Actual Absolution

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Every Christian should understand what it means to have a Great High Priest

As the letter to the Hebrews unfolds, so, too, are the writer’s intentions brought into focus. After demonstrating, at length, how Jesus’s priesthood is superior to any of the previous orders, the writer concludes with that marvelous, albeit mysterious, declaration that Jesus is a “priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:17). This assessment is critical, though, since it establishes God’s only Son as the definitive Savior every sinner needs. Jesus wasn’t just “another” in the litany of priests and prophets who had arrived on the scene to shed more light on God’s truth. Infinitely better, he is God enfleshed, come to bring about all that God had promised, chief among which was actual absolution for sin. 

That, of course, was the fundamental premise around which the priesthood revolved. Their function consisted of following the God-ordained method by which God’s people received forgiveness. This they carried out through the sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the law of Moses, most notably on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) where the high priest would lead the Israelites through a series of sacrificial services. The prevailing purpose was to showcase the way in which God’s people could receive atonement and pardon for their multitudinous sins. In short, forgiveness can only come about when the sin of man is dealt with and the holiness of God is upheld. 

The trilogy of chapters that are predominantly concerned with Jesus’s activity as the church’s great high priest (Heb. 8, 9, and 10) likewise demonstrates to the fullest extent Jesus’s own pronouncement that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” Indeed, as he concludes, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Every other “way to God” or avenue to forgiveness is flawed to the core if it doesn’t have the slain Son of God at the heart of it. Because the only one who can call us forgiven and actually mean it is the one who buys that forgiveness with his own blood. No other priest could ever make good on that promise, not really. The promise of forgiveness is only true in the person of Jesus.

Every other “way to God” or avenue to forgiveness is flawed to the core if it doesn’t have the slain Son of God at the heart of it.

Jesus’s unassailable presence.

When Hebrews 8 opens, the writer offers a brief summary of all that he’s been discussing up to that point: “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” (Heb. 8:1–2). It is Jesus, of course, who is “such a high priest” for every sinner and scoundrel. And one of the ways his priestly ministry is brought to bear is through the unassailable presence he embodies. The writer’s reference to “the true tent” is given further elaboration in verse 5, where we’re told that Moses’s tent, a.k.a. the Tabernacle, was meant to be a “pattern” of the “heavenly things.”

The Tabernacle was where all the business of the priests was conducted. Every offering and every sacrifice was to be carried out in that tent because that’s where God resided. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Stephen refers to the Tabernacle as “the tent of witness” (Acts 7:44), but what exactly was it a witness of? The writer of Hebrews provides the answer: “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Heb. 9:1–5).

Every item in the Tabernacle, down to the minutest utensil, was carefully crafted and positioned as a witness to the presence of God himself. That tent stood as a visual representation of Yahweh’s attendance in, with, and for his people. But it’s critical to observe that every element of that tent was nothing but a “copy and shadow” of the presence and glory of God. That glory was really there, of course, behind the veil in the Holy of Holies, but only after the “pattern” God had ordained. 

All of that changes with Jesus since he is “the true tent” of God (Heb. 8:1–2). He is the true embodiment of God’s desire to “tabernacle” with us, as St. John so wonderfully declares: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ is the Word of the Father who comes to dwell — literally, “to tabernacle” — with sinners. Indeed, we can say that God the Father “pitches the tent of his glory” with us in the person of Jesus. Just as the “tent of witness” was “prepared” as a testimony to the presence of God, so, too, was Jesus’s body “the true tent” that was “prepared” as the epitome of God’s presence for you and me (Heb. 10:5, 10). 

Jesus Christ is the Word of the Father who comes to dwell — literally, “to tabernacle” — with sinners.

But while the Tabernacle served as a “pattern” for the presence of God, Jesus is the full and final realization of that presence. He fulfills what the tent prefigured. He is neither a “copy” nor a “shadow.” He is the “true thing” itself (Heb. 9:23–24). Jesus is the substance of God’s presence in us, with us, and for us. “These are a shadow of the things to come,” writes the apostle Paul, “but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). The Christ of God is himself the “greater and more perfect tent” in which is performed the ultimate priestly sacrifice of the cross (Heb. 9:11–12). Jesus is Yahweh embodied. He is the unassailable presence of God in the form of flesh and bone. Consequently, he can offer what no other priest ever could: an unrepeatable sacrifice. 

Jesus’s unrepeatable sacrifice.

The writer reminds us that part and parcel of the ministry of the priests was the offering of “gifts and sacrifices” (Heb. 8:3). It was their regular habit and responsibility to oversee these rites to ensure that God’s Word was being upheld according to the letter of the law. Over and over again, the priests administered these oblations, but with each goat that was slaughtered, another one would be right behind. Daily, the priests stood to supervise the “same sacrifices,” which never actually took sin away (Heb. 10:11). The fact that these sacrifices were repeated is conclusive evidence that the sacrifices, in and of themselves, couldn’t do the trick. They couldn’t make anyone perfect (Heb. 10:1–4). 

Slit the throats of as many bulls and goats as you want, it’s impossible for all those liters of blood to fully and finally “take away sin.” And that’s because all those offerings were nothing but “copies and shadows” of a better offering yet to come. There wasn’t an ounce of power in the blood of those “bulls and goats,” otherwise those sacrifices would have stopped (Heb. 10:2). The power of those sacrifices was only found in what those offerings of blood pointed to — namely, that one day a truer and better Lamb would climb the altar and sacrifice himself in order to put sin away for good.

Slit the throats of as many bulls and goats as you want, it’s impossible for all those liters of blood to fully and finally “take away sin.” And that’s because all those offerings were nothing but “copies and shadows” of a better offering yet to come.

This is the point the writer of Hebrews makes: “And every priest stands daily at his service offering repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11–14).

Early twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian R. C. H. Lenski makes the same point when he writes, “The blood sacrifices of the Old Testament expiatory and cleansing rituals possessed efficacy only because God connected them with the eternally efficacious blood of his own Son” (293).

Whereas the priests of old stood to repeat “the same sacrifices” day after day, the sacrifice that Jesus our High Priest offers is a “single sacrifice” that works “for all time.” His is an unrepeatable, once “for all time” offering of blood (Heb. 10:12, 14). And it’s unrepeatable because the blood is his own. “By that will,” attests the writer of Hebrews, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). “His Cross work,” H. A. Ironside attests, “can never be repeated. No repetition is required, for He settled the sin question perfectly when He took our place in judgment” (113).

Whereas the priests of old stood to repeat “the same sacrifices” day after day, the sacrifice that Jesus our High Priest offers is a “single sacrifice” that works “for all time.”

When our High Priest enters the Most Holy Place of the cross, he donates his own body and blood as the sacrifice for our sins. On that infernal cross, Priest and Sacrifice become one (Heb. 7:27; 9:25–26). His sacrifice is the actual realization of what all those “animal sacrifices” were pointing to. Furthermore, it stretches into eternity as the only sacrifice that actually brings about salvation and that actually perfects “those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). And this is true because his blood actually works (Heb. 9:11–14). Jesus solves the problem of sin by shedding his perfect blood for it, which is sufficient to atone for an infinite amount of sin. His sacrificial death covers all the sins of every believing sinner, past, present, and future.

Jesus’s unimpeachable promise.

The shedding of blood was the seal that what was promised would come true, which was true even under the old covenant (Heb. 9:18). The blood of all those animals served as a testimony of what God promised to one day do — namely, forgive his people’s sins (Heb. 9:19–22). But what those rituals did as mere “copies and shadows,” Jesus accomplished in reality. This is why it’s so consequential to note that leading up to his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus repeats the same words of the law at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28; cf. Heb. 9:20). With those words, Jesus was offering a conspicuous clue as to what he was really up to. He himself was inaugurating the new covenant with his own body and blood (Heb. 8:6–13), the terms of which, long ago foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, pledged actual absolution for actual sinners (Jer. 31:31–34).

This is what the whole revelation of Scripture has been building up to the entire time, as R. C. H. Lenski comments: “The whole will of God, the whole sacrifice of death center in the removal of our sins. Freed of these, heaven is ours. Without Christ’s expiation there are no remission and deliverance from sin. This is the heart of all Scripture” (333).

The good news, you see, is that Jesus’s blood has been spilled for you, which means there is forgiveness. And no mere shadow of forgiveness but true forgiveness since all the offerings for sin have stopped (Heb. 10:18). No more sacrifices. No more lambs. No more “bulls and goats.” Jesus has solved the problem of your sin, my sin, and the sin of the world by “taking sin away” for good. He removes it from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12) and casts the lot of it behind his back (Isa. 38:17). Even better, he has “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Even better, he remembers our sins “no more” (Heb. 8:17; 10:17; Isa. 43:25). At the heart of God’s covenant with us is the actual removal of all our sins. 

When Jesus throws your sin “into the depths of the sea,” he never goes diving in after them. They are buried. Forgotten. Covered by his atoning death. The new covenant is “signed, sealed, and delivered” with Jesus’s own blood. That’s how sure it is. “Christ’s one perfect offering up of himself,” Ironside concludes, “has settled the sin question forever, and therefore no wandering of heart nor failure in life on the part of those who have availed themselves by faith of His atoning work can alter for one moment their standing before the throne of God” (107). The good news of the gospel is the announcement that your forgiveness is found in the same spot where your sins are no longer remembered. On a hill called Golgotha, in the Most Holy Place of the cross, where your great High Priest died.