The Exclusive and Superior Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:8-16)
As we come to the end of this letter, what we find is that the author is summarizing the argument of the whole in these final verses. And what we find here are several of the great themes of the epistle in the compass of a few short verses. We see the priesthood of our Lord underlined once again in verse 12, where we are reminded that he is the one who sanctifies his people by his own blood. Indeed, he is the altar of verse 10. We also see the superiority of Jesus, especially over against the claims of a Christless Judaism. In fact, as we shall see, this is the burden and heart of this paragraph. Finally, we see the exclusivity of Jesus, for we are told, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (10). “Those who serve the tabernacle” is shorthand for those who reject Jesus and his New Covenant in favor of the Old Covenant. The author of Hebrews is arguing that those who do so have no right to our Lord’s altar and sacrifice. In other words, the benefits of the atonement of our Lord are exclusive in the sense that those who reject it have no rights to it. There is no other way to the Father apart from Christ (cf. John 14:6).
Now we live in a world which frankly rejects this. It rejects the exclusivity of the claims of Christ and argues that any kind of vague spirituality will do when it comes to relating to God. It also rejects the superiority of Christ and argues that the Christian religion in particular is a relic that needs to be discarded into the wastebin of history. Of course, the world in which we live generally does not see any need for an atonement for sins before God, for it has no categories for a Biblical understanding of who God is and what man is, what sin is, and the need for cosmic justice.
Over against the culture’s rejection of Christ and his claims, I want to hold up through the lens of Hebrews 13:8-16 our Lord’s exclusivity and his superiority in light of his role as our priest before God. And I hope that you will see this and be so convinced of the greatness and goodness of Jesus that you will not be tempted by desires and hopes for other saviors and salvations. My desire is that you will see Christ today and hear him today through his word and that in seeing and hearing you will love him and trust him and obey him as your priest before God.
The Exclusivity of Jesus
To see this emphasis in these verses, I think it will be important for us to consider the background to the text before us. What is meant by the reference to foods in verse 9? And what is the reference behind verse 11, and how is Jesus being compared to that in verse 12? Well, to understand this we need to understand the Day of Atonement and what happened to the sacrifices on that day. This feast is one of the most holy days in the Mosaic calendar and it is chronicled for us at length in Leviticus 16.
As you might know, it was on this day, and on this day only, that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, that inner chamber of the tabernacle or temple where the Ark of the Covenant lay. On that day, he would take the blood of a bullock and the blood of a goat and sprinkle their blood on the Mercy Seat as a sin offering. In this way, the sins of Israel were ceremonially cleansed, and the Israelites were granted the favor of God’s continuing presence in their midst.
Now usually, the priests ate a part of the sin offering (cf. Lev. 6:26, 29; 10:17). But not so on the Day of Atonement; on that day, the entire sacrifice was burned up. Not only was it burned up, but it was burned outside the camp. The key text is Lev. 16:27 – “And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh and their dung.” Of course, the way this would have worked in the days when the Jerusalem temple had replaced the tabernacle, the offerings would have been burned outside the city.
This is the background to our text. It illuminates the reference to foods in verse 9 as well as the following verses. All this is a reference, in other words, to the rituals surrounding the Day of Atonement in particular and to the Law of Moses in general. In other words, those folks who “have been occupied” with “meats” are folks who are concerned with keeping the food laws of the Old Covenant. They are concerned with what was clean and unclean, as set down by Moses. In other words, these are people who are trying to relate to God, not through Jesus Christ, but through their keeping of the Law of Moses. It is for this reason that we read in verse 9, “For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The Law came by Moses; grace and truth by Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). Those who reject Jesus but keep the Law are left with nothing more than various food laws and other religious regulations than cannot give heart-establishing grace.
Moreover, those who do so have no right to Jesus (10). He is the altar at which every believer in Christ worship and approaches God. Those who “serve the tabernacle” in this context are those who keep the Law while rejecting Jesus. Thus “they have no right to eat” at this altar. They have their own meat and food, but it is not the food that gives life. Do you remember what our Lord said? “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). The altar is Jesus, and his flesh is the food that gives life, the very thing that those who served the tabernacle rejected.
Now in verses 11-12, the point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. He is the one to whom the entire holy day pointed. It is his blood and his sacrifice that it pointed to. But more than that: it pointed to the fact that he would suffer outside the city walls of Jerusalem, just as the bodies of the sacrifices were burned outside the camp.
So with all that in mind, there seems to be two big points that the author is making. First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and in particular of the Day of Atonement. Second, it is in light of this fulfillment that he can say that it is at the altar of Jesus that God’s people find food that gives eternal life, whereas those who reject Jesus for the Law are left without. They have “meats,” but this is not the food that gives life, for that can only be found in Jesus. Just as the priests on the Day of Atonement couldn’t eat those sacrifices, even so those who clung to the Old Covenant while rejecting Jesus couldn’t eat of his sacrifice.
In other words, our author is establishing through the language of OT figure and type the exclusivity of Jesus. Those who reject Jesus have no right to eat at the altar of his sacrifice (10). But who then has this right? The apostle John answers the question, doesn’t he? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the power [authority or right – same word as in Heb. 13:10] to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:11-12). Our Lord had explained it this way in John 6: those who eat his flesh and drink his blood – in other words, those who partake in the benefits of his sacrifice – are those who believe in him. As he puts it in John 6:35, “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me will never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.”
But why is the exclusivity of Jesus so important? You might say, “So what? I don’t care whether or not I have the right to eat at his altar.” Well, let’s consider what you can only get through Jesus, and in no other way. It is here that we now meet with the superiority of Jesus.
The Superiority of Jesus Christ
What I next want to point out from these verses is that Jesus gives us three things that no one else can give. But each of these three things depends fundamentally upon an even more basic and wonderful attribute of our Lord: his unchanging character. This is highlighted in verse 8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In an ever-changing world, these are sweet, sweet words. As the hymn- writer put it:
This reality is especially sweet when we see what they are connected to. We see from these verses that our Lord is unchanging in the grace he gives, in the atonement he provides, and in the city he builds.
Jesus is unchanging in the grace he gives.
Recall verse 9: “Be not carried about with divers [varied] and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The different and strange teaching to which the author alludes is the effort of some to draw these believers away from Christ and his saving work and to rely instead upon their identity as Jews and their keeping of the Law of Moses. But the Law does not give grace. It can provide a witness to Jesus, but if you don’t acknowledge him, it’s not even good for that. On the other hand, Jesus gives grace. In fact, all grace from God comes through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). The “exceeding riches of [God’s] grace in his kindness toward us” are “through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).
The thing is that you don’t have to be a first-century Jew to feel the pull towards the Law as the basis of your relationship towards God. Ask most people why they think God will let them into heaven, and the most common answer will be something along the lines of, “I’ve been a pretty good person. God knows my heart. He knows that I’ve always tried to be kind to others.” In other words, they are not really banking on grace; they are trusting in their own righteousness. They believe that their good works will get them into heaven.
The problem with this is that when we trust in our good works, we aren’t thinking of our responsibility before God on the terms that God demands. We are only thinking of how we treated people, and we are only doing so in comparison to other people. We treat escaping God’s holy and just wrath the way we might treat escaping the claws of a bear: as long as we can outrun other people, we’ll be okay. And so we think that as long as we are as good as, or maybe a little better than, most people, we won’t have to worry about the judgment of God.
This is tragically wrong on a number of levels. First of all, our main problem is not how we treated other people; our main problem is how we’ve failed to love God with all our hearts. We haven’t been thankful for God’s gifts. We don’t care about God’s law; we have been a law unto ourselves. We may profess with our lips that God exists and even call ourselves “spiritual,” but unless we have been changed by a miracle of the heart-renovating work of the Holy Spirit, unless we have been born again, we will live as if God doesn’t even exist. Second, there’s a problem with our standard. The standard is not how we compare with other people. The standard is the perfection of the holy law of God. Being better than others won’t get anyone into heaven; only perfect obedience will. God is holy; why should he let a sinner into heaven?
You might reply, “Because God is loving.” Yes, God is loving. But God’s love is a holy love. It is also a sovereign love, and he is under no obligation to love a corrupt and wicked worm. We cannot get away from the fact that God is holy and that our sins bring us under his just and holy wrath.
This is what the Bible says about those who try to relate to God on the basis of their own goodness: “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). This verse is just saying that God only accepts perfect obedience and that anything else brings you under his just curse. But who can say that they are perfect before God? No one can! For as the Scriptures teach, and as our own consciences testify, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
So if you’re hoping that “being good enough” is all you need to guarantee eternal life, you are grievously mistaken. No one can be justified before God on the basis of good works. No one.
How then are people rescued from the eternal consequences of their sins? The apostle Paul tells us: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14). What this verse is saying is that Christ suffered the curse of the law in the place of his people, “the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement; he is the sin offering whose blood is sprinkled before God for the forgiveness of sins. He is the sacrifice on whose head the sins of his people are laid, enduring the punishment for their sins, so that they might be released from the penalty of their sins. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As our text puts it, he sanctifies the people with his own blood (Heb. 13:12).
Why go through all this? Well, for one thing; it’s the good news of the gospel. But you need to understand this if you really want to understand what grace from God really is. Biblical grace is gospel grace; there is no other kind (cf. Acts 20:24). What grace means is not just that God goes easy on you. It’s not just that you don’t get what you deserve. It’s much, much more than that. To have God’s grace, you must belong to God’s Son, to Jesus Christ. And if you belong to him, it means that he took all your sin, and it means that you get his perfect righteousness credited to your account. How do you know you belong to him? The answer to that question is the answer to this one: do you believe in the Son? Do you trust in him? Have you received him as Lord and Savior? That is the test.
Now if this is true of you, it means that there is nothing for you to do to merit God’s favor. Did you hear that? Nothing! It means that there is no sin that threatens your acceptance with the Father, and that there is no good work that you need to do to keep that relationship with the Father. The child of God doesn’t work for God’s favor; he or she works from God’s favor. We only fight forgiven sins:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin.
This is what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. Grace doesn’t mean that Christ did most of the work of salvation and now the rest is up to you; no, it means that all the righteousness needed for the everlasting favor of God is found in Christ, not in us. So you see that grace is not just God looking the other way; nor does it mean that God just goes easy on us. It is that all the demands and requirements of justice have been fully satisfied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, this is grace from him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The grace of our Lord doesn’t wear out or grow old. He doesn’t change, which means that he is always gracious towards his people. It is the backdrop of passages like Heb. 4:14-16, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
These verses also show that grace doesn’t just mean that God is favorably disposed towards us; it also means that he moves to our help. That is the sense in our text: God’s grace establishes our hearts. He cleanses and purifies them; he unites our hearts to fear his name. But the fact that God calls the help he gives us grace is a reminder that the help we ask for is not help we get because we deserve it but help we get because we are in Christ.
So go to Christ for grace. And go and go and go, because his grace is an unchangeable grace, it is a never- ending grace.
Look, there is no one and no place you can go for this kind of grace. You won’t find it in people; you won’t find it in any religion apart from Christ. He is superior to every competitor, for his grace is greater than all our sin.
Jesus is unchanging in the atonement he provides
Our Lord sanctifies his people by his blood. He is the altar at which we find peace with God. He is the one by whom we find redemption. By him we can be released from the penalty and power of sin. By him the guilt of our sin is fully dealt with. By him we can be reconciled to God, so that we who were once enemies can now be friends. By him we can be released from the holy wrath of God against our sin.
And this atonement our Lord provided is not something that has to be achieved over and over again. Remember the words of this epistle in chapter 10: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (10-14).
In other words, the atonement is unchanging in its effectiveness. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever in terms of his ability to save all who come to him. There is no need to add to his work; no need to contribute to our own redemption.
Jesus is unchanging in the city he builds.
I love verse 14: “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” It is the city that Abraham sought: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:8- 10). And, “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (16).
We may be strangers and pilgrims in this world, but we have an eternal home. It is an inheritance which is both imperishable and unchanging, reserved in heaven for those who belong to Jesus (1 Pet. 1:4). The greatest inheritance in this earth will be taken away. Death allows us to take nothing with us. As the apostle Paul put it, we came into this world with nothing, and we will go out with nothing (1 Tim. 6:7). But for the Christian, death is only the door to glory. It is the entrance into our eternal home.
But I think it’s important for us to also remember the first part of this verse: “For here have we no continuing city.” He has not promised that if we have enough faith and keep our noses clean that we will have a nice life or achieve the American Dream. Our Lord’s life was not like that; the apostles’ lives were not like that. So we shouldn’t get upset with God if our dreams for this life aren’t coming true. He hasn’t promised you a nice ride this side of heaven. What he has promised is an eternal city in the presence of God forever. There is no bait and switch. He hasn’t promised earthly health, wealth, fame, and comfort, so if we don’t have that it’s not because God is unfaithful. He is faithful. If you belong to Jesus, you have a city, a home in heaven, a place prepared for you.
In these three ways, our Lord demonstrates his superiority over his competitors. No one gives grace like Jesus, provides an atonement like him, or prepares a city for his people like he does.
How we should respond to these truths
On the one hand, we should not think that we relate to God and gain his favor through sacrifices that we make. But on the other hand, there is a kind of sacrifice that pleases God. They are not sacrifices to gain his favor, but rather sacrifices in response to his grace. Three are mentioned in verses 13-16.
The first is the sacrifice of the self, the taking of the cross to follow Jesus. You see this in verse 13: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” The language here carries the exact same meaning of our Lord’s words to his disciples that to follow him they must take their cross. Jesus took a cross; so must we. Jesus endured the reproach of sinners outside the city gates; so must we. We must be willing to be considered outsiders because we are. We have no continuing city here, but we seek the one that is to come.
But it is only when we are convinced of the exclusivity and superiority of Jesus to everyone and everything else that we will take our crosses and follow him like this. Why would you otherwise? If there are other options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If it doesn’t matter if you follow him or not, why would you? But the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to the Father shows us that this is not optional. On the other hand, if there are better options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If something else can give you something better, why not go for that? But no one can give you gospel grace. No one can give you salvation from sin that you didn’t merit. Only our Lord can do that. No one else can truly and fully atone for your sins in your place. No one else can give you an inheritance in heaven; only Jesus Christ can do that. He is the exclusive and the superior way to the Father.
Then there is the sacrifice of praise. You see that in verse 15: “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” Of course, the language of sacrifice here is not to indicate that praising God is a hard thing! Rather, the language of sacrifice is used in the sense of something offered to God. And it’s praise, not propitiation. Again, we don’t offer to God to get his favor or to merit his love. We offer praise to God in response to his grace towards us in and through Jesus Christ. In fact, the only appropriate response to the gift of God to us in Christ is to receive it with faith and thanksgiving.
Note that word, continually. Paul wrote the Corinthians and warned them, in light of the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). Murmuring is never good because it betrays a lack of contentment in God. It shows that we do not believe the Lord is taking care of us. It is the evidence of a lack of faith and joy in God. Hence, what should characterize us is therefore continual praise, an ongoing recognition that God is good and that God is faithful. It means that our praises should not be determined solely by our emotions, but that our heart should be calibrated by the doctrines we believe. Do you believe that by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourself; do you believe that salvation is from beginning to end a gift of God? Then praise him!
Finally, there is the sacrifice of good works. Note the order, this is so important. We don’t do good works to atone for our sins. We do good works because we have been atoned for our sins. Hence, we go on to read, “But to do good and to communicate [share, the word here is 𝑘𝑜𝑖𝑛𝑜̅𝑛𝑖𝑎] forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16).
Good works should be the outflow of grace in the life. It will be, in fact. Where there are no good works, you can be sure that there is no grace. And in particular, one good work that is mentioned is that of sharing what you have. If you are a recipient of God’s free and sovereign grace, and knowing that you have received salvation this way, how can you not want to share freely what you have with others? Is it not incongruous for a person to say that they believe in salvation by grace and yet be selfish and stingy? Sharing is the natural outflow of God’s grace in the life.
This is in fact how the apostle Paul sought to motivate the Corinthians to contribute for the poor saints in Jerusalem. In fact, he calls it a grace. He speaks to them “of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia” and goes on to describe how “that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor. 8:1-2). “Therefore,” he writes, “as ye abound in everything, in faith, and in utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also” (7). But he not only motivates them by the example of the Macedonians; above all, he points them to the grace of Christ: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (9). We show grace in concrete and specific ways because we have been given grace in Christ.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s not just get by. Let’s abound in grace and in the showing of grace. Let the praises of God be often on our lips and always in our hearts. Let us be willing to lay down our life for our. Lord and his kingdom. Why? Not to earn salvation, but because in Jesus it is the gift of free and sovereign grace.