’s what the psalm is about on one level. But then, on another, higher level, the psalm refers to God’s eternal plan to prepare a body for the Son so that the Son would be able to die on the cross as an offering to pay for the sins of his people. So, while God laid down rules and regulations in the Old Testament about what sacrifices his people should offer him when they sinned, he always had in mind something better for his people. He always intended to send the Son into the world to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
And the writer to the Hebrews goes on to tell us in verses 8 to 10 that although the Old Testament law required sacrifices and offerings, God was not really pleased with them. They weren’t what he wanted. They were only to make do until the time came for the Son to come into the world to do God’s will. And so, he set aside the first in order to establish the second. That is, he set aside the first kind of sacrifice to establish the second kind of sacrifice. The old arrangement has been set aside as ‘unfit for purpose’; and the new arrangement has been put in place. And by that will, the writer says, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. So, this was God’s will. This was his plan. This was always his plan. According to his plan, the Old Testament sacrifices were to make do until the Son came into the world and received the body God prepared for him so that he could offer himself on the cross as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins. The Old Testament sacrifices were repeated endlessly, year after year, but Christ’s sacrifice was once-for-all. And by his once-for-all sacrifice we are made holy. That is, we are cleansed from the stain of our sin. We are pardoned. We are accepted. Though we may have done everything wrong, God now treats us as if we have done everything right. And so, we’re able to come into God’s presence. And when we come — for instance, when we come to church for worship, or when we pray to him at home — we don’t need to offer an animal sacrifice first. And it’s not because sacrifices are no longer required, but it’s because Christ offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins and the benefits of his sacrifice will never ever run out.
Verses 11 to 18
And in verses 11 to 18, the writer compares the Old Testament priests and the Lord Jesus once again. You see, he’s rounding up this topic. He’s bringing this subject to a close. He’s going over what he’s said before and reminding us of these things one last time. So, day after day, the priests had to stand and perform his religious duties. So, as well as the Day of Atonement, which was once a year, when the high priest entered the Most Holy Place, as well as that, the regular priests offered sacrifices every day in the tabernacle in the wilderness or in the temple in Jerusalem. They offered them every day. And the priest had to stand because their work was never over. Once your work is over, you can sit down and rest. But when there’s work to be done, you have to be on your feet. And there was always work for the priests to do, because those offerings couldn’t take away the sins of the people. So, as soon as one offering was made, it was time for another offering, because the people were still sinners in God’s eyes and their guilt had not been taken away. And so, the priest had to stand day after day to perform their duties.
But when this priest — and he’s referring to the Lord Jesus Christ — when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down. So, he was able to offer one sacrifice which was for all time. Its benefits last forever. And that means he was able to sit down, because there was no need to repeat the same sacrifice again.
And where did he sit? He sat down at the right hand of God. In other words, he sat down in the place of honour in the presence of God in heaven. The Old Testament priests worked in the earthly sanctuary, whereas Christ our high priest has entered heaven itself and he sits in the place of honour. And since that time, he’s been waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool. The writer is alluding to Psalm 110 where God invited the Son to sit beside him until his enemies are defeated and subdued under him. And you see, this tells us that the Lord Jesus is not only our high priest, but he’s also our king. He’s both priest and king. As our great priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins and he lives to intercede for us. And as our great king, he sits enthroned in heaven and he’s extending his kingdom throughout the world; and one day, he will return to earth to destroy his enemies once and for all.
And perhaps the writer — in a kind of indirect way — is warning his readers. He’s warning them not to abandon their faith. So, don’t turn away from Christ, because if you turn away from Christ, and become his enemy, then one day you will be destroyed. But if you remain faithful, if you keep trusting in him, without turning away from him, then be assured of this: you have been made perfect by his once-for-all-time sacrifice so that you can approach God in worship. And God is working in you by his Spirit to make you more and more holy: more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth. So, don’t give up the faith. Keep believing.
And as he brings this section to a close, the writer once again quotes from Jeremiah 31 about the benefits of the new covenant established in the blood of Christ. God promises: I will put my laws in their hearts. In other words, he will enable his people to keep his commandments, because he will make it our heart’s desire to keep his law and to do his will. And when we sin, we can be assured that he will remember our sins no more. And since — because of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice — we have received full forgiveness, there’s no need for anyone to go back to offering animal sacrifices in the earthly sanctuary. That kind of thing is over, because Christ has come.
Verses 19 to 25
And therefore, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Christ, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain of his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God. He mentions the Most Holy Place and the curtain. The phrase ‘Most Holy Place’ used to refer to the inner sanctuary in the earthly temple, which was, in a sense, God’s dwelling place on earth. But the writer is now referring to God’s dwelling place in heaven. And when we gather for worship in church, or when we pray to him at home, we’re coming before him. We’re coming into his presence. And we can come with confidence.
It was very different in the past. In the past, no one apart from the high priest could enter God’s presence. And the high priest entered with fear and trembling, lest God’s wrath burn against them. But we’re able to come with confidence, because we know that Christ has paid for our sins and we have been made perfect in God’s sight. And he says we come to God by a new and living way which has been opened up to us through the curtain. Whereas in the past, the priest had to pass through a curtain to come into God’s presence in the Most Holy Place, we now pass through Christ’s body. That is to say, we can come into God’s presence because Christ died for us. This is the new and better way to come to God. And it’s a living way, because Christ, who died for us, was raised, and lives forever. And after he was raised, he entered into God’s presence in heaven on our behalf to represent us before the Father and to intercede for us. And so, when we come to God to worship him, Christ our high priest is already there.
And since this is true, since we can come to God with confidence because our sins have been paid for, and since Christ our high priest is already there, then we can draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. When he refers to the washing of our bodies, he may be referring to our baptism, when we were washed with water. However, the washing of our bodies at baptism signifies the inner cleansing which we all need and which happens to us whenever we trust in Christ. When we trust in Christ, our unclean hearts are cleansed and the stain of our sin on our guilty conscience is removed from us. We are sprinkled by the blood of Christ and made inwardly clean. And so, we can approach God ‘in full assurance of faith’. That’s the assurance of knowing that God will not hold our sins against us, because we have been pardoned for the sake of Christ.
You see, whenever we feel guilty, we’re reluctant to come before the Lord in worship. We hesitate to come into his presence. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to flee from his presence. But when we realise how the blood of the Saviour makes us clean, then we can come before the Lord with full assurance, confident that we’ve been forgiven by God. He will not send us away, but will welcome us for the sake of Christ whose blood makes us clean.
And not only should we draw near to God to worship him, but we should also hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, because he who calls us is faithful. The hope we profess is the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in God’s presence when we will live with him forever. So, in this life, we worship him for a while, but then the service ends and we have to go home. But we believe that one day we’ll come into God’s presence and we’ll never have to leave. This is our hope. So, let’s hold on to that hope.
The first readers of this book were being tempted to give up the faith. They were being tempted to let go of this hope. They were being persecuted for their faith and they were tempted to think that they would be better off if they did not believe. And so, our writer reminds them of who Christ is and what he has done for us. He reminds them of the great hope we have. Don’t give up, but hold on. And that’s a word to us as well, because an unbelieving world can put us under pressure; and then the troubles and trials of life can shaken our faith. Or we can be distracted from Christ by all the good things in the world. And so, our faith can be crushed by problems; and it can be smothered by good things. And so, we need this warning so that we hold on to our hope of the resurrection and eternal life in God’s presence, because the glory to come will far outweigh our present sufferings and it will far outweigh anything the world can offer us now.
And then, as well as drawing near to God to worship him, and as well as holding on to our hope, we need to consider something. What are we to consider? What are we to think about? What are we to give our attention to? We’re to consider how to spur one another on towards love and good deeds. And if we’re to do that, we need to make sure that we meet together. It seems from what the writer says that some had already stopped meeting with the rest. Whereas it was once their habit to meet together, now it had become their habit not to meet together.
Now, they had stopped meeting together because of persecution. While we may not face persecution, nevertheless our sinful human flesh can come up with lots of other reasons to persuade us to stay at home instead of meeting with other believers. And the Devil can come up with lots of reasons to persuade us to stay at home. But instead of giving in to our sinful flesh, and instead of listening to the Devil, we should listen to God in his word who tells us not to give up meeting together. And when we come together, it’s to spur one another on to love and good deeds and it’s to encourage one another.
So, we spur one another on and we encourage one another through the preaching of God’s word when God comes to us and speaks to us and reminds us to love him and to love all people and to do good to all.
And then we can spur one another one and we can encourage one another by the things we say to each other. We can encourage one another in the faith. We can exhort one another. We can appeal to one another. Don’t give up the faith. Keep going. I know it’s hard. I know you’re tired. I know you’re under pressure. I know you’d like to stop. But keep going.
And we can spur one another one and we can encourage one another just by being together. During the week, we perhaps feel isolated. There aren’t other believers where you work. Maybe there aren’t other believers at home. You feel isolated. But then you come along to church and you’re surrounded by other believers. And it’s encouraging. And we’re able to help one another and support one another and encourage one another to keep going.
And so, there’s the exhortation. Since we have confidence to come before God through Jesus Christ, who is our great high priest, let’s draw near to God though Christ to worship him; and let’s hold on to the hope he has given us of eternal life in his presence; and let’s consider how we can spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let’s keep doing those things, especially since we know the day of his appearing is approaching. So, he’s coming. Every day that day is getting closer. And when he comes, what will he find? That we gave up the faith? Or that we persevered to the end? Let’s not give up, but let’s keep going.