Thursday, December 4, 2014
In Search Of Truth, Hebrews 9:1-10
In previous verses, the author of Hebrews said that the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus makes the old one obsolete. In the first part of chapter 9 he goes on to describe the elements of this "obsolete covenant".
In the Tabernacle used for worship and sacrifice under the first covenant, there were two areas in which the priests served: The Holy Place, and The Most Holy Place. The Holy Place contained items that seemed to symbolically represent Yahweh's provision and care for his people. The twelve loaves of the "bread of The Presence" are believed to have links to the crops of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it's argued by some that the lampstand, shaped like an olive tree(the first to bloom each spring) symbolized God's faithful provision, his illuminating wisdom, and his initiating rescue of Israel (a reference to the "burning bush"). The altar of incense was also located here, although it is connected in purpose with the Most Holy Place. The burning of incense seems to have been symbolic of the prayers of God's people, which are a sweet, enjoyable fragrance to Yahweh.
This section of the Tabernacle was used regularly by the priests, but only by the priests. It was not for the common Israelite, no matter how devout or sincere in their faith they may have been.
The Most Holy Place was ONLY used by the High Priest, and ONLY once a year, and ONLY by offering a blood sacrifice. This blood sacrifice was given to repair the relationship between God and the High Priest and the people of Israel, which was regularly damaged by their unintentional sins.
Although these rituals may sound strange and dark to us, and these measures may sound too extreme a required response to unintended wrongs, they should remind us that we don't really know what true, perfect good looks like. Pure and perfect goodness is a quality that belongs only to God(Mark 10:18). Our best idea of "good" is tainted. As a result of our broken perception of good, we should also note that our sin is far darker, far more disgusting than we are aware of.
Blood/animal sacrifice must have been a disgusting and emotionally intense experience. It was likely intended to be, since at least in part, sacrifices were meant to make us aware of how severe a problem our sin is. So these reminders of the sacrificial system, of the separated nature of God, should refresh in our minds the true nature of both good and evil. Our evil is horrific, despite our often numb acceptance of it. And our evil must be dealt with in order for us to be with God and have a good relationship with him.
In describing the Holy and Most Holy places of the tabernacle, Yahweh's Holy Spirit is showing us that access to relationship with God is not allowed as long as this old system of sacrifice and the Tabernacle is in place.
The author says that this "first section" (which in the Greek may refer to the Holy Place specifically or the entire Tabernacle) is symbolic of "the present age". The Greek here could be referring to the age we live in, between Christ's resurrection and second coming, or could also be translated "the age then present", referring to the 1st Covenant time period. Both may actually be intended in classic Hebrew writing style, but "the age then present" seems to be the emphasis here.
During the time of the Old Covenant, access to God was restricted. The design of the tabernacle symbolically represented the limitations in our ability to have relationship with God. Although we don't fully experience God's revealed presence today either, we will eventually, and under the Old Covenant, believers couldn't even enter the special places set aside for relational interaction with God. Only the priests could do that and only in a very limited way.
Additionally, under the Old Covenant even the gifts and sacrifices offered were not able to completely "clear the air" between humans and Yahweh. Sin was still a huge elephant in the room that was not fully dealt with. These rituals brought about a superficial and symbolic kind of cleansing, but were not able to truly cleanse the central, internal nature of human beings.
These practices were designed to be used until "the time of reformation". The Greek word for "reformation" refers to a straightening or correcting of something that is broken or out of joint. This again implies that the old system wasn't able to correct or repair what was broken or our of joint in humanity. Something other than rituals and sacrifices performed by sinful humans was required to truly correct the internal sin problem we each are born with. The author will talk more about how Jesus accomplished this in the upcoming verses.
So What's In This For Geeks?
Last time I mentioned my tendency to, figuratively speaking, live under an "Old Covenant mentality". Another way we can find ourselves living under something like the Old Covenant today is by not "clearing the air" with God. If I find that I haven't put my sin on the table with God in awhile, I also usually realize that it's because I've become numb to my sin. Maybe I haven't recently committed one of those particular sins I've been working on lately, so I feel like everything is good. And in a sense, everything is! Because of Jesus I have no cause to fear condemnation from God. But failing to recognize and reflect on failings in our character will leave us numb to sin and spiritually stagnant.
I think as geeks we can be a little extra defensive, often because of the criticism, real or perceived, that we've received from others. We might be a little more ready to selectively compare ourselves to others in order to deal with our insecurity about our shortcomings. This tendency can result in our emphasizing the commandments of God we find easier to obey and de-emphasizing, or even compromising, the commands we fail to obey or find too uncomfortable. Little quiet things like violating speed limits or copyrights, stewing in bitterness toward someone or entertaining thoughts that devalue women or God's design for sexual interaction. Quiet hidden sins that we just leave off the table when meeting with God because we figure, "I'm NEVER going to be able to overcome that. It's just who I am."
This place of "numbness" is where Israel often ended up, resulting in them only engaging in worship on a very superficial level. It was an early indication that the Old Covenant system wasn't really a solution to the problem. Staying in this "old covenant mode" today severely cripples our ability to grow and truly experience change in our character.
God wants us to realize that yes, without him to place the sinless record of Jesus in our biographies instead of our own, we are hopeless, given over to constant and unknowing sin that is as messy and disgusting as a freshly slaughtered animal. God wants us to see that reality, truly take in the horror of it, and be broken by it. But he also wants us to see his tireless, repeated rescue a split second later, living in both a sense of brokenness and relief.
I think Psalm 51:16-17 is reflecting on the Old Covenant and coming to a similar conclusion:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
If you feel like your relationship with God has become stagnant, consider taking some extended time alone with God to truly put your every, unacknowledged and denied failing on the table with him. Stay in that moment long enough to be broken by it (it may take awhile and repeated "meetings" if you've become as numb as I often can!), and then express your love and thankfulness to God for rescuing you from the penalty of your sin, and ask him to bring you back, frequently, to the place of brokenness.
In recent months I've found that state of brokenness to be an intense place to be with God, but it's also one that results in a tremendous burden being lifted. So I hope that's something you and I both experience again very soon.