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Living Sacrifice (Hebrews 10: 11-18)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Hebrews 10: 11-18:

For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.... Lo, I have come to do thy will... And every priest stands at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifice, 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 ... For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified

The letter to the Hebrews is one of the least known of New Testament writings. We do not know for sure who wrote it, to whom it was written and when it was written. The subject matter of the letter suggests the possibility that the letter was written to Jewish Christians.

The purpose of the letter is to show that Christianity is superior to Judaism. The whole letter is a contrast between Christianity and Judaism. It contrasts Moses and Jesus Christ, temple made with hands and temple made without hands, the sacrifice in the Old Testament and that in the New Testament, and priesthood in the Old Testament and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The whole argument is to establish the superiority of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is greater than the prophets, greater than the angels. While priesthood in the Old Testament is according to the order of Aaron, the priesthood of Jesus Christ is according to the order of Melchizedek. Salvation in the Old Testament is contrasted with that in the New Testament as a shadow to its reality. While the Old Testament is the shadow, the New Testament is the reality. While one is imperfect, the other is perfect.

The central focus of the letter is the high priesthood of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice he has performed. It should be noted that it is only in the Epistle to the Hebrews that Jesus Christ is spoken of in high priestly terms and nowhere else in the New Testament.

In almost all religions there are temples, sacrifices and priesthood. The letter to the Hebrews thinks of religion in these terms. The author interprets the person and work of Christ in terms of priesthood and sacrifice. The writer believes that blood can wash away sins and hence sacrifice is essential for the forgiveness of sins. But the question is what kind of a sacrifice? What is the real meaning of priesthood and sacrifice? These are the questions raised and answered in this letter.

In Judaism the sacrifices are only in the Jerusalem temple and not anywhere else, and the sacrifices are performed for the people of Israel. They are localized at a particular place and restricted and linked to the people of Israel. Jesus was sacrificed outside the temple, outside the gate.

Today one of the serious problems facing peace in the Middle East is the status of Jerusalem, and who controls Jerusalem. Both for the Jews and the Muslims, Jerusalem is important for the worship of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, ‘The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ...’ Yet a time is coming and has come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:21-24). Jesus has universalized the worship of God and has moved away from the central place given to temples made with hands. While the Jewish high priest enters the earthly sanctuary in Jerusalem, Jesus Christ the high priest has entered the heavenly one -- a temple made without hands.

In the Jerusalem temple there were a large number of priests. And every priest stood daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifice, which could never take away sins. To offer time after time the same sacrifice is the daily routine of priestly function. The sacrifices are repeated daily because the sins of the people still remain. ‘If the worshippers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. ... For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.’ People began to feel the inadequacy of such sacrifices. The psalmist mentions this, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you did not desire, but burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require’.

In contrast, while the priests in the Jerusalem temple were standing and offering daily the sacrifices of bulls and goats, Jesus Christ offered for all times a single sacrifice for sills and he sat down at the right hand of God. Sat down means he has finished the task. By a single offering of himself, he has put away sins and opened for all people at all places and time the way to the throne of Grace. It is a sacrifice completed once and for all and we do not need to look for salvation elsewhere. Therefore with confidence (and not in fear) we can approach the throne of God.

What did Jesus offer? Jesus offered his own life and shed his own blood. Jesus was not only the high priest but he was also the victim. It is only by becoming a victim we become a priest. Jesus Christ is our high priest because he is the lamb that was slain for the salvation of the world.

What kind of a life did Jesus offer? Sin is disobedience to the will of God. Jesus’ life was a life of obedience. For the first time on earth the will of God is carried out fully in a human life. The letter quotes psalm 40 where it is said, ‘Here I am, I have come O God to do thy will’. Jesus was the fulfillment of the longing of the psalmist. He came to do the will of God. ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and accomplish his work.’ ‘Not my will but thine’ was the constant prayer of Jesus. ‘In obedience he accepted death, even the death on a cross.’ As St. Paul points out, ‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’. (Romans 5:19)

In Jesus Christ the time has come when we can worship the father in spirit and in truth. The time has come when the priesthood means a life of obedience. Christ has offered for all times a single sacrifice, for the sins of the whole world. The sacrifice which Christ offered was not that of bulls and goats, but a life lived in obedience to God. Those who experience the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ are sanctified and are also called to follow Christ in their daily life. St. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome.

I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship.(Romans 12:1)

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