Monday, October 26, 2015

Sermon on Hebrews 7:23-28, for Reformation Day, "Our Forever Great High Priest"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we observe Reformation Day, which commemorates how Martin Luther began the Reformation of the Christian Church nearly 500 years ago, by nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. One of the most significant outcomes of the Reformation was to make plain again, the glory of the saving work of Jesus Christ. The Reformation began to proclaim once again, the glorious comfort of what Jesus Christ has done.
Today we’re continuing our walk through the book of Hebrews. To briefly review, we’ve already heard in Hebrews this month how Christ is all-sufficient for our salvation. He has accomplished everything for us, and suffered on our behalf, in a divine mystery, that God should become human and accept such a lowly death. We also heard how Hebrews speaks of the deadly seriousness of sin, and how deep it runs in us, and the contrast to our original confidence and hope in Christ Jesus. Finally, last week we heard about the power and authority of God’s Word, as Law and Gospel, and the necessity of faith to receive Christ’s benefits. All of these are deeply important topics to our Biblical and Lutheran understanding of the faith. Today’s reading, no less, helps us to see the total certainty we can have in Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.
The Book of Hebrews develops several lines of argument, to make a very important case—the case for the Supremacy of Jesus Christ. That He is superior to every other name, rule and authority, system, etc. The author of Hebrews shows how Jesus is greater than the angels, than Moses, than the regular priests, the high priests, and even the priestly king of the Old Testament, Melchizedek. Jesus is superior to all these, and to the earthly place of worship, than the laws and sacrifices enacted there. Our reading today comes in the midst of a long section building this case that Jesus is greater than all the types of priests in the Old Testament, and that they were officeholders to portray a limited, earthly example of the design that He would perfect and fulfill. They were types and shadows of Him, the reality that was to come. And now that He has arrived, the old is gone, the new has come. These old forms had fulfilled their purpose and were giving way to Jesus’ new and better reign.
Our reading today shows two key limitations of the Old Testament priests, that don’t apply to Jesus. First, they all died, and therefore had to be replaced. They couldn’t continue in the office of priest forever—but had to be replaced continually. Secondly, the priests were all sinful themselves, and so had to offer sacrifices for their own sins, before they could do the same for the people. Jesus had no sin, and no need to have His own sins forgiven first.
Two great truths rest on these facts: one is that Jesus’ priesthood lasts forever, and two, is that Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect and complete, once for all. What does that mean for you? It means that Jesus’ sacrifice never needs to be repeated, and that there is no replacing Jesus. While that first era of faith, in the Old Testament, was succeeded by the New Testament in Jesus’ blood, for the forgiveness of our sins, there is no third or future covenant to come, to replace Jesus. There is no superior or greater mediator, or reworking of God’s Covenant, to come in the future. He holds His priesthood permanently—forever.
We live in an era where everything is constantly changing. From trivial things like our phone or cable contracts, and privacy statements and customer policies with companies that we do business with, to weighty matters like the constitution or laws of our nation—we are not assured that any contracts or agreements will remain permanently in place, without modification. Nearly everything in life is subject to change, and often it seems that our modern world depends on a relentless level of change. But Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is unchanging, and His High Priesthood is permanent.
Verse 25 says, “Consequently He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Jesus saves us to the uttermost. Just like our first week this month, where we heard Christ is all-sufficient—today we are again reminded that Jesus’ salvation is no half-way or incomplete bargain. It’s the whole deal. Jesus saves us to the uttermost, meaning that He really finished the work of salvation, as He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Complete. Perfect. Count on it. Because our own works, our own efforts, are incomplete and far from perfect. They give us no firm ground to stand on, but rather shifting sand. But saved to the uttermost in Jesus, we draw near to God with full confidence and grounded faith. We can know our rescue is complete in Him.
Jesus always lives to make intercession for us. Intercession is to plead on someone’s behalf, to speak for them, to seek mercy on their behalf. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” To have Jesus as our mediator or intercessor, means that some mediation and intercession is needed, of course. Why? What do we need intercession for? Our sins. Our sins and disobedience leave us alienated and separated from God—until Christ Jesus. This sets up for the next contrast between Jesus and the Old Testament priests.
They were sinners, who had their own weaknesses and failings, and so had to offer sacrifices for their own sins, on top of the sacrifices for the sins of the people. They had to be purified and cleansed themselves, before they could approach God to represent the people—to “intercede” for them.
How is Jesus similar, but different? He’s similar in these ways—that He did not seek this office of priest for Himself, but was appointed to it by God, just like the priests. Jesus can sympathize with our temptation and weaknesses, just as the priests also could—but with the key difference that Jesus remained without sin. So His intercession is not clouded by His own sin, but is pure and perfect. We have such a “high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” No charge or accusation can stand against Jesus. His intercession for us cannot be discredited or challenged because of any sin on His part. He served and taught and healed and cared for sinners, but remained without sin Himself. He was not defiled or stained by sin, but His sacrifice was pure and blameless to God. This is essential, because even in the Old Testament, a person could not offer up diseased, wounded, or otherwise undesirable animals for sacrifice, but only their best, healthiest animals, without blemish. A sacrifice was just that—something costly and valuable, not unwanted leftovers. Jesus was nothing less than the spotless Lamb of God, the Holy Son of God—most precious to God.
Finally, our reading ends with this statement: “The word of oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” God made an oath that Jesus would be our High Priest forever. An oath is a solemn promise that one vows never to break. Hebrews 6:17-18 talks about how God swears an oath to make His promises completely certain. He shows the “unchangeable character of His purpose” and that it is impossible for Him to lie. How amazing is it that our God binds Himself irreversibly to His oath and promise? God does not have to answer to anyone, is not compelled by anyone to bind Himself this way. He is the ruler and Creator of all things. And yet He takes an oath—under no requirement, but entirely for our sake, for our certainty—and by oath He makes Jesus a priest forever. He takes an oath so that we can have total confidence that He will do as He has promised.
Can you imagine if we didn’t know whether God would forgive or not forgive? Not knowing how you stood before God? Many people face exactly that kind of uncertainty, because they either worship a so-called ‘god’ that is really no god at all, or because they know nothing of the words and promises of the One True God. For all they know, God could be completely arbitrary and unloving, and they could never know anything about Him with certainty. Indeed, this is the picture of many of the false gods and their religions. The purpose and will of such “gods” is completely unknown. But the One True God, and His High Priest forever, Jesus Christ, has freely bound Himself by oath, so that we can have absolute confidence in Him. The intercession of Jesus for our sins, is perfect and unhindered. Jesus has complete access to God as He has ascended to sit at God’s right hand. From there, He calls us to confidently approach God’s throne of grace, and to know we will receive it, because we call upon the name of the Lord, and are saved.
As we near 500 years of the Reformation, we can still with the same boldness and joy, proclaim the incomparable glory and grace of Jesus Christ, and the complete certainty of salvation in Him. We place no trust in our works or our traditions, but only in our Great High Priest who has mercifully gone before us, and Who saves us to the uttermost. This is the faith that has sustained and united Christians from the first apostles until today, and we boldly confess that Jesus is our Forever Great High Priest. Amen.

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1.      On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther set off the Reformation of the Christian church by nailing 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The primary criticism that they raised against the church, was the selling of “indulgences”, which were certificates published by the church to grant release from years spent in purgatory, a supposed place of purification by fire, before one could enter into heaven. How did such teachings steal away the glory and diminish the saving work of Christ?
2.      The book of Hebrews spends a lot of time comparing the Old Covenant of Israel, with the New Covenant brought by Jesus Christ. In chapters 1-9, review the headings and topics. What things is Jesus “greater than” in each chapter? What then was the purpose of these roles and things? Hebrews 9:24; 10:1.
3.      Why was the role of priest, in the Old Testament, inferior to the priesthood of Jesus? What were they unable to do? Hebrews 7:23-24. What additional problem did they face, that Jesus did not? Hebrews 7:27-28; 4:15
4.      We live in a constantly changing world. What comfort is there in the fact that Jesus is unchanging, and His priesthood is forever? Hebrews 13:8; 1 Timothy 2:4. To whom can we always turn?
5.      What comfort do we find in God taking an “oath” that Jesus, His Son, is priest forever? Hebrews 7:28; 6:16-20

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