May 31: Holy Trinity Sunday

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. –Hebrews 8:1-6

Growing up in the 1980’s, I enjoyed playing arcade video games. These days such games are played at home, but back then only places like pizza parlors and arcades had them. You put in a quarter and then you could play games like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Galaga, Donkey Kong, and Centipede. When I was about 14, a game was produced where the player climbed in and sat down behind a steering wheel. It had accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals along with a stick shift. On the screen was a racetrack complete with other cars and obstacles. I loved this game and spent far too many quarters on it.

That same year my dad got a truck with manual transmission. I had driven an automatic many times (rural roads in Pontotoc County!), and I thought that driving this manual truck would be a piece of cake because, after all, I was a master at that racecar video game. I even bragged that “I was already good at a stick.” You can probably guess that when I did start driving Dad’s truck, it was at best embarrassing. I had foolishly confused the copy of the thing with the thing itself. They just weren’t much alike at all in reality!

The passage above shows us that the original audience and all who read it must distinguish between the copy and the reality. They must celebrate the real thing and let go of the copy. The temple in Jerusalem was likely still standing when they read this initially. It was a focus of devotion, a place of pilgrimage, and in many minds the very house of God. But those priests serving there were only copies, and the holy of holies was only a copy, and the place, Jerusalem, itself was only a copy.

Jesus Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better. How do we know that? Why must we hold fast to that and never let go? Because his ministry is enacted on better promises. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. –Hebrews 7:11-19

Most of us dream of perfect things: the perfect wedding day, a perfect delivery of a child, the perfect music recital. As we get older, we know that perfection isn’t obtainable. Hebrews has quite a bit to say about perfection. It’s easy for us think that this applies only to moral perfection, as if not only every evil action, but, through tough moral effort, even every thought and motive could be smoothed into perfection.

Taking a closer look at Hebrews shows that perfection might better be translated completeness. God has an intention for the world, which includes human morality no doubt, but is much bigger. God is working to bring his world to perfection (completeness) and he does that primarily through Jesus Christ.

Those living under the Law of Moses had quite an involved system of the temple, sacrifices, priests and so on. This was good and had great value. What it didn’t have was permanency. All these things pointed forward to the eventual perfection that they themselves could never bring about.

The passage above is where in Hebrews we find out that the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood had problems. The biggest of those problems was that the priests all died. They met legal requirements, but weren’t perfect or complete. Enter Jesus! His priesthood was not in the order of Aaron. He was not a Levite, but descended from the tribe of Judah. Where, then, did he get his right to priesthood? From Melchizedek and in that order he had the “power of an indestructible life.”

Much could be said about this, but there is another word besides perfection that Hebrews likes to bring up. That is the word better. It occurs more times in the book of Hebrews than the rest of the Newer Testament put together. We find here that Jesus’ priesthood is better because he is a priest forever. Since the “law made nothing perfect…a better hope is introduced.” And in that hope, and only that hope, we may draw near to God. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. –Hebrews 6:13-20

I like how in the last sentence the writer mentions an anchor. Acts 27 is the only place in the Newer Testament where an anchor is mentioned, and there it is an actual anchor belonging to a ship. Here it is used figuratively. The subject is “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” Then he tells us we have that hope like an anchor “that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.” That’s a little odd, isn’t it? An anchor is supposed to enter into the mud at the bottom to provide safety. What is this “inner place behind the curtain”?

On the subject of Jesus’ high priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” this Jewish writer naturally thinks of the temple and of the Day of Atonement. On that day the high priest goes in, behind the last curtain, into the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, the holy of holies. There, at the holiest spot on earth, the space closest to God, the high priest would make atonement for the people.

This original audience needs to understand that Jesus (“a high priest forever”) has gone in, not into the earthly Temple in Jerusalem, but into the true sanctuary, the world of heaven itself, straight into the innermost courts and the very presence of the loving Father. He has gone in there on our behalf and it’s like we’re attached to him by a great cable. There he is like an anchor. We dare not let go of the cable through all the winds, tides, and storms that may well come. There is enormous comfort to be found precisely at such time in the knowledge that the anchor is “sure and steadfast.” And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. –Hebrews 6:9-12

This passage comes right after the very sobering words of vv. 1-8. They can be quite depressing if you have had someone you love who has apostatized or love someone in the process of drifting there. The writer then offers some encouragement. He feels sure of better things—things that belong to salvation—for those who are still listening. He suggests he counts them as the good and fruitful field from v. 7 rather than the worthless and fruitless field of v. 8.

Then he offers something that might sound foreign to our Evangelical ears. He says that God will count your good works that you do for others in the church to you and that He’d be unjust to overlook those good works. I went through a phase quite a few years ago now where I had disdain for human good works. “Your best works are ‘but filthy rags,’” I’d say. I have repented of that view. Surely preaching the gospel, teaching your children the scriptures, taking a meal to a church member who is sick, or showing various kindnesses to the people of the church is not filthy rags. If we count on those things to merit our salvation, then sure, they are worthless. But if they are the fruit of our faith, then God will not overlook them. These are the things that belong to salvation.

The writer goes on to say that people who act this way should be copied. Be imitators, he says, of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. It’s so good to know that the power to do this comes from the Lord. Think of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God does the work in us for the sake of the church, but does not overlook that we do that same work and counts it to us. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. –Hebrews 6:4-8

It’s probably not news to anyone that this passage has brought about a variety of interpretations. Some have been fanciful, others implausible, and many have not withstood serious scrutiny. Why all the hoopla? I think it’s because this passage puts our most fundamental understanding about salvation to the test. It looks like there are some people have had salvation and lost it. Not only that, but it seems to guarantee that should they want to repent, restoration remains impossible.

I’m convinced the difficulties and confusion comes from not understanding the covenantal nature of salvation. While broader American Evangelicalism thinks in terms of “saved” and “unsaved,” the bible doesn’t think that way. Sure, you can pull out a few verses from the Newer Testament to make it look like it does, but overall (which is Genesis-Revelation) the Bible thinks in terms of covenant: external and internal. A person may be (1) unconnected to the covenant, (2) externally and internally connected, or (3) externally but not internally connected to the covenant. Adding to the difficulty here, the NT doesn’t explicitly say much about being externally connected but not internally connected. That is, it speaks the same way of 2 and 3 above. The way you know if a person is one or the other is if that person perseveres and overcomes to the end.

In the passage above, we see that there are some people who are externally connected (they are baptized, been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come). That’s a lot, but that’s what you are supposed to get in being part of the church. They weren’t internally connected, however. They fell away. The Apostle Paul shines light on this kind of person in Romans 2 when speaking on a slightly different subject: For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

So rather than read these verses in Hebrews and freak out about someone losing their salvation, we should read them and realize that not everyone who is externally connected to the covenant is the real deal. They may really, really look like it for a long time, but the proof is in the fruit of their life. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

Hebrews was written to motivate those Hebrew Christians under persecution in Rome to hold fast and not fall away. The writer doesn’t unpack the wider theological questions here of apostasy. He simply tells us that it happens and urges us not to be a part of it. We need to leave it there because he did. We should also remember that many “drink the rain” and “produce a crop,” thus they receive a blessing from God. That’s for the followers of Christ all the way to the end, even if it is a bitter end. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!