Hebrews 8:1-13 Sacrifice and Atonement: The New Covenant (Leviticus 4:27-35)

Last week I spent most of one day in Send Prison. Its a women's prison. We are seeing changing attitudes to sentencing - equal opportunities. 70% of the women are in prison for drug related offences - acting as couriers from Latin America, the West Indies and from Europe. Tragically half of the women there are from overseas. What they don't realise is that in Britain, such an offence carries an automatic custodial sentence of as much as 8-15 years.

In Britain we distinguish between kinds of offence and the punishment is intended to fit the crime. If my tree accidentally falls down in a strong wind and hits your garage, in a no fault situation, you would probably claim on your house insurance policy. If the tree was known to be dangerous however, and I did nothing about it, I would be liable to pay you compensation. Although unintentional on my part, a civil court would decide perhaps that I had been negligent and that you were entitled to restitution. If on the other hand we didn't get on very well and I decided to cut down my tree intentionally hitting your garage while you were inside, it would not be a matter for a civil court but the criminal court. So we distinguish in law between insurance claims, civil and criminal actions. On what basis? Where did our concept of law come from? The Pentateuch. The first five books of Moses. While our ancestors were worshipping trees and offering human sacrifices at Stonehenge, the Lord God was instructing the Jews in His Laws of behaviour and worship. As he brought them out of slavery in Egypt into the land of Canaan, it was with the intention that as they learnt how to worship him and behave toward one another, they would become a light to the other nations, and reveal the Lord God to the world. It is no accident that Western law is based on the Bible. In a British court, it is still the norm that we place our hand on a Bible, and swear that we will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

As we continue our journey through the Old Testament we come to that point when God gave His law to His people. There is one thing missing from our concept of the law in British society that is implicit in the Bible. It is what marks our society as essentially secular or humanist. We speak today in terms of crimes of passion, crimes against property, crimes against the person, against the State, even crimes against humanity, but we have lost sight of the most fundamental fact of all - that when we break the law, we are first and foremost offending God, we are sinning against a personal holy God.

That is why in the Bible there are not only detailed instructions about how to implement the law, what to do if your animal injures your neighbour or you have a dispute over property or marital and family obligations. With the civil and criminal law, God also instituted a sacrificial system - to remind us of the seriousness of sin and our need of forgiveness. As God brought his people out of slavery he gave them instructions as to how they were to worship Him.

They were to build a tabernacle, a tent, a place of meeting where they could worship God. Where they could communicate with God. Where they were to offer a sacrifice to atone for their sin. In Romans 6:23 it says "the wages of sin is death". It always has been. When Adam and Eve sinned, death entered the world. SIn deserves death. But God provided a way of escape. The offering of a costly, perfect, innocent, substitute could provide a temporary covering for sin, until the next one. The people had to bring their sacrifice, place their hand upon it as it was killed and recognise symbolically that the animal was dying in their place and their sinned transferred to it. In your study guide you can see how the concept of the tabernacle evolved as the people of Israel eventually settled in Canaan and Solomon built a temple. Destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt by Zerubbabel and then enlarged by Herod. You also have details of the various sacrifices required by God. The Burnt Offering, Grain Offering, Fellowship Offering, Sin Offering, and Guilt Offering. I commend the sheet to you study and if you want a larger print version there are some in the corridor.

Lets set the scene and imagine this is the tabernacle or the temple of Solomon or Herod. I'll be the priest, and you be the people. For a start forget the service being an hour and a half - it now takes all day. Forget there being only half a carpark - its now full of the sheep and goats you have brought for sacrifice along with 10% of your income this week which you place in the collection.

In the middle of the carpark is the altar on which your animal will be sacrificed to atone for your sin. There is blood everywhere. The smell of roast lamb wafts through the building. The men are allowed in here, the women are outside and the foreigners beyond the churchyard wall. Forget this being a cosy place for local people, its now the only place on earth where people can meet with God and so its full of people who don't speak English very well. The Holy Place up here is restricted to priests only. Forget the idea of a call to the ministry or ABM selection conferences. I am a priest because my father and grandfather were priests before me. Behind that curtain is the holiest of holies where God dwells. Just once a year, on the day of atonement, I may enter to offer the blood of a perfect lamb in order to atone for all God's people. An awesome place indeed. The only place on earth where God can be encountered. This is the place described in our reading from Hebrews. Aren't you glad we don't live under the old covenant anymore? Read Hebrews 9:9-14, and 9:23-10:4.

What then can we learn as Christians from this part of the Old Testament. I hope by now you have begun to see how the tabernacle, the law, the priests, the sacrifices, the atonement had but one purpose? They were shadows pointing to the light that would be revealed in Jesus Christ who would fulfil them all, who would enable us to have a relationship with God on new terms, on the basis of a new covenant. Let me explain it briefly by taking you back a few verses to Hebrews 8:1-15.

1. The Source of the New Covenant : A Superior High Priest 8:1-6
"Who sat down". Today Jesus is seated because His work is completed. There were no chairs in the Temple because the priests were always at work. Each sacrifice was a reminder that the previous one was insufficient. When Jesus offered His sacrifice He sat down, because He had finished.

Jesus is seated on a throne in heaven, at the right hand of the Father. Not only did a Jewish priest never sit down, he certainly never sat on a throne. Jesus sat down in a place of sovereignty and majesty because He is the exalted Lord, the Son of God. All this is of the greatest possible importance to us at a time when our contemporaries are ready to accept a Christ of their own interpretation. Malcolm Muggeridge said once,

"They are ready to cheer Jesus to the skies as a superstar, elect him with a huge majority to be the Honourable Member for Galilee South, sign him up with the urban guerrillas and adapt his Sermon on the Mount to be the Sermon on the Barricades."

To add to Christ is always to subtract from Him. John Donne made an assertion perhaps more relevant today than when he preached it in the seventeenth century: "He that confesses not all Christ, confesses no Christ"

If you have ever wondered what Jesus is doing in heaven, this passage tells us. From His position of majesty and glory as the exalted Son of God, Jesus is ministering in the sanctuary. He serves. The word used is "Tupos" which means a pattern or a type. When the Roman General Titus captured Jerusalem in AD 70 he took all the gold and silver items from the temple as tribute and paraded it through the streets of Rome. Roman depictions of what they plundered suggest they walked off with a fake. Jewish historians believe a switch was made and that the original seven branched candelabra, the Menorah, similar to the bronze one donated by the British Parliament still remains hidden. The story may be true. Ironically it was the Jews who had the copy in the first place. Their entire Temple, which they were so zealous for, so willing to die for, was merely a reproduction. The real one was and is in heaven.

All they had was a mere shadow by comparison with the Sanctuary in heaven. That raises a question for us. In what do we place our security. Do we try and make earth our heaven or do we recognise it is only a shadow?

Melanie Philips, writing in the Guardian recently described Britain as a society where "absolute values such as right and wrong, good and evil are dismissed as the province of cranks or the religiously devout. The great moral principles of British life are the pursuit of personal happiness and individual self fulfilment." We must be careful not to allow the world to set the same agenda of the church. Verse 5 reminds us that like the Temple in Jerusalem, our finest church buildings, our Cathedrals and Abbeys, stain glass windows, choirs, liturgies, organs and bells, are at best, or as some would say, at worst.... a pale shadow of heaven. Can you imagine treating a shadow as a friend.

Walking down the street talking with your shadow. People would think you mad. That is what we must look like to the angels in heaven when we forget that health and happiness, security and success on earth are transient, temporary, a pale shadow of what is to come. The greatest of God's blessings we experience now are truly wonderful but at best fleeting, a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth still to come. When I plan to buy something I'm always curious to find out where it came from. We are stamped with the words "Made in heaven, made for heaven". Jesus primary ministry now is not on earth, but in heaven. He ministers to us His people not on earth but from heaven. Many Anglican churches have opted for the weekly Parish Communion. I think this is a mistake, because it shows a misunderstanding of the principle work of Christ. The work of Christ now is not focused in the Eucharist. He does not apply His sacrifice when ever the Mass or Eucharist is celebrated. The Reformers would be horrified at the thought of weekly communion. Men like Calvin and Luther advocated taking communion monthly or quarterly. If you read the foreword of the Communion service in the Prayer Book you will see how serious our forebears intended communion to be - a very serious, sobering, important but occasional event. Attendance Sunday by Sunday at Morning and Evening Prayer was to hear and receive the Word of God. Jesus ministers now, not through the Eucharist on an altar, but as our intercessor, our advocate, providing assurance of pardon, and abiding security that we are truly children of God. He speaks to us, feeds us, strengthens us, guides us, directs us into holiness and service by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures as they are read and taught. This is His ministry now. The Source of the New Covenant 8:1-5.

2 The Superiority of the New Covenant 8:6-12
The temptation was to go back, back to the old ways. Hebrews makes it very clear that an entirely new Covenant was promised.

2.1 The Promise of God's Grace 8:7-9
The emphasis here is on what God has done "I will make a new covenant". God led Israel out of Egypt the way a father would take a child by the hand and lead him. God gave them His holy law for their own good, to protect them but they failed. Israel proved unfaithful and powerless to keep God's law and it ended in divorce. Israel now had a choice. Continued separation under the old covenant or reconciliation under the new. The promise of God's grace.

2.2 The Promise of Inner Change 8:10-11
The Law of Moses could declare God's holy standard, but it could never provide the motivation or desire to obey. A new heart, and new motivation was promised. The Law given in stone was external. God offered to write His will in their hearts. The Promise of God's grace, the promise of inner change.

2.3 The Promise of Forgiveness 8:12
There was no forgiveness under the Law, only condemnation, and a continual reminder of guilt. That is why the Cross is so central. It is because Christ died we can know we are forgiven. That is why further sacrifices are unnecessary. The Source of the New Covenant. The Superiority of the New Covenant.

3. The Supremacy of the New Covenant 8:13
The writer uses three graphic words to hit the final nails into the coffin of the old covenant.

Obsolete "to make old"
Ageing "geraskon" = aging into decay
Disappearing "Aphanismos" = to wipe out, total devastation. It means to obliterate a city. God has wiped out the Old Covenant completely.

The prophecy of verse 13 came true in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, the sacrifices ended and the priests killed. Since then, Israel has had neither a temple, priesthood or sacrifices. When this letter was written it was still a temptation for Jewish Christians to give up their faith and go back to the sacrificial system in the Jewish temple. How could anyone want to go back to live in the shadows or a deserted decaying wasteland. Apparently they did.

Under the Old Covenant, revelation from God came in shadow, image and prophecy. In the New Covenant that revelation finds its consummation in reality, substance and fulfilment found in Jesus Christ. That is why the tabernacle, the place of worship in the Old Covenant, was never intended to have a settled location in God's plan of redemption. It pointed to Jesus Christ who would 'tabernacle' among His people in the incarnation and since Pentecost through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. That is why this building is not like the temple, why I am not a priest and why you do not need to bring an animal sacrifice each week. Its all because of Jesus. All because of the cross. As we prepare to meet around the Lord's table I am going to close by reading Hebrews 10:11-18. I would like you to respond and read with me together 10:19-25 as a corporate act of commitment... Amen.

I am indebted to John McArthur, Warren Wersbie and Raymond Brown and their commentaries on Hebrews for ideas and content used in this sermon.