For a long stretch of time most of the Southern Baptist seminaries were in bad shape. If Tom were here this morning, he’d be nodding vociferously. He often tells Aaron and me (who got to go to seminary during a much better stretch of time) that he should be reimbursed for the money he paid only to have his professors tell him to distrust the Bible. And though I could give you many anecdotes about how bad things were at some of our seminaries a few decades back, I’ll simply give you one.
Al Mohler wrote an article once, reflecting here and there as he wrote, on his experience at Southern Seminary as a student. He says that his first semester was in 1980, and the very first class he had that semester was a class on the gospel of Matthew with professor Frank Stagg. And Mohler tells us that what he remembers repeatedly emphasized in that class was Dr. Stagg’s rejection of what he called “bloody cross religion,” adding that “God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.”1 In support of Dr. Mohler’s memories, it has been told to me that at Dr. Stagg’s funeral a former student of his stood up and said that she was most thankful that Dr. Stagg taught her that there was no need for a bloody death in order for there to be forgiveness of sins. Like I said, there was a day when our seminaries weren’t beacons of truth.
One wishes that along the way Frank Stagg had been assigned to teach through the book of Hebrews and particularly were given the task of working through our text this morning, Hebrews 9:15-28. One could title a sermon on this text: The Necessity for a Bloody Atonement if there is to be forgiveness of sins.
So it is a joy to preach this text for a couple of reasons. One, I’m convinced that one way you get to a place of having individuals professing to be Christians while despising a blood cross is through neglecting teaching on such topics. I’ve noted before how Don Carson has said that what is assumed in one generation will be lost in the next. We should never simply assume our church understands the need for the shedding of Christ’s blood, and so we return to the Scripture again and again and teach on it (simply as we walk through teaching each section of Scripture). Let’s not assume foundational truths but explicitly teach them. Second, in the busyness of life, it can be hard to make yourself stop and think. But the Scripture commands thinking. Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” There’s the command—think. And again, Psalm 1 tells us that the blessed man is one who meditates on God’s law day and night. And surely one of the most glorious things in all the world that we can stop and think about and meditate on is the redeeming work of Christ for us.
Therefore, this morning, I want to invite you to look with me at Hebrews 9:15-28 as we think about what Jesus’ death accomplished, what he’s doing now, and what he’ll do in the future as our priest and redeemer. And as we do, not only will be able to shore up these foundational truths in our hearts, but we will also be laying the groundwork to work for the applications that will be laid out for us in 10:19-25.
First, let’s look at what Christ did.
Christ came to die, redeem us, and ratify the new covenant
If you remember, as we looked at 9:1-14 last week, there was a contrast set up between the work of the Levitical priests and the work of Christ. And there we noted that Christ offered a better sacrifice, in a better place, with a better outcome. Well, having made that argument, the author begins this section by talking more about what Christ’s work as priest accomplished. He writes in verse 15, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
Now, in many ways this verse launches us into our argument as a sort of topic sentence of what’s to come. But there is so much here. You’ll remember from Hebrews 8 that in the times of the OT God was promising another arrangement in the relationship between himself and his people, which he refers to as a new covenant. Well, the author of Hebrews reminds us that because of what Jesus did, this new covenant is a reality. All that God promised to do in the new covenant is sure and certain because of Jesus death to redeem his people.
But I also want you to notice something particular in verse 15. He notes that “a death has occurred that redeems them from transgressions committed under the first covenant.” In other words, after stressing that none of what happened under the old covenant was sufficient to bring about the forgiveness of sins—animal sacrifices, the ritual washings, and all the regulations—someone might be left asking, “Then were people who lived before Christ came actually forgiven of sins?” And the answer is right here. Yes, they were. David and Isaiah and Moses and many others were forgiven of their sins. But (and this is the key) it wasn’t because the slaughtering of bulls and goats were enough. It’s because Jesus’ death—which would occur hundreds and hundreds of years after these men died—was retroactively applied to them. In other words, Jesus’ death atones for the sins of his people, whether they lived thousands of years before his coming or thousands of years after his coming. His death, the author of Hebrews tells us, is what redeems people from sins committed under that first covenant that could never remove sins on its own.
But it’s here that the argument really begins. You might call this the Frank-Stagg-couldn’t-be-more-wrong portion of Scripture because the author focuses on the absolute necessity of Jesus’ death (which, as I’ve noted, he’s already introduced in verse 15).
He begins by making an analogy between a covenant and a will. Interestingly, the Greek word behind the English word “covenant” and “will” that we see throughout these verses is the same. It can be translated covenant or will. But I think the ESV translators get it right by seeing that the author of Hebrews is playing off of this reality a bit by drawing an analogy between someone’s will and a covenant.
He writes in verses 16-17, “For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” This is something we all understand. A wealthy man could have a will that states that all of his fortune goes to his son. But as long as that wealthy man is alive, his son could theoretically be broke. Why? Because the will doesn’t go into effect until the wealthy man dies. Then, as the text says, once the man’s death is established, only then does the will take effect and the money go into the possession of the man’s son.
The author of Hebrews notes that this same reality is at play with regards to both the old and new covenants. There was the requirement of death for both the old and new covenant to be established. He starts with the old, writing, “Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.’ In the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (vv. 18-22).
The author is referring to what we see in Exodus 24. After God gave the law to Moses and the people said that it sounded good to them and that they would obey God, Moses made animal sacrifices, but he also used their blood in a particular way. He put half in a basin and half he threw against the altar where the sacrifices would be made. Then he threw it on the people and many other things. It was a bloody scene to say the least.
But why? I think the simple answer is because God is holy and we are sinful. One of the easy things to do for us is to downplay either or both of those realities. Either we downplay that sin is really a big deal, or we forget that God is holy and think that he is enough like us that he can surely just get over it. And when you fail to see the weight of God’s holiness and the weight of man’s sin, you’re not going to get at all why all this blood is being shed. This is why John Stott says in his great book, The Cross of Christ, “All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man.”2 Because God is holy and cannot tolerate sin, there must be the shedding of blood. There must be a death.
And this isn’t new in Exodus 24. Right after Adam and Eve sinned God clothed them with animal skins in Genesis 3. As the author says in verse 22, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
But as we noted last week in looking at 9:1-14, the blood of bulls and goats can’t really bring the forgiveness of sins. And God had promised that his people would have true forgiveness of sins. He had said in Jeremiah 31, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
How’s that going to happen? This brings us to what Christ came to do. He came to die in order to establish all of the promises of the new covenant. The author first continues his comparison of place. You’ll remember that the priests did their work in the tabernacle, that tent that was a copy of the throne room of God in heaven. But Jesus is our high priest in heaven, at God’s right hand. So the author first notes that Jesus shed his blood so the heavenly things should be purified. He writes, “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (vv. 23-24).
In other words, the blood of bulls and goats may have been fine for purifying the earthly tent and utensils, but if Christ’s work is in heaven, then heavenly realities merit a better sacrifice, don’t they? And I don’t think we’re to press the comparison too strongly, as if to suggest that something in heaven needed purifying (as things in the earthly tent did). This is the throne room of God. I think we’re rather supposed to see the purification necessary in order to bring us, the people Christ redeems, into heaven. And this requires a much greater death than that of a bull or goat.
This is why Christ actually brought no animal at all but sacrificed himself. We read in verses 25-28, “Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Christ offered himself. And his sacrifice was so effective, that he only had to die once. This is why (as a brief side note) we don’t call the front of the church building the altar. Altars are where sacrifices are made. In the Roman Catholic Church, the idea is that Christ’s body is being sacrificed in a sense every time they come to the table. But that’s not in line with Scripture. Christ has already died, once for all. There is no altar needed any more. Rather, we look back to what has already been done.
So, when we think about what Christ came to do, we can turn our eyes to his death. Because man is sinful and God is holy, there must be the shedding of blood for our sins. Because God made covenant promises to be our God, put his Spirit within us, give us new hearts, and remove our sins, a death must occur to ratify that covenant—to make it take effect, like a death is required before a will takes effect. Jesus died so that all of those covenant promises would take effect. He died once for all so that we could be God’s redeemed children, with new hearts, forgiven sins, cleansed consciences, and eternal life. That’s what he died.
But let’s also consider what he’s doing now.
Christ now appears in God’s presence on our behalf
In the midst of telling us why Christ had to die and what his death has brought about, the author of Hebrews briefly mentions what Christ is doing now. We see it in verse 24. He writes, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
Did you see it? He’s now appearing in the presence of God on our behalf. What does he mean? Well, let’s walk through this step by step. The high priest not only offered sacrifices for the sins of the people, but he also interceded for them. He also represented them before God in asking for grace and mercy in light of the offering made.
Now, let’s come to Jesus. He died on that Friday, shedding his blood. But that wasn’t the last word. On Easter Sunday morning, he rose from the dead, walking out of that tomb. Still God, still man. He’s eternally the God man. The Son didn’t become a man only to get rid of his humanity at a later point. He took on a fully human nature in order to die for us, but he was raised with a glorified human nature that can never die.
And after Jesus, the God-man, walked out of that tomb, he eventually ascended into heaven to be at the Father’s right hand. But the author of Hebrews tells us that he’s not there doing nothing. He’s appearing in the presence of God on our behalf. Well, what does that mean that he’s in the presence of God on our behalf? We’ve already seen this in Hebrews 7, but one place we can look to answer this question is in Romans 8:33-34. There Paul writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Or perhaps in even more vivid imagery, John writes in 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
An advocate is one who pleads on someone else’s behalf. In other words, Jesus is right now appearing in God’s very presence on our behalf, pleading for us, interceding for us, because of his life, death, and resurrection for us. Our high priest always lives in heaven to be our eternal advocate. And before whom is he advocating on our behalf? It is before the one Paul tells us in Romans 8:33 chose us and justified us. In other words, God loved us so that he sent Jesus to die for us. Jesus loved us so he gladly died for us. And now the person of the Son who loves us so dearly that he died for us is our advocate before the person of the Father who loves us so dearly he sent Jesus for us and sent his Spirit into our hearts. Brothers and sisters, this is a good setup for us.
And that’s not all. Jesus came to die once for all to shed his blood for us. He was raised and right now and forever appears before God on our behalf, interceding for us as our advocate. And there’s also something he will do.
Christ will come again to complete our salvation
The author of Hebrews writes in verse 28, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Christ is coming back. And when he comes back, he will not come to atone for sin. That’s already been done in his once-for-all-time death. He’s coming to complete our salvation. In other words, we can speak of being saved (past tense), and that is fine. The Bible speaks in those ways. Christ has already saved us. He’s declared us righteous. That is, he’s justified us. He’s set us apart as his own people. He already forgiven us of our sins. Our end times judgment has already been declared. Praise God that he has saved us. But there’s more to come. He will save us.
Our present state isn’t the Father’s ultimate plan for us. He wants us one day to have resurrected bodies just like his Son. He wants us not only to be forgiven and freed from sin but never feel its temptation ever again. He wants our hearts to be so perfectly sanctified that we will only ever love God and our neighbor perfectly. He wants us never to experience the pain and heartache that comes with sin and death. And the author of Hebrews says that he’s coming again to make all of that happen. He’s coming to save fully those who are eagerly waiting for him.
This is why I think my favorite part of the song “There Is a Fountain” is, “Dearing dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power, till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.” That day is coming. And it is sure because the one who died and now appears in the presence of God on our behalf will appear again to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. May we then, as we come to the table, cry out from our hearts with all the saints throughout all the ages, “Lord, come quickly.” Amen.
John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1986), 109.