When God made man, he put him in a perfect world in a perfect garden. Everything was good and very good. But God, in asserting his rightful sovereignty over mankind, put just and good limits upon him – in particular, he commanded Adam that he must not eat of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And if Adam chose to act like God in deciding for himself what was good and what was evil by eating of that tree, then God said that Adam would certainly die. We all know the story: Adam decided to act like God and as a result he died. He immediately died spiritually – he was cut off from fellowship with God, shown in the shame and the hiding when God came to confront him – and he began to die physically. And so we read, “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died” (Gen. 5:5).
As a result of Adam’s sin, death has come into this world. Here is how the apostle Paul put it to the Romans: “Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). This world, which when God created it was vibrant with life, with men and women who had the potential to live forever, is now characterized by human death. We see it all around us. We are seeing it in the awful deaths piling up in Ukraine as Russian forces become more and more brutal and less careful about civilian casualties. But we are surrounded by it no matter where we live. Death is part and parcel of the world we inhabit.
But we see death in other ways as well. The evil that destroys the soul and minds and families and robs children of their innocence is a form of death. It is spiritual death, and it is just as much a consequence of the evil that Adam brought into this world as is physical death. Paul describes it in Ephesians: “And you . . . were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1-3). As a result, death is not just something we are marching toward; death is a part of everything that we do.
The author of Hebrews understood this. In verse 14, he talks about “dead works.” What constitutes “dead works”? Well, since the blood of Christ purges our conscience from dead works (9:14), and we are to repent of dead works (6:1), dead works are sinful works. But why are they considered “dead”? P. E. Hughes (following John Owen) suggests that works are dead when they (1) proceed from people who are spiritually dead in sins, (2) are accompanied by sinful (dead) fruit, and (3) end in eternal death. Everything that we do, apart from the saving grace of God in Christ, is a dead work in some sense. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is explicitly sinful, nor does it mean that lost folks can’t do just and beautiful things. But what it means is this: so long as we, on account of sin, are not in a saving relationship with God, everything we do can have no lasting significance or value or benefit for us. All our works are dead works because by them we are doing things that can have no eternal or spiritual value. Even “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 15:8; 21:27), and “the plowing of the wicked is sin” (Prov. 21:4).
There is another indication of this in the text. In verse 13, our author refers to “the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean” that “sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh.” He is referring to the ceremony described in Numbers 19, in which a heifer was killed outside the camp and its body completely burned. As it was burning, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn was put into the fire, and the ashes would then be collected and used along with water to cleanse someone who had become ceremonially defiled (unable to enter the tabernacle and worship God there) through contact with a dead body. For those who were thus defiled by death, water mixed with these special ashes would be sprinkled on the defiled person and they would be cleansed and allowed again to participate in the worship of God in the tabernacle.
We too have been defiled by death. We are not only going to die, but we carry with us “the body of this death” (Rom. 7:23). We can’t get away from it. And like the ancient Israelite who had been defiled through contact with a corpse, we also are defiled, unable to enter into the Holiest of all because of sin and death.
Death is a signal that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. No one looks at death and thinks, “Well, we’re all just part of the circle of life and so I guess it’s okay.” No one gets up and sings the theme song to “The Lion King” when a loved one dies. Instead, we weep and groan and lament. I think this is one reason why the belief that this world is just the way it is and there is no explanation for it falls flat. We all intuitively know that sin and death are intruders, and we are not okay with injustice and evilbecause that’s not the way this world is supposed to be. Atheism can’t account for that universal intuition, apart from saying that for the sake of survival evolution has programmed us psychologically to believe something that is not really true. I, along with many others, do not find that explanation convincing at all. (Maybe evolution programmed us to believe that atheism is true when it’s not?)
Now we do try to drown this out. We do it by keeping ourselves frenetically busy with work or by keeping our noses in our phones and our eyes glued to the computer or the television screen. We don’t allow ourselves to think about it. I heard a preacher years ago say that we’re like a herd of cattle in a field. One day, the farmer comes out, puts a rope around the neck of a cow, and leads her off to be slaughtered. The other cows look up for a few brief moments but then go back to grazing as if nothing has happened. We do the same thing; we don’t allow death to inconvenience us too much.
But, like it or not, it is a reality. And the question is, how are we going to face it? Now there are a lot of people who respond by saying that you just have to face the reality that beyond death is nothing. And you need to live your life in light of the reality that when you die that’s it. They would say that there is no hope; there is only despair. But I want to argue this morning that this is exactly the opposite course that you should take. Death is an undeniable reality, yes; but there is also another reality, the reality of the redemption obtained and secured by Jesus Christ. And in these verses before us, we are being encouraged neither to despair nor to look to ourselves to deliver ourselves from the specter of death, but to look to Jesus Christ and to the superiority of his redemption as our only hope in life and death. In other words, to properly respond to the reality of death, we need to consider the Jesus Christ and his redemption as the object of our faith and the superiority of his redemption in giving us the confidence of our faith.
The Object of Faith: Christ and his redemption
We are called to believe in Jesus Christ as the one who saves us from death. He is the one to whom the law and the prophets pointed. He is the one who is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law. What was only typified and pointed to in the Old Covenant is realized and embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Hence, in verse 11, we read that Christ has “come an high priest of good things to come.” The law pointed to good things: things like remission of sin, although it couldn’t actually bring it by itself. It pointed to access to the presence of God, even as it barred the people of Israel from it. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that Jesus has come and actually procured those things for us. He ministers, not in an earthly tabernacle, but “by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building” – he ministers for his people in heaven, in the very presence of God, for them and to bring them into God’s presence with exceeding joy (cf. Jude 24).
However, it is important that we see how he has done this. Jesus did not come in order to become a new Moses or to give us a new law. He didn’t come to merely “show us the way.” He came to do something that no one else can do: he came to save us from our sins (Mt. 1:21) by bringing about “eternal redemption” (12). Now I want you to hear that carefully. Eternal redemption. In other words, Jesus came to save us from death, for the fact that his redemption is eternal means that whatever else this redemption does, it at least gives us eternal life. How else could it be called eternal redemption? What Adam introduced Jesus has come to destroy: “For if by one man’s offense [Adam’s] death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17). I love the way John Stott explains the significance of what Paul says there: “What Christ has done for us is not just to exchange death’s kingdom for the much more gentle kingdom of life, while leaving us in the position of subjects. Instead, he delivers us from the rule of death so radically as to enable us to change places with it and rule over it, or reign in life.”i
It bears repeating: he has saved us from death by securing redemption for us: “neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (12). All this talk about redemption and blood is significant because it means that our Lord is dealing with the fundamental problem behind death. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Sin requires a payment to be made in order for us to be freed from its claims upon us, and Jesus Christ made that payment. By making that payment, he delivered us from the claims of death upon us.
But how did he make this payment? What was the cost to Jesus? Our author, and the rest of the New Testament – indeed, the whole Bible – makes it very clear. The price was the blood of Christ. The blood of animals could never redeem us, so Christ came and shed his own blood for us (12, 14). In other words, what we have here is redemption in terms of a substitutionary sacrifice. We have sinned against God. We are therefore justly exposed to God’s judgment and that means we must die: spiritually, physically, eternally. Jesus came into this world to take our place and to suffer the consequences of sin for us. We deserved to die and so our Lord suffered death in our place.
It is important for us to see that. A lot of people throughout the ages have wanted to interpret what happened on the cross any way other than as a substitutionary sacrifice. And so people will say that Jesus died on the cross as a martyr. Or they will say that Jesus died on the cross as an example for us to imitate in terms of moral courage or in terms of love for others. I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But what I’m saying is that neither martyrdom nor example get at the heart of what happened at the cross. The heart of the blood-shedding of Jesus, his death, is that he died to atone for the sins of others. He died to purge our sins.
It follows that the result of his death is the forgiveness of sins. The apostle Paul makes this connection with redemption explicitly both in his letter to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. “In whom [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7; cf. Col. 1:14). This is obvious if Christ died as an offering (cf. ver. 14) for sin. The result of a sin offering was the forgiveness of the sin for which the offering was made. Even so, Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us, final and complete forgiveness of sins. And having purged our conscience from the guilt of our sins, we are no longer captives to death. Those who belong to Christ are now in possession of eternal life through Christ who is the resurrection and the life.
The Confidence of Faith: the superiority of Christ’s redemption
It is not just that we are pointed to the fact that Christ died and obtained eternal redemption for us. The author of Hebrews wants us to see how superior Christ’s sacrifice is to the Levitical sacrifices. Whereas the latter could only sanctify “to the purifying of the flesh” (13), the blood of Christ is able to actually “purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (cf. 10:1-3). This emphasis comes out in the words “how much more.” If the Mosaic offerings could accomplish ceremonial cleansing, how much more can Christ’s death accomplish real eternal redemption which gives us the forgiveness of sins.
The point here is not just to increase our knowledge about Christ and the redemption he came to accomplish but also to increase our confidence in Christ and the redemption he came to accomplish. There are four ways our author does this in verses 11-14.
We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved through the blood of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Who stood in our place? Not merely another man. No mere man can atone for the sins of others. I can die for someone else, but I can never stand in their place before God. But the blood of the God-man has infinite value and is able to cleanse away the guilt of all the sins of all for whom he died. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Because he is truly man, he is able to stand in the place of other men; because he is God, he is able to fully bear the infinite weight of the wrath of God which is justly against our sins.
Here we see again why it is so important to embrace both the full divinity of Christ and the full humanity of Christ. Take away either and you no longer have someone who is able to bear away our sins and save us from death.
We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved “through the eternal Spirit” (14). Now this is not an expression that occurs anywhere else in the New Testament. Some take this to be a reference to the divine nature of Christ. Others take this to be a reference to the third Person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Personally, I incline to the latter interpretation. But either way, this means that what happened on the cross was the work of God. Jesus did not go to the cross, and he didn’t endure the contradiction of sinners against himself, because he was forced to do so. It was his hour and God’s will. It was planned by God and carried out by God. Our Lord himself said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received from my Father” (Jn. 10:17-18). Twice in the book of Acts we learn that God ordained the events of the cross: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod,and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28; cf. 2:23-24). The redemption accomplished on the cross was no mere work of a man. It was the work of God himself. We can have great confidence therefore in the redemption accomplished by Christ for the cleansing of our sin and guilt.
We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved “without spot to God” (14). In the OT, only those animals that were without blemish could be used as offerings. This was a picture of Christ, who was without sin (cf. 7:26). Of course, as God he is perfectly holy in his divine nature. But the reference here is to his humanity. He was fully God, yes; but he was also fully man, born of a woman and made under the law (Gal. 4:4). He was subjected to the temptations of the devil and of the world, all the while “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) – that is, he had to endure all that while in the weakness of human frailty. And though it is perfectly true to say that in a real sense he could never have sinned, and that in fact he never sinned, yet it is also true to say that it was not easy for him. He had to learn obedience by the things which he suffered (Heb. 5:8). And yet when he came to the cross, he came perfectly holy, without having ever sinned or done a single thing that displeased his Father. The one who stands in our place is perfectly righteous. And this is so important because on the cross our Lord was not doing something to make it possible for us to please God with an imperfect righteousness. He was dying so that we could have his righteousness, the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-22). What greater reason could we have to be confident than to be able to stand before God, dressed in the robes of the righteousness of the Son of God?
We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, thus showing that the Father had accepted the sacrifice of his Son. “He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (12). He entered into the Holy of holies – into the reality to which the tabernacle pointed, into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for us. And he did this once; he did not have to keep repeating it, because he had finally and fully accomplished what he had set out to do.
Once again, we come to the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Our whole religion hinges on it. Why do I believe there is life after death? Well, a big reason is because Jesus rose from the dead and promised to bring his people with him to heaven. To Martha he said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). To which I say: Yes!
Now some folks will come back and say that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is an extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidence, and they don’t see this extraordinary evidence and so they see no need to believe it. I think this is a cheap way to wiggle out an excuse not to believe the evidence that is there: the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Christ to the disciples (including at one point to over 500 people), the emergence of the early church in the very place where these claims were made, and so on. I think when people say this is an “extraordinary claim” they are smuggling in their own unproven assumptions: like the assumption that we live in a closed system where miracles can’t happen. They have stacked the deck. They ask for scientific evidence, but they have so defined science that it can’t even discover a miracle if it slapped it in the face. No, the best evidence for the empty tomb and the appearances of Christ to the disciples and the emergence of the early church is the fact that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. And having risen from the dead, we have every reason to be confident in the redeeming power of his blood.
We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it actually achieves cleansing and conversion: “how much more shall the blood of Christ . . . purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” My friend, here is the bottom line: we do not preach a religion, the value of which merely lies in its ability to psychologically manipulate you into a state of inner tranquility. That’s therapy, not the Christian faith. Rather, we preach a person, Jesus Christ, who is actually able to give you real forgiveness of sins and who is actually able to free you from the power of sin and give you the ability to live for God when once you lived for yourself.
We all have committed real sins and we have to deal with real guilt and real shame. There are ways of getting around this, like searing your conscience, telling yourself there is no God, or that you are just a victim, and the fault of your sins lies with others. But if you really want to get rid of your guilt, you are going to have to deal with God. However God is holy, and he will not forgive the guilty. He is of purer eyes than to behold sin and he cannot look upon iniquity. The idea that God could just forgive sin and look the other way is ridiculous: in that case, he would neither be just nor holy. The only way you can ever have real confidence before God is if your sins have been purged. But that is exactly what Christ did on the cross. He purges our conscience from dead works, he deals with us on the level of the guilt of our sins because he has obtained eternal redemption for us.
But not only that. He not only cleanses us; he also converts us. His blood also enables us “to serve the living God.” This is just as much a result of Christ’s atoning work as is forgiveness. There are those who think they are praising God’s grace by claiming that people can be saved whose lives are never changed. But that is to separate what God has joined together. That is not to take the whole Christ. Listen: the work of redemption not only gives us the forgiveness of sins so that we can approach God with boldness and confidence, but it also gives us a new nature so that we will want to serve him and live for him. The grace of Christ really does free us from sin’s bondage. He can take the drug addict and free him from the iron grip of addiction. He can take the alcoholic and free him from the power of drink. He can take the man who feels enslaved to porn and give him new freedom. He can take the man who is completely self- absorbed and make him into a sacrificial husband and loving father. Now I’m not saying he makes it easy. I’m not saying it’s automatic. I’m not saying that we become freed this side of heaven from bodies and minds that are defined by the fact that we live in a broken and sinful world. But, my friend, the reality is that those who are redeemed by Christ have died to sin so that “sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The unregenerate man is lying there on the floor and the flesh has its foot on his neck. He cannot move! But when Jesus comes, he frees us from its dominion, and now we are able to put our foot upon the neck of our lusts. Do you believe that? I sometimes wonder if we do. But isn’t that what this text is saying? “How much more shall the blood of Christ ... purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
What are we supposed to do with this? Remember that the author of Hebrews was writing this because some of his audience had lost sight of the superiority of Jesus and his work and were drifting off into other things. So he was writing this epistle to turn their eyes to Jesus. That’s what I want and hope to accomplish through the power of the Holy Spirit this morning. I’m not preaching this merely to remind you of correct doctrine. I’m hoping that you will too see the superiority of Jesus, that he has what no oneelse has, that he has a complete and perfect redemption. He can do what no one else can do: he can deliver us from death. We’ve sinned and sin demands a payment. Christ had made the payment by dying for all who trust in him.
Where are you this morning? Do you feel dirty and defiled from sin? Does your conscience rise against you and condemn you? Christ is able to cleanse your conscience from your sins, dead works that they are. Do you feel helpless and unable to lift a finger against the power of the sins in your life? Do you feel enslaved to sin? Christ is able to break those chains and take those who were the slaves of sin and Satan and make them joyful servants of the living God. Isn’t that an amazing contrast? To go from producing dead works to serving the living God! What a transformation!
All this is in Christ. Look to him and trust in him! Embrace him as your Lord and Savior, for the Bible says that all who put their trust in him will never be put to shame.
i John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP, 1994), p. 156.