The Perfect Sacrifice
The average human being has some sense that sin is a problem. We may not agree on what exactly constitutes sin, and we may differ in our understanding of the pervasiveness of sin, but we all, on some level, understand that there is something wrong with the human race.
And while we may differ on how we think justice should be carried out in response to wrongs committed, we likely all agree that, on some level, sin should be dealt with—we appreciate the need for sin to be punished.
Parents of young children learn this very quickly. We understand that if our children are acting inappropriately, and if we do not soon arrest this misbehaviour, it flourishes. I grant that the methods of our discipline will vary widely from parent to parent, but the goal of discipline will presumably be the same: we want to communicate to our children the inappropriateness of their misbehaviour.
And, as we seek to bring punishment to bear on the wrong committed, we recognize the need to do so proportionately. For example, when our child refuses to eat their dinner, a common and proportionate punishment is to refuse them dessert. By contrast, if our child does something more serious, if our child destroys something or hurts someone, we appreciate the need to employ a more severe response than merely withholding a cookie.
As parents we have some understanding of how serious sin is, and we have some understanding of the need for sin to be appropriately punished. And yet, I submit to you that we do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin, nor do we fully appreciate the need for sin to be punished.
This too, I have learned from being a parent. I confess that as I witness my daughter do things that are not quite appropriate, what often comes to my mind is the fact that I used to do these very things when I was her age. And, increasingly, what I find is that as one who has been guilty of the same things, I frequently leave my daughter’s imprudent acts unpunished. You see, in my mind, the seriousness of my daughter’s missteps is diminished as I think about my own similar errors.
In other words, because I am a sinner, I have a fairly high tolerance for sin—in myself and in others.
Now consider this: What do you think God thinks about our sin?
Does God view our errors and missteps as serious or inconsequential? Since God fully understands why things happen, does this diminish His resolve to punish sin? Since He fully understands the vulnerabilities of humanity, is God able to wink at sin and say ‘Keep up the good effort’? Is forgiveness automatically bestowed to those who utter the three magic words, ‘I’m only human’?
It is sobering to observe from the testimony of Scripture how sin makes the God of this Universe angry. Author, John Piper, writes that ‘God’s anger at sinners is the biggest problem in everyone's life, whether we know it or not.’ Piper goes on to liken our attempts to ignore sin as tantamount to being oblivious to a ‘gas leak gathering around the pilot light of your water heater, ready to blow your basement to smithereens and burn your house to the ground.’
From beginning to end, the message of Scripture is the same: Sin is serious. Sin angers God. Sin must be punished.
We see this as the author of Hebrews, in chapter three, references what the Lord said about His people in Psalm 95:10, “I was angry with this generation . . . They always go astray in their heart; and they did not know My ways; as I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter My rest’ (Heb. 3:10, 11).
In order to address the fact that sin is serious; in order to teach us that sin angers God and must be punished, the sacrificial system was set up for the people of Israel.
This system required the gruesome execution of valuable, ‘unblemished’, animals. One could not submit a sick or a weak animal. Only the best could be sacrificed. The requirements of the sacrificial system were designed to aggravate the human conscience; the system was designed to communicate just how serious an affront sin is to a Holy God.
The sacrificing of animals and the subsequent sprinkling of their blood was also intended to signify God’s forgiveness of sin. But there were shortcomings to this sacrificial system. The sacrifices needed to be repeated as sin was repeated. Furthermore, the sacrifices did not bring about change in the way the people behaved.
In other words, the sacrificial system was inadequate in dealing decisively with sin. Its function was to remind the people of their sin (10:3). And while the sprinkling of animals’ blood signified the forgiveness of sins, the author of Hebrews also reminds us “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).
One could even say that the system didn’t really work. But it also appears that the system was not intended to work. It’s as if the system was intended to be instructional; it was intended to prepare us for the something better. The system was designed to help us understand the meaning of the death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
This is how Hebrews, chapter 10, begins, “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 . . . make perfect those who draw near” (10:1).
The message here to Jewish readers is that the ceremonial Law, which was temporary and preparatory, need not be perpetuated in the face of “the very form of things”. Since Christ “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time”(10:12) has procured our forgiveness, we need not pursue righteousness from any other source.
Unquestionably, the author of this Book wanted his Jewish readers to leave behind the ceremonial aspects of the Law, and to cease from trusting in them for salvation (10:4).
To this end the author painstakingly contrasts the old system to the new. The old system required many priests; the new system needs only One High Priest. The old system required repeated sacrifices; the new system needed but one perfect sacrifice for all time (10:12). The old system did nothing to change the sinful nature of the people; the new marked the beginning of a process where God’s children would be “made perfect” (10:1).
Friends, you and I are likely not tempted to trust in ancient Jewish rituals in order to procure our salvation, but this does not mean our text does not ably address our current condition. What we likely have in common with those to whom this Book was addressed is that we too attempt to earn God’s favour through human efforts.
Many of us have created for ourselves a law to follow, believing that if we keep to our self-imposed system of goodness then God will forgive and accept us. But, the Bible tells us time and time again that this will not work.
Some of you are thinking, ‘I pray regularly, and have done so for many years’—but prayer cannot put away sin.
Some of you are thinking, ‘I read my Bible regularly in order to learn more about God.’ Of course, this is commendable, as is regular prayer, but these things cannot remove sin.
Some of you are thinking, ‘I attend Sunday worship and scarcely do I miss a service’—but, again, this cannot save any more than the sacrifice of a bull can.
And, probably the most widely held notion: ‘I try very hard to treat others well; I’m not perfect, but I earnestly attempt to do unto others as I would have them do unto me.’
Friends, we are not perfect. We do not pray as we ought, nor do we treat God and our neighbour as we ought. We are sinners and, as such, we sin. And, furthermore, I submit to you that sin is commonplace in all of our lives.
So then, what hope is there for you and I? Our hope is not in a system; our hope is not in rituals; our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is in Jesus Christ who “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (10:12).
As our hymn well puts it:
I will not boast in anything: no gifts, no power, no wisdom.
But I will boast in Jesus Christ: His death and Resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward? I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart: His wounds have paid my ransom.
Or, as Charles Spurgeon has ably said, ‘From top to bottom, from foundation to pinnacle, our hopes must be in the work of Jesus, and we must trust in Him alone, or else we shall build in vain.’
In other words, in Christ we have the perfect sacrifice. If we trust in Christ then He will put away all of our sins for all time.
Christ is many things—our teacher, our prophet, our priest—but none of these things can help us unless He also be our sacrifice.
We must not shun the gruesomeness of this reality. Admittedly, dialogue with others may be easier if we limit our discussion to the moral excellence of Jesus, or to the compassion of Jesus, or to the wisdom of Jesus. But, if we neglect to celebrate the sacrificial death of Christ we are neglecting the central component of the Christian faith. If we neglect to acknowledge the blood of Jesus, we are neglecting the one thing capable of washing away our sin.
This is the way of salvation and to this end we must sing in our hearts:
Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure; cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Friends, in Christ alone our hope is found; let us give thanks for this perfect sacrifice. Amen.