“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Really, to abstract any passage from the book of Hebrews is to severely handicap your hearers. This book is thick with contextual allusions and jargon, understood most clearly by ancient Palestinian Christians converted from Judaism. So what hope have we, in a 2010 variety of Western Christianity, to understand this passage? Allow me to try.
Jesus is the best.
In the Old Testament, God instructed certain men to fulfill the role of high priest for the nation of Israel. These men would have the responsibility of conducting the weightiest acts of service in the Temple. Most notable, is the Day of Atonement, in which the high priest at that time would enter into the room called “the most holy place” and offer a blood sacrifice which would be for the forgiveness of the sins of all of Israel. This was a once a year deal, and was surrounded by tons and tons of very strict regulations to keep the high priest from dying while in the presence of God’s holiness.
With this in mind, when the author of Hebrews says that “Christ appeared as a high priest”, we can assume that this means Jesus is going to provide some priestly service concerning the atonement for sins. Our passage tells us that Christ also entered into holy places, but instead of sacrificing a bull, he sacrificed himself. In this way, he provided what no other high priest was able to. You see, in order for the high priest in the Old Testament to enter into the holy place, he had to first make sacrifices for his own sin. With Jesus there was no such need. Jesus was without sin. Not only is he a better high priest, but he is also a better sacrifice than the bulls and goats being sacrificed.
Once for all.
Our passage says “he entered once for all…thus securing an eternal redemption”. This is the main thrust of the gospel. In the old system, sacrifices had to be made all of the time because 1) people kept sinning and 2) the sacrifices being offered were defective. Then all of a sudden, after millenia of killing goats, a 13-year old girl in a barn scandalously gave birth to a baby who would (thirtyish years later) be murdered by a mob of angry Jews and then show up (from the dead) three days later to explain to his friends that he wasn’t joking about being the son of God. Then it all makes sense. Jesus, the son of God, came to be both the high priest who offers the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. The only sacrifice which puts an end to all other sacrifices. Indeed, sins past, present, and future find their forgiveness in this one sacrifice. And when all of your sins are forgiven, there remains no purpose for additional sacrifices.
While 21st century western Christians don’t kill goats for forgiveness of sins, we do tend toward trying to pay for our own sin. It usually shows up when we screw up. And it usually ends up resembling something like your new year’s resolution last year. It probably looks something like the following progression:
- You go to church, aren’t getting drunk, aren’t sleeping with your girlfriend, rarely cussing, and not reading your Bible
- You slip up somewhere, say, miss church, get drunk, go too far with your girlfriend, or drop the F-bomb in traffic
- Next move? You resolve to pray more, read your Bible more, or volunteer at a retirement home
- You keep it up for about a week thinking that your behavior has re-qualified you for Christ’s forgiveness
- Then your recent decision to be a “disciplined Christian” kind of just wanes away and you are back to being totally apathetic, that is, until you slip up again
The thrust of the gospel is that Jesus showed up once to die because of our sins and that’s it. Once he died, no other sacrifices could do. Don’t waste your time trying to pay for your sin, you can’t do it. Instead, preach this to yourself, “Jesus entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves [read: my own personal effort] but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”