Only in the gospel can we understand how God can both know us completely and see us as perfect.
Billy Joel revealed in a recent New Yorker article that he did not want to sing “I love you just the way you are” in his most recent Madison Square Garden Concert. When it was put on the set list by his manager, he complained that it was too “Middle of the Road. But he did sing the song and in ending it he revealed perhaps a different reason why it seems out of place today. After finishing the famous lyrics
I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.
He added “then we got divorced.”
This reveals the problem we have when we say someone is perfect, or when some tells us we are perfect “just the way we are.” They don’t really mean it and we don’t believe them. They don’t mean it because they don’t know us. They love what they have seen, what they want us to be, but not who we are – at least that is what Billy Joel found out. Maybe he had some malingering guilt about singing this song because he knew the marriage – for all it melodic devotion – did not last. Even now if someone were to say “you are perfect Billy – I love you just the way you are,” he would probably say “you don’t know me.”
Call it guilt, call it complicated emotions about the past, but it can be an issue for people searching for God. We say “God loves you” but you think, “that may be true, but I don’t love me. And these people around me don’t really know me. I want to think that God loves me but how can he love me if he knows me completely?”
People wanting to approach God must always deal with this. How can I approach God? Even if he is there, what does he think of me? The author Anne LaMott tweeted about how she approaches the time of repentance in her church:
We have a short, silent time of confession Sunday. I always say something like, “Look–I think we both know what we have on our hands here.”
Transition: The author of Hebrews talks about guilt in chapters 9 and 10. And he reveals why people feel guilt and why even religious people still carry around guilt. The first point he makes comes from the Tabernacle, the central worship site of the people in Moses’ day. It was a tent with two rooms, the first called the Holy Place and the inner room called the Most Holy Place. He says that this structure reminds us that we are not able to enter God’s presence.
The Tabernacle showed that the way to God was not open
Read Hebrews 9:1-10
The two rooms of the tabernacle are called the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The priests regularly went into the outer room. But only the High Priest went into the inner room and he always brought blood. There is a lot to say about the form of worship in the days of Moses, but the author of Hebrews wants us to know that the Holy Spirit was showing us that the way “into the Most Holy Place” had not yet been disclosed.” The way is not open because the blood of bulls and goats can only make us outwardly clean; it doesn’t really cleanse our consciences.
Transition: But Jesus’ death changed all of that. The author of Hebrews wants us to see Jesus’ death not as an act of corporal punishment or of injustice – which it was — but to see it as a sacrifice, a sacrifice by a high priest of his own blood.
Jesus has entered heaven with his own blood and his sacrifice can cleanse the conscience.
Read Hebrews 9:11-15
Jesus’ sacrifice was better for several reasons. The earthly high priests entered a man-made sanctuary, but Jesus entered heaven itself. The earthly priest entered with the blood of bulls and goats but Jesus entered the presence of God with his own blood. But how does this better offering cleanse our consciences?
The blood of Jesus is a better atonement. It is not only the blood of a person but it is the blood of the very Son of God. When we have sinned and seek atonement under the old covenant we could make an animal sacrifice. As helpful as this would be, as obedient to the Old Testament Law that might be, most of us know in our hearts that the blood of a goat is not a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of a person. When we sin people are hurt; humans suffer. You cannot atone for that with the blood of an animal alone.
Transition: But why does blood have to be involved anyway?
You might have the same question that I had when I was a new Christian. I wondered why does blood need to be part of the atonement? Before I became a Christian, I spent very little time in churches. One of the things I noticed when I started attending my local Methodist Church and singing the hymns was that there was a lot of talk of blood.
Hebrews 9:16-22 explains that nearly everything in the first tabernacle had to be purified with blood and eventually concludes with the statement: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The Bible does not seem to say why blood is required and I don’t think it is a question that anyone would have asked. Blood atonement was just part of the ancient world both pagan and Jewish. So the scriptures don’t tell us why they just reveal how Jesus’ atonement is superior.
But if I were to try to answer why blood is necessary – this being my own thoughts on the question, nothing more – I would think it has to do with the character of sin. What is sin really? Sin is, most broadly, disobeying the will of God by either doing something he prohibits or not doing something he requires. But why does God command certain things? God knows how we should live. He knows what leads to the abundant life that he desires for us. So obedience brings life both to ourselves and others. Disobedience brings death. Theft brings death to finances. Gossip brings death to relationships and trust. Adultery brings death of marriages and homes. Immoderation brings death to health. Corruption brings death to government. Sin brings death. And when you make a sacrifice and the priest slits the throat of the animals and blood runs out, you see the life running out of the animals. It is an acted out parable of what our sins does to both use and those around us.
Transition. In chapter 10 the author goes further and shows that Jesus’ death is so different and his atonement is so powerful, that his is a sacrifice that only needed to be made once. He is not only a greater high priest because of his blood, and not only greater because he went into heaven, but also because he only had to make a sacrifice once.
Through Jesus was are made perfect even as we are being made holy.
The earthly high priests made sacrifices day after day. The Day of Atonement sacrifices were made year after year. Even though these sacrifices were meant to encourage us by making atonement, they actually become an annual reminder of sin. As Hebrews says “it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year make perfect those who draw near to worship” (10:1).
This discussion reminded me of when I worked for AT&T after college. Actually I didn’t really work for AT&T I worked for a temp agency who placed me in an AT&T office. Though I might get a three month assignment and a name tag and a pass letting me in the office, I wasn’t a real employee. Being a real employee of the company meant benefits and stability. Each time my temp contract was renewed it reminded me that I wasn’t an employee of AT&T but something else. This is how the sin offerings worked under the first covenant. They gave comfort but they also reminded everyone that they were not perfect.
But Jesus Christ our high priest makes us perfect.
The author reminds us that earthly priests repeat their sacrifices. But Jesus is a different kind of priest who offers a different outcome:
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
He makes us perfect because we have trusted in the enormity of his act of sacrifice. We acknowledge that we do not deserve to be perfect in his sight, but his sacrifice, his blood, his act, is so great that he changes my status. Once we grasp this we see that the gospel is really the only way we can have a clean conscience. If we are to ask how to deal with guilt, the options are:
Secular – there is really nothing wrong. You have not sinned you have just made mistakes. There is nothing you can do about it now but move on and try to “be a better person.” This does not take our sin seriously.
Religious – Religion of any kind says that we must keep making sacrifices to atone for our sins. These can be financial or penitential, but they are on-going. In a way, by accepting that we can atone for our sins, this also does not take our sin seriously. This is not a system of grace but of payment.
Gospel – Only the gospel says “I am guilty but I am freed from my guilt because of Christ.” The good news of Jesus Christ takes our sin seriously but it takes the work of Jesus and the love of God more seriously. It looks realistically at us but then moves our gaze to God. This is why God can say we are perfect and being make holy – he is setting us aside, cleansing us of sin even as he treats us as wholly loved and accepted.
So maybe you come here bearing guilt and you need to receive his sacrifice for the first time. You need Jesus to be your High Priest to offer his blood for your sins You can do that now.
Maybe you are bearing guilt from the past and you need to be reminded that it does not break your relationship with God. God has atoned for past sin, shame and hurt and he see you as perfect because of Jesus.
Maybe you feel guilt today for a reason. You are a Christian but you feel guilty about something that you did this week or recently that hurt others or caused you to disobey God. God agrees with the verdict of your guilt, but he wants you to confess it, then he wants to wipe it away. Because you are “in Christ” your feelings of guilt do not break your relationship with God. You need to remember that even as you confess.