One of the terms Hebrews 9 used is, “to clear the conscience of the worshiper,” and the other is, “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.” Every time the letter of Hebrews speaks of blood being offered, the subject is always about the worshipper’s conscience. It is never something that God demanded for himself.
Briefly, the law was lodged in the heart of man in the Garden of Eden, when it was offered to mankind as a way of accusing God, the temptation being it would give us freedom to be our own gods. Instead of freedom, the law was a two-edged sword, filling our own heart with its judgement. Being uncomfortable with this inner voice of guilt, mankind went about trying to shift blame onto others and this has since brought disturbance to our relationships. Law, rather than grace, ruled our communities.
Because of mans’ fall, the judgement of the law within our heart can be far out of proportion to the crime, and this can lead to vengeance at exaggerated levels, even genocide being seen as a “righteous” act. We see so many examples of this in the Old Testament, especially the near extermination of the tribe of Benjamin for their sinful act.
In other words, the law so infects the conscience of man, that it can lead humanity into outrageous acts and to death on a massive scale. We have seen this repeatedly in human history, in all our wars. The scriptures capture this with Lamech’s statement, “If Cain is avenged seven times then Lamech shall be avenged seventy times seven times.” This is what the author of Hebrews said was the problem. The solution Jesus proffered was to “forgive seventy times seven times.” These two statements represent the old and the new creations.
Our cultures developed the concept of charam (in Hebrew) where people, or substitutes, like animal sacrifices, could be devoted to the gods (or to God) for destruction, to atone for, or appease, the legal demands of the law in our conscience, bringing peace to ourselves and to our relationships. This is the issue the author of Hebrews 9 was dealing with. “Under the law,” the author of Hebrews said, there is no forgiveness of sin “without blood.”
So, when the people were coming close to God in the Exodus and founding of their nation with the law at Mount Sinai, and God was dwelling among them in the tabernacle, they needed sacrifice to atone for the sense of failure in their hearts and communities. They equated God with law, so the closer they came to God the more the law was aroused in their conscience. They could not approach God without blood, lest a plague of incrimination and fault finding would break out with self and mutual destruction among their populations.
While sin is in our conscience, we cannot approach God, or it will mean an outbreak of death throughout our communities. This is because of the nature and violence of man, not God. When Aaron sinned by making Israel a Golden Calf, the Levites slew 3,000 of their brethren to prevent a wider elimination of their tribe in civil war. Without “honour killings” and sacrifice, Israel would have self-exterminated in the Wilderness. The tabernacle indicated that while law ruled our hearts, we could not draw close to God without blood.
This is why religious people can be the most incriminating of others, because of their knowledge of the law. However, it is a misunderstanding of God, driven by our fallen conscience, about which we are usually unaware. Law was given to Israel in the Old Covenant, not because God wanted it that way, but because this was the nature of fallen humanity God was condescending to work with.
This, again, is why Jesus looked so different when he came. He spoke of atonement more in line with how the Prophets referred to it, as mercy to our neighbour. He meant that acts of evil couldn’t be overcome by further evil, by more bloodshed, but by acts of mercy, bringing healing to our neighbour and enemies who had been trodden down my mistreatment. Instead of vengeance by the law, self-giving service apart from the law would redeem our communities.
This is the atonement Jesus brought to us, by the offering of himself. In this act he served our conscience, bringing to us the knowledge of God’s forgiveness, love and nature, releasing us from condemnation into a following life style of love towards our neighbour. The cycle of charam was broken by our offering of Christ for our sin. Hs blood took away our need of shedding the blood of others, by releasing into our hearts and communities the knowledge of God’s forgiveness.
Another important term Hebrews 9 uses, in the NIV version is “ransom.” “He has died as a ransom to set them free from their sins.” This is how Jesus explained his cross in the book of Luke. This is his atonement: “The Son of man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The cross is a service to us.
A ransom is paid to release a captive from kidnappers. Who did Jesus pay the ransom of his blood to? Was it paid to God? No, God didn’t kidnap us. Was it paid to satan? No, God doesn’t pay satan. We were kidnapped by our conscience and the ransom was paid to our conscience to free our hearts from condemnation and the acts of hostility condemnation led us into. This is the sum of the terms used in Hebrews 9 for the reason blood was offered.
Throughout the Old Testament, God gets the blame for blood sacrifice, as though it was something he delighted in. But the truth is that it stems from our own human violence and that God came in Christ to do away with the shedding of blood, as shown when he stopped the daily sacrifice by cleansing the temple. Jesus “offered himself to God,” that is to do his will, not that God demanded blood, but in obedience to the character of God in suffering, not in self-assertion, helped in his sufferings by the Holy Spirit.
So, in Christ the meaning of sacrifice has changed, from bloodletting in our human cultures. Sacrifice is no longer an act of seeking punitive justice through blood, but of giving one’s self in love to help and restore others. The whole pagan concept of sacrifice has been turned upside-down by the cross. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1) Sacrifice is now living service that brings God’s love to our enemies, (Rom 12:1-2, 9-21)
When the author of Hebrews stated that Christ went into the heavenly tabernacle with his blood, to cleanse the heavenly furnishings of the tabernacle, he was speaking symbolically. He was saying that this singular act of Christ on the cross brought a full assurance to our heart of God’s forgiveness, that cleanses absolutely our relationship with the God of heaven. It is a picture of our fully restored relationship with God, using the tabernacle imagery well understood to the readers.
Christ’s love took us behind the veil of guilt right into God’s presence, from which we had hid ourselves behind the blood of others, and so Christ healed our relationship with the God we feared. And what was the purpose of this, as the letter of Hebrews stated it? To heal our relationships with the ones we formerly scapegoated for our sin. “To bring Jew and gentile together in one new body, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2)
Another key phrase Hebrews 9 used was, “the time of the new order.” This harkens back to Hebrews 1, the changing of the creation, the new heavens and new earth. At the end of the Old Testament age, what Hebrews 9 calls “the end of the age,” Christ came to take away our sin. In doing so he established a new order, without the earthly tabernacle. A new heaven means heaven is now opened to us through a healed conscience. A new earth means that our new conscience allows us to serve, rather than incriminate, our neighbour. The new heaven is the new relationship with God the cross brings us into. The new earth is the new relationships his cross brings us into with our neighbour, the poor, the foreigner and our enemy. The vertical and the horizontal of the cross.
“He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” This is the resurrection of our body, the swallowing up of death, the eradication of the curse from the whole creation, at the final appearing of Christ. Heaven and earth become fully merged into one wholistic life.
“The chastisement that brought us peace was laid upon him and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53) This isn’t just spiritual peace, but the peace that our healing brings to our nations.
We have often looked at passages like Hebrews chapters 8-9 as largely about our own salvation, while the tabernacle being described was always about the salvation of the cosmos, especially through restoring new relationships in Israel and then in their surroundings. This would have been how the readers in the days of the author of Hebrews understood his message.
We have also often seen our mission as giving people “assurance of salvation” through a contractual understanding of the gospel. It we tamper with that contract, say by looking at the cross in some other way than a legal pact with God, then it can challenge our assurance. However, the purpose of the cross isn’t legal assurance, but a renewed soul. The purpose of our mission isn’t to give people “assurance of personal salvation,” but to make disciples, who bear the image of Christ.
We can’t flee to passages like Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 15, where he said we are saved if we believe Christ died for our sins and rose again. In passages like this, Paul wasn’t speaking of a legal matter, but transforming hearts and relationships. We sometimes prefer the contractual approach to the gospel, because it allows us to function in worldly values, while “believing.” The story of Paul in Corinthians was the renewal of our selfish power, and in Romans the rebirthing of the creation.
The issue the New Testament writers were getting at was focused around our lives together, about which the church was to be the light. The human powers of this world manipulate us into divisions, playing on the fallen characters they know dwell within us. We prevent ourselves from a cooperative relationship that can bring newness to our communities, being controlled by other gods in our characters. These are the gods the gospel has come to overthrow in us. While we divide and point to the next person at fault, the purpose of the gospel in our cosmos remains on hold.