4th Sunday in Lent March 22, 2020
1 John 1:1:1-2:2
175, 156, 372, 179 (alt. 724 (Worship Supplement 2000))
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
In Christ Jesus the Lamb of God,
In the Shakespeare play Macbeth, the title character murders the king of Scotland in order to take the throne for himself, and that murder leads to others. Lady Macbeth who instigated the crimes becomes tormented with guilt for what she and her husband have done. In the sleepwalking scene her guilt takes the form of imaginary bloodstains on her hands. She tries to wash the terrible stains from her hands, but she cannot.
Though the characters in that play are kings and nobles in a place far off and at a time long ago, what they say about guilt is something we recognize. Once we have done something wrong, we cannot undo it. Our guilt for the sins that we have committed is like a stain that we cannot remove.
To represent guilt as a permanent stain is appropriate because we find that same imagery in the Bible. In Isaiah, the Lord represents the sins of His people as stains on a garment. But in His picture the stains are removed; they are removed so completely that not a trace of them remains. “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18) God knows how to remove the guilty stains that we are incapable of removing. Tonight’s text tells us how He did it.
The reason guilt is so hard to remove is that it isn’t just a feeling we have; it isn’t just a sensation that we have done something wrong. Guilt is often treated as if it were just a feeling, as though all we need to do is to deal with our feelings of guilt. (That is a solution only in cases where a person is troubled by guilt where they aren’t really guilty.) But guilt for sin is guilt before God.
To understand it better we can compare it to guilt before the law. If someone has been found guilty of a crime, that guilt can be removed only by paying the penalty, whatever it may be. Once the fine has been paid or the jail time has been served, then the guilt is gone, as far as the law is concerned. But the problem with human guilt before God is that we don’t have any way to remove it. There’s a passage in Psalms that teaches this: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” (Psalm 49:7-9, ESV) We can’t pay off a debt owed to God, either for ourselves or for someone else.
But God had mercy on us in our desperate and hopeless state. He has a plan for our salvation, a plan to remove our guilt before Him. The Scriptures reveal that His plan was devised before the foundation of the world. It was that His own Son would come into this fallen and guilty world. He would become one of us and in our place give to God that costly ransom for our souls that we could never give.
In Old Testament times, during the ages before Christ’s coming into the world, God’s plan of salvation was made known to man in promise and in type or picture. It was given in promises such as the one given to Adam and Eve when God said to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
God’s plan was also revealed in types, that is, in things that pictured what Christ would do. One such picture was the ritual prescribed for the Day of Atonement. Once each year the high priest would take the blood of an animal that had been sacrificed and carry it into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle (that curtained-off part of the tabernacle into which no one else was permitted to enter). The high priest would then sprinkled that sacrificial blood on the mercy seat, the place of God’s presence among His people. Our text refers to this ritual and to another involving “the ashes of a heifer,” in which a young cow was sacrificed as a burnt offering and its ashes sprinkled on those who had been made ceremonially unclean by contact with a dead body.
But the blood from a sacrificed animal did not actually atone for the people’s sins. The ashes of a heifer couldn’t actually make anyone clean before God. He instituted the sacrifices and rituals of the Day of Atonement only as a picture of what Christ would do when He came. The real benefit of those things was that the people were reminded of the promises of the Savior so that they should trust in them and believe that they were delivered from sin and death in the Christ who was to come and through that faith have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
But the people sometimes lost sight of meaning of the Day of Atonement rituals. They imagined that the animal sacrifices were taking away their sins and making them acceptable to God. All that was necessary—so they thought—was for them to continue to offer those sacrifices.
We have that same kind of thing today when people think that by going through the motions of worship they are doing something pleasing to God. We need to remember that attending services, going through the liturgy, and singing hymns are acceptable to God and beneficial to the worshipers only when they are expressions of true faith in Christ.
The worship prescribed for the tabernacle in the Old Testament age was only a shadow of things to come; the reality is in Christ and His sacrifice. The author of our text points out and explains the greatness of Jesus Christ and what He did as compared to the institutions of the Old Testament.
The high priest carrying out his duties on the Day of Atonement entered a man-made tabernacle. He took with him into the Most Holy Place only the blood of an animal. In contrast to that, Jesus acted as the true High Priest by entering into the true tabernacle, that is, the presence of God in heaven. The earthly, man-made tabernacle was only a representation of the true dwelling place of God in heaven. Heaven is the real Most Holy Place. And Jesus entered into the presence of God in heaven with His own blood. By shedding His blood on the cross, He obtained eternal redemption for us all. Our text is a most helpful, divinely-inspired commentary on the passion history. It explains the significance of what Jesus did when He willingly went to the cross. The blood that He shed in His scourging and in His crucifixion were an offering presented to God.
The writer to the Hebrews further shows the greatness of Christ and His superiority to the Old Testament high priests. Their offerings provided only an external kind of cleansing for the worshipers, what our text calls “the purifying of the flesh.” For example, the ashes of the heifer when sprinkled on those who had come into contact with a dead body rendered them ceremonially clean; it made them eligible to participate in worship with the congregation. The blood of Christ accomplishes so much more than that. The blood of Christ cleanses our conscience. It was the sacrifice that really atoned for our sins. It really made satisfaction for our sins so that our guilt has been taken away. That’s what we need to silence our guilty conscience.
How is it that we are so certain that the offering of the blood of Christ truly cleanses us from our sin? Why is it that the blood of Christ is the cleansing blood? We have assurances such as the one in the First Epistle of John that says, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) Our text likewise assures us of this when it says that Christ “through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God.” “The eternal Spirit” is not a reference to the Third Person of the Trinity; that’s not the usual way that the Holy Spirit is spoken of in the Bible. I believe that “eternal Spirit” here refers to the eternal deity of the Son of God. This statement about Him tells us that when He offered Himself to God it was a spotless offering and an offering of the eternal Son. His offering was thus one of infinite value, sufficient to atone for all human sin. One contemporary translation well captures the sense of this verse. It reads this way: “But Christ was sinless, and He offered Himself as an eternal and spiritual sacrifice to God. That’s why His blood is much more powerful and makes our consciences clear.” (CEV)
The cleansing blood of Jesus Christ cleanses our consciences from dead works, that is, works that lead to death and damnation. Knowing this we are freed from guilt and the fear and torment that guilt brings. With that terrible weight lifted from our shoulders we can serve the living God. Who can serve God while being afraid that He is still angry with us because of our sins? But now we know that we are cleansed. We know that through Jesus’ blood and merit we are acceptable to God, and that our works in service to Him are acceptable to Him. As you look at Jesus on the cross, behold and see: the cleansing blood. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (CEV) are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.