The Death of Death
Laura Miguélez Quay
July 5, 2015
Over the past weeks, we’ve been considering different ways in which Scripture speaks of us, Christ’s church. We began by considering Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Then we turned to what God expects of us as the sheep of Christ, our Good Shepherd God. From there we considered what it means to be the Family of God—children of our Father in heaven, siblings of our Lord Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters to one another by the common bond we have in Christ as together we share in his Holy Spirit.
This morning I had originally intended to consider a third biblical image, that of believers as the temple of the Holy Spirit. But when I realized that this was communion Sunday, I thought I would address instead not us as the temple of Christ, but Christ as the one who did away with the Old Testament tabernacle to bring us a new and better one.
Do you ever find it difficult to understand the Old Testament sacrificial system? Why we no longer offer sacrifices for our sins—the slaughtering of animals—in order that we might come before God’s presence? Have you ever wondered why the whole Old Testament sacrificial system was so bloody? I know I have. There are times when I’ve read in the Old Testament of the dozens of animals being sacrificed on behalf of the sins of the people and have felt overwhelmed—and even a little disgusted. I mean, think about it. Even in verse 19 of our passage this morning we see Moses taking the blood of the calves along with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkling this blood on the scroll and all the people. Picture that. Can you imagine a pastor standing before you, and summoning you to the front of the church that you might be covered and so cleansed by the sacrificial blood of animals that have been slaughtered on your behalf? I don’t even like when I’m trimming chicken or working with ground beef and have to touch the little bit of blood that comes from the packaging. Yet throughout the Old Testament we regularly see animals, who a little while earlier had been living and grazing, slaughtered and their blood being taken and sprinkled on the people all around. And we’re reminded of the necessity of this sacrificial system in verse 22 as we’re told that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” for our sins.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves so let’s back up a bit. In verse 11 the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ “came as high priest of the good things that are now already here.” Further, the tabernacle he went through was “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation” (11). In other words, this more perfect tabernacle is heaven, the dwelling of God himself—as is also confirmed in verse 24. Jesus is high priest of a heavenly tabernacle, not an earthly one. Now returning to the sacrifices, an irony is that this ritual of being marked by the blood of animals is, we are told in verse 22, for our cleansing for “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood.” Blood represents the life of living creatures. Scripture indicates from beginning to end, that the wages of sin is death, and throughout the Old Testament the only means of covering that death is by the death of innocent animals. Their blood for our sin. Their death for our life. Now we think of soap and water as being the best means of becoming clean yet soap and water are only able to clean our outside. So too “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer” also, we are told in verse 13, only provided outward cleanness. If we want to have our inside clean—if we want to be clean of our sin and our guilt—we must have Christ’s blood. The author of Hebrews is emphatic on this point as he states in verse 14: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” And we see here as well that this was the plan not only of Christ but of our compassionate triune God—Christ the Son offered himself by the eternal Spirit as a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice to God the Father.
Hebrews goes on to note that this is part of the necessity of Christ’s coming and mediating a new covenant. The old covenant only provided for an earthly inheritance—a temporary covering of sin. But with Christ’s coming, he inaugurates a new covenant “that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (v. 15). With Christ’s death, those who know him are free from any and all sins committed—sins past; sins present; sins future—for he has died in our place—his blood is given as a ransom for our eternal life.
An analogy is provided beginning in verse 16. If we consider how human wills work, those who stand to inherit will not do so while the person is still living, but only once the person who made the will has passed on. The contract and stipulations of a will only click in once a person has died. So, too, the first covenant also had to be put into effect with blood—that is, with death (v. 18). Initially forgiveness for sins leading to death could only occur when those sins were covered by the death of animals on behalf of those who committed the sins. As we’ve already seen, when Moses proclaimed the Law he sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the scroll and the people, and in verse 19 we see that he stated an echo of the words which Jesus used when he institutes the new covenant, namely, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep”—except that Jesus makes an important addition: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (I Cor. 11:25). When Jesus states this, it’s really quite extraordinary for he’s still alive. Yet he sees the cross before him. He knows that this eternal inheritance he has come to provide will not take effect until he dies. It is when he dies that the new covenant clicks in. Without his death, we cannot be inwardly clean. And without his resurrection, we cannot receive his life.
Again the old covenant, the sacrificial slaughter of goats and calves was always understood to be a temporary measure—a provisional means—of dealing with human sin, of dealing with our natural inclination, since the time of the Fall, to disregard God’s ways and turn to our own. But with the coming of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, no further sacrifices are necessary.
What is set up for us here in Hebrews is an association akin to that of a copy and its original. As I mentioned last week, Ron and I had the opportunity to take a few days off and head up to Bar Harbor, Maine, where we spent two and a half days hiking various trails in breath-taking Acadia National Park. At a few points we couldn’t resist taking some photos, trying to capture the beauty around us. But though photos can serve as lovely reminders of places we have visited, in the end they’re but a poor imitation—a poor copy—of the original.
The old vs. new covenant relation is similar to this. In verse 23 we read that “It was necessary…for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these [animal] sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Earthly sacrifices are beneficial for earthly tabernacles but in order to stand before a heavenly tabernacle, we need a heavenly sacrifice—the sacrifice of Christ himself. Verse 24 tells us that “…Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” What is more, unlike animal sacrifices that need to be offered again and again each time we sin—verse 25—Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (v. 26). His first coming is for the taking of away of our sins; his second and final coming, will be to “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (v. 28).
But all of this may raise another question for us, namely, why require death—whether that of animals or of Christ, the Lamb of God—at all? Can’t we—and God—simply “forgive and forget” when we sin or fall short? Isn’t it the case that when we mess up, we think “Oh, I’m only human. What’s the big deal, after all? Everyone messes up at times”? “I’m only human.” It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “I’m only human.” It suggests that messing up is what we humans do. Falling short is nothing to worry about because it’s something that each of us has done.
Now certainly there are ways in which we fall short as humans that really aren’t a big deal—being late for an appointment; not putting the garbage out in time for it to be picked up (as we did last week); not getting around to some task we’ve been intending to do. But committing a sin whether of commission—breaking God’s law—or omission—not fulfilling the good God calls us to do for him and others—is a big deal. Yet even then, we tend to downplay our sin reasoning that since all people sin—and God is so forgiving, after all—our sin is really no big deal.
Yet I think what this line of thinking is really conveying—and again, I confess that I, too, have been guilty of it at times—is that we don’t take sin as seriously as God does. Sin is a big deal. As we’ve been considering, it’s such a big deal that in Old Testament times it required the sacrifice of innocent animals—the exchange of their blood for our blood, of their death for our life. It’s such a big deal that from the beginning God made a provision for our first parents when they sinned—sacrificing animals to cover Adam and Even—to cover our sin and nakedness. It’s such a big deal that before the foundation of the world, our holy and loving triune God determined that the only way our sin could be dealt with once and for all would be by his dying on our behalf. Only the blood of Jesus Christ—he who was fully human and fully God—would ever be able to atone for our sin.
Have you ever considered why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to be fully human and fully God? Well Scripture doesn’t spell out the reasons for us but St. Anselm, a theologian who lived in the 11th century (1033–1109) and was archbishop of Canterbury, pondered this mystery in a little treatise he wrote entitled (in the Latin) Cur Deus Homo and translated as Why the God-Man? or Why God Became Man. Anselm stated that Jesus Christ’s death brought “satisfaction”— or reparation—due God by paying the penalty that human sin deserved. The problem God had, according to Anselm, is that once Adam and Eve had sinned, God had two choices. He could either: 1) punish all of humanity—which would frustrate the purpose for which he had created us; or 2) demand satisfaction—or reparation, the making of amends for a wrong—for the dishonor done to him. But humans could never make amends to God for their wrong because humanity owes God infinite reparation because God is an infinite God and therefore sin is an infinite crime. So what was God to do? Either humanity would need to suffer hell eternally or God himself would have to pay the penalty for this crime.
Because of the infinite nature of this crime, only one who is God could provide satisfaction for it —only God himself could adequately make amends. This is why Jesus Christ had to be fully God.
Yet because the sin was committed by a man, only a human could provide this satisfaction—only a human could adequately make amends. This is why Jesus Christ had to be fully human.
Because Jesus Christ is God—and our sin is against God—he can forgive our sins by means of his death and resurrection; because Jesus Christ is human—and humans are those who have sinned against God—his death and resurrection on our behalf are acceptable to God. He is the only way to the Father. Jesus Christ was the God-Man whose innocent sacrifice potentially made satisfaction—made amends—for us all. And unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all.
The Old Testament temporary system of sacrificing animals pointed the way to the final and permanent sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The old tabernacle was merely a copy made with human hands for our earthly residence. It was a temporary dwelling with God pointing to our ultimate permanent residence with God in Christ. Old Testament saints were promised that a Messiah would come and so they waited—they experienced a period of advent. But with the eternal Christ taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus, their wait was over; the Messiah had arrived; the “culmination of the ages” (v. 26) had come. Sin would now be done away with by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. And again, unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many”—verse 28 and, with his coming, all the saints of God who have lived since that time—including us—are also in a new period of Advent, of waiting for him to bring his salvation once and for all; to bring his peace once and for all; to bring his shalom once and for all; to make the new heavens and earth the way he intended them to be from the beginning.
What we see reflected in the final verse of this passage in particular is what theologians refer to as “inaugurated eschatology” or, in shorthand, the “already/not yet” nature of the arrival of Christ’s kingdom. We all know what an “inauguration” is. It’s a “ceremony to mark the beginning of something”—like the inauguration of a new museum or president. And there’s a paradoxical coupling of “inaugurated” with “eschatology” for “eschatology” speaks not of a new beginning but of the end of the ages or the “end times.” So how is that the coming of God in the flesh is both a beginning and an end? The phrase “inaugurated eschatology” reveals this tension by noting that, on the one hand, with the coming of the King of the earth—with the coming, the advent, of Jesus Christ—the Kingdom of God has also arrived for when he first came to earth, he began his reign. We see this each time he cast out demons—or healed the sick—or forgave sins. With each of these acts, he was bringing about his Kingdom, his shalom, the way that things ought to be. With Christ’s coming, the sins of those who have been made in his image—all people, in other words—can now be dealt with not continually as was the case with the sacrifice of animals, but once and for all for all who come to him. The coming of the King marks the beginning of his Kingdom of peace. This is the “already” of the inauguration.
But the coming of the King also marks the end of the ages. Right now, things on earth are not as God intended them to be. As we know all too well when we turn on the news, this kingdom has many adversaries that regularly destroy its peace—its shalom—its being the way that God intends it to be; the way we would like it to be. So we, too, are now in a period of advent as we wait for Christ’s final return when his work of salvation will be complete; when sin and death will cease to mar the beauty of life; when all sin and hurt and hatred will finally be conquered once and for all. This is the “not yet” part of eschatology. As a commencement ceremony marks the beginning of a new stage in a person’s life, so the coming of Christ to earth marks the beginning of the final phase of history. Christ’s Incarnation initiated the coming of his kingdom; Christ’s death and resurrection initiated his new covenant for us and for our salvation.
The Puritan John Owen wrote a book from which I’ve taken this morning’s sermon title. The full title was The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and in it he addresses, among other things, the extent of Christ’s atoning work and the centrality of Christ’s love for believers as demonstrated by his sacrifice and death on the cross. In this morning’s passage we’ve seen how it is that the death of Christ brings about the death of death.
With the death of Christ, we are now partakers of a new covenant;
With the death of Christ, we no longer need to provide animal sacrifices to amend for our sins;
With the death of Christ, we can now become inwardly clean;
With the death of Christ, we can now receive his eternal life—the eternal inheritance that is now ours by virtue of belonging to him;
With the death of Christ, we can rest assured that nothing in earth or heaven can ever separate us from his love;
With the death of Christ, we can experience glimpses of his shalom—of his peace—of the way that things ought to be;
With the death of Christ, we can know that he with us in our earthly suffering and that our earthly suffering is but temporary for one day we will dwell with him in heaven forever;
With the death of Christ, we can indeed experience the death of death.
Brothers and sisters, please pray with me….