A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens

Hebrews 7.21-28

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he (Jesus) holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Hebrews 7:23-24

When this letter was written there was a move within the population for people to return to the old faith, to the old ways. We might suggest that it was a desire to return to the Law, and in doing so, to move away from faith in Christ. For the sake of the sermon, I will presume that Paul wrote this letter to the Hebrews, but that authorship is questioned by scholars. With the scholarship they apply to this question of authorship, apart from doubting that it was Paul who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, they cannot agree on who the author might have been. So, I will stay with Paul.

There can be little doubt that the Christian movement of the time was subjected to persecution, isolation, and prejudice. To maintain the faith under such circumstances demanded a very conscious and definite decision to stand out from the crowd. The author of the letter to the Hebrews is encouraging the people, those who were wandering back to the Law which they knew, to bring their faith to the solid and unchanging God in Jesus Christ.  They had moved from the Law of Moses to Christ. They had moved from that which was perceived to be temporary with a need to be constantly renewed with fresh sacrifice, to the one permanent sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice offered by our Lord was final. There was no need for ongoing regular sacrifice of sheep, goats, and cattle.

His question appears to be one of why the people would return to something they perceived as temporary when they could stay with Christ whose sacrifice was so conclusive. He refers to the priests of the old faith who were themselves sinners, and who were forced to make sacrifice after sacrifice in order that the faith might be maintained. Why would they want to continue to make sacrifices day in and day out when Jesus made himself to be a sacrifice which would end all sacrifices? As well as this there always had to be many priests of the Law because they naturally aged and died. Jesus as our High Priest is forever. He will never be replaced.

Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. He is our High Priest, and he is therefore Holy, blameless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. The priests of the old and familiar religion could not declare these qualities for themselves. They were subjected to the very same temptation and sin evident in the people around them. Jesus does not suffer from this shortcoming.

The perfection of God in Jesus means that there is no need of further levels of sacrifice. In the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God, we believe that we are saved from sin, the devil and from death. In our baptism we are adopted by God as God’s children, and being God’s children, we are siblings of Jesus Christ. When we accept that we are now protected from sin, the devil and from death, we know that we will be at one with God in God’s kingdom.

This does raise the question of how we might interpret salvation. There are some people who will identify a particular time when they believe that God has opened their mind and their heart to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. They will state quite deliberately that they are saved because of that one experience.

There are other people who will never be able to identify a time, date, or experience when God has become evident in their lives, and they will be just as convinced that salvation is theirs. Paul, in the letter to the Hebrews states that the people are saved, as in past tense; as being saved, in present tense, and that the people will be saved, in future tense.

This belief of salvation, which is not defined by past, present, or future makes more sense for me. It is my belief that we are saved and that we are being saved. There is not a static or stationary point where we can declare salvation to be concluded prior to our standing before God in God’s Kingdom. It is only then that the process of salvation will be concluded.

One of my favourite theologians states that we are constantly in a state of becoming who we will be, and that the process of becoming will not conclude until such time as we stand before God in God’s kingdom.

Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews describes the faith in very powerful language and from different perspectives. He speaks of what God has done for us. This is bound to God’s word. When God created the world, he did so with conviction, with word, and then declared the creation to be good. When God speaks, the action is done. There is no maybe, or possibly. There is no pretend or deceit. There is the word and there is the action.

It is just as definite when God sends his Son to live this earthly life. Jesus came in complete obedience, and it is through his obedience that we are offered the gift of salvation. Without Christ there can be no eternal salvation in the sense we understand and accept it. Without Christ we would still be bound by Law: We would be tied up with precious man-made rules and religion. Instead of the grace of God being evident in our lives we would be confronted by other people instructing us on how we must live so that we might be seen to be holy. We would be taught that our rituals would be more important that the grace, love, and mercy of our God.

The bottom line is this, “Do we want to live under the mercy of God, or do we want to be ruled by the prejudices of a human interpretation of religion?”

This is the dilemma faced by Paul. This is the environment he wants the people to recognise for what it is. He is encouraging the Hebrews to focus their faith and understanding on the promise and the permanence of putting their faith in Christ. There is only one saviour, and while concentrating on Christ may bring difficulties and persecution; pain and anguish; for this is what the people experienced at that time, the reward will be eternal salvation. Paul is teaching that there is no other true path to God. There is only Christ and his sacrifice for all creation. His sacrifice for you and for me is sufficient for our eternal salvation.

When we read this Letter to the Hebrews we are encouraged in our own faith. It is the promise that in Christ all will be well. We learn that having faith in Christ does not ensure a happy and trouble-free life. The reality is that this Letter, like all other writings in the bible, if understood correctly, will never promise an easy life without hardship. Having faith in God does not promise an easy life. It is certain that Mary did not find it easy to sit under that cross and watch her son die. Jesus was subjected to much pain prior to and during his crucifixion. People we know and love have suffered pain and sorrow. Many of us have also suffered in this life.

What our scriptures do promise is that we will have divine help in our need and desire to overcome hardship. We remember that when the letter was written to the Hebrews the early church was being persecuted. Death was imminent: punishment was common. And the call was to maintain faith in Christ, and God will give the people the strength to overcome and to move forward.

This is also true for us.

It is unfortunate that some people teach that a life of faith will exclude all pain and difficulty. This means that when pain and difficulty emerge, as it surely must, the question of sin and punishment emerges. “Who sinned that this man was born blind?” The follow on is that a God of love would never allow sickness, or natural disaster, or indeed war. God does not implement these horrors. Humanity is more often at fault than our God.

We are not blind to the reality of our life. While our life will bring great joy and happiness, it will also bring great heartbreak and pain. It is our faith in Christ that will give us the strength and the desire to overcome. This is the lesson of the letter to the Hebrews. We are to keep the faith, and our God will give us the strength, and the courage, we need. More than this, God will take away our fear of death, the devil, and the guilt of our sins.