October 19, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Bartimaeus. Jericho. Just names, right? Well, not really. Sometimes the Bible discloses some of its most vital points in the details we tend to just skip over en route to the “main” story or the “meat” of a given passage.
But in the case of Mark 10, the two names mentioned above may well provide an access point for us preachers on this passage—an access point that may yield rich Gospel proclamation in any sermon on this passage.
Of the three evangelists who report this incident (though see the Textual Note below for some of the controversy on this story), Mark alone tells us the name of the blind man: Bartimaeus. It’s always striking when someone’s name is preserved for us. The vast majority of people whom Jesus healed are anonymous—in fact, basically all of them are unnamed. Yet here we have a name. It must be significant. (Similarly, of all the parables Jesus told, the only character who ever had a name within a parable was the poor man Lazarus—Luke knew what he was doing by giving a desperately poor person a name! The poor are not a faceless category but are real persons. That’s just so typical of Luke to remind us of this vital fact!)
Bartimaeus’ memory is preserved for us—we even learn his father’s name! It’s a reminder to us that the people whom Jesus healed in the course of his ministry were flesh-and-blood human beings, not mere symbols of this or that condition, illness, or disease. The poor and impoverished and disadvantaged were people with real feelings, with a family history, with people who once upon a time loved them and took care of them, whether or not anyone from the family is on the scene any longer. Perhaps it seems like I’m making too much of this, but it’s important for the Church to this day to be reminded that the poor and the disenfranchised to whom we are called to minister are not tropes, not broad and faceless socio-economic categories about whom to talk in the abstract (the way politicians tend to do). These are real people. They bear the image of God.
Actually, although politicians are good at abstractions when it comes to people groups, one can note again during the current presidential campaign in the United States that nothing warms up a candidate’s image more as when he can say something like, “Last week I was talking to an unemployed steel worker in Pennsylvania. His name is Frank. And Frank told me . . . And then I said to Frank . . . And it’s folks like Frank that make me want to be president.” Give the person a name, and it looks like you’re paying attention! There is a reason why in recent years most Presidents who give the State of the Union address to Congress make sure the First Lady has some guests seated with her—these will inevitably be war heroes, survivors of some terrible shooting, or someone in some other situation to which the President will refer in his speech and then, highlight the people present who fit that category.
Politics aside, maybe there is another lesson here in the naming of Bartimaeus that when the poor do speak up, when the poor do cry out to someone reputed to be important and powerful, society’s first inclination is to hush them up. Maybe the good citizens of Jericho saw this man as a social embarrassment, an eyesore, a blow to civic pride. Letting Jesus see him would make them all look bad. Best to hush him up. But the tawdry nature of human pride is on display here, too, in that the moment the man is invited to come over to the VIP in their midst, now suddenly people flock to him, treat him like he suddenly has collateral importance. It’s amazing how quickly we can pivot from avoiding, if not actively dissing, a person to wanting to cozy up to him/her the moment this person can give us a connection to someone famous. Maybe you yourself have never met the President, but if you know someone who knows the President, you talk up your relationship with this person big time (even if it’s someone who in the past you rather disliked).
In any event, there are a lot of social dynamics going on in this story, most of which are instructive for the Church today. But for us, we should not wait until Jesus calls a poor person over and we surely should not, in the meantime, be silencing the voices of the voiceless. The gospels show us that Jesus already has called all this world’s disenfranchised, lowly, marginalized, and invisible people to him. This is the reality in which the Church exists. We don’t have to wait to see if Jesus will notice the little people. He already has. What we are to do in response is rather obvious.
Secondly there is the matter of our being in Jericho. What are we doing in Jericho in this story? When were we last here in any significant way in the Bible? This incident of the healing of a blind man is the only time in the gospels when Jericho is mentioned (Luke adds the additional incident in Jericho with Zacchaeus but that occurs on this same visit in Luke’s narrative). Mark says that as Jesus was departing Jericho, Bartimaeus shouted. Get it: Jesus is outside of Jericho with a large crowd. He is outside of Jericho and someone is shouting.
Sound familiar? Ring any bells? From the Book of Joshua, we all know the story of the Israelites’ seven-day march around the city. Only on the seventh and decisive day, however, do the Israelites lift up their voices in a mighty shout, bringing down the walls of the fortified city. What follows, of course, is a lot of Old Testament-style carnage as every man, woman, child, and animal are put to the sword and the torch. Not nice stuff, that.
Parsing the Old Testament’s holy wars is dicey at best. Few Christians in the Church today can easily stomach the thought of infants being lanced through on Yahweh’s direct orders. It’s a delicate enough question that few of us preachers ever touch it. If you dig that particular hole for yourself in the pulpit, the odds are exceedingly good you’ll never be able to climb back out of it in twenty-five minutes’ time!
I may be going out on a limb here, but is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Mark is showing a gospel reversal of all that Joshua mayhem? After all, here is Jesus—the new Joshua—outside the walls of Jericho. A large throng is with him. And a lone beggar shouts to be heard. When people tell him to shut up, he shouts all the louder. Amazingly, the shouting leads to a crumbling of a different set of walls, this time the social barriers/walls that get erected in all societies between the well-to-do and the down-and-outters like Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus shouts in Jericho, but this time the result of all the shouting is not bloody battle and loss of life but a restoration of shalom. Salvation happens this time. A man is restored and joins Jesus’ larger band of followers.
In the familiar hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal,” there is a line I have always loved. “For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”
If ever the church needed a reminder of why we make a mistake when we adopt Old Testament, ancient Israel-esque imagery of God’s people engaged in holy wars, culture wars, and other such imagery of a hostile God, the Bible’s sequel to the Battle of Jericho in Mark 10 provides it. It’s surely worth pondering anew!
In any event, in that place previously renowned only for the carnage that happened there, a man with a real name, Bartimaeus, is touched by the power of God and of his Christ and of his Gospel. Hope and joy flood this story. What a privilege it is to proclaim it and to look for all those places even yet today that may be places of squalor and hopelessness but in which even now God’s Spirit is on the move to touch real people with real names with the real power of the Gospel!
Most of us are aware that this story about blind Bartimaeus is one of the more famous incidents of the so-called “Synoptic Problem.” Most of the incidents reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke line up more-or-less well in terms of narrative details. But there are a few cases of the same story occurring in two or three of the Synoptic Gospels but with some degree of noticeable variation. This is one of them.
In Mark 10 Jesus is LEAVING Jericho when he encounters a lone blind beggar whose name is given. However, in Matthew 20 we are told that upon leaving Jericho, Jesus encounters TWO blind men, neither of whom is named. Finally, in Luke 18 Jesus encounters a lone blind beggar (as in Mark, though he remains anonymous in Luke) but this time Jesus encounters and heals the blind man as Jesus is APPROACHING Jericho.
Predictably, this conundrum has elicited various solutions. A most straightforward approach would say that perhaps Matthew, Mark, and Luke took the same incident but editorially shaped it just a little in order to make a point that accorded with their own theological and literary intentions within the scope of that particular gospel account. But those who are uncomfortable with this suggestion and who prefer a more straightforward, diary-like view of the gospels claim that perhaps in Jericho that day Jesus healed THREE blind persons: one on his way into the city and two on his way out. (Or is it really FOUR blind persons seeing as we still can’t quite bring Mark and Matthew together?)
Getting hung up on such questions is not helpful in the course of a sermon (it may be unhelpful ANYwhere!). Instead, let’s approach this incident as Mark reports it in this lection and leave our ponderings about Matthew and Luke to other sermons when we preach this story out of their literary contexts.
Like several New Testament healing stories involving the blind, so also here in Mark 10 we see this blind man named Bartimaeus recover his sight and then immediately start to walk around like a typical sighted-person. However, as neurologists like the late Oliver Sacks point out, if it really happened this way, then this once-blind man was the recipient of a double-miracle: not only had Jesus fixed his optic hardware but Jesus must have installed also the necessary mental software that allowed the man to make sense of the information coming through his eyes.
Although we do not realize it most of the time, the ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water that is closer than they thought.
Likewise the once-blind misjudge steps and bump into walls all because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs.
As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think.
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Author: Scott Hoezee
And they lived happily ever after.
Is it really possible that the Bible’s most troubled (and at times most torturous) book has the proverbial “happy ending”? Did Disney take over this project at some point?!
At first glance you might think so. Job replies to God that in the wake of all the creation splendors, wonders, and mysteries that God had shown to Job in God’s long reply (see chapters 38-41 and the October 11, 2015, sermon starter) Job does indeed have nothing left to say. Whatever he thought he knew, he now realizes that there is more going on at any given moment than his finite mind could possibly grasp. Job even says he repents of what he had said, even though there is no evidence that God is angry at Job. In fact, although the Lectionary would have us skirt Job 42:7-9, the fact is that the only displeasure expressed by God is toward those who blamed Job for what he had said. So it hardly seems like Job had said anything wrong. God doesn’t seem to think so at least. (And, you know, if it’s good enough for God . . . )
Be that as it may, God then restores Job abundantly: new house, new riches, new family. True, Job sometimes still puddled up and got weepy about all he had lost before, but his extended family and new children were always there to buck him back up and bring a smile back to his old, care-worn face. And after many years of renewed peace and prosperity, Job died “old and full of years” with more children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren around his bed than you could shake a stick at.
Happily ever after.
It’s the ending we all want but don’t always get. Any number of us know people whose lives are such a string of heartache and sorrow that we cannot help but make the inevitable comparison to Job. The thing is, a lot of those same people don’t get the restoration part. They get the sufferings of Job but not the “peace at the last” part. So we end up wondering about that and although we may be glad for Job that he was restored the way he was, we don’t take from that some kind of promise that the same will happen for everyone whom we know who has had a bad time of it in life.
We might also wonder what Job’s restored fortunes and family means. Did God feel bad that he had let Satan put Job through all that in the first place? Or was this some kind of reward for Job in that he managed to avoid sinning or cursing God? Or was this some profit sharing on God’s part? Having won his gambit against Satan, does God now spread his winnings around by way of doling out some of it to Job? Or was the real kicker the fact that Job was willing to make intercession for his rotten friends to keep God from giving out what they had coming to them? Since Job showed what a noble and generous spirit he had by praying for even those who had made him so miserable, he demonstrated a character more than worthy of reward, and hence God gives him just that reward.
It’s hard to say how this all works out, or why. But there is enough swirling in the air here to prevent us from calling this some fairy tale-esque or Hollywood-like “happy ending.” For Job the memories of what he had suffered surely did not fade away—that’s why even verse 11 tells us that he still needed comforting sometimes. And although Job stopped asking the big “Why?” questions, the wonder and the mystery of existence surely must have tickled the back of his mind for the rest of his days. After all, since he was told that the reasons behind his original catastrophe were quite simply beyond his ability to grasp, who was to say it could not happen again? And if it did, who could say that the reasons would be just as opaque and as cloaked in mystery as the first reasons had been?
You would hardly be surprised if you could somehow find out that even after his return to prosperity Job stayed a little jumpy. Dark clouds scudding his direction probably still made him want to have his kids take cover, and loud noises startled him more than they used to. Every once in a while his wife and kids could see a distant look come into Job’s eyes, and they knew he was wondering about it all again.
But so do we all. So do the people to whom we preach every week. The big questions don’t completely go away, not even for those dear saints who have suffered much but who still speak so glowingly about the comfort of the Holy Spirit and of the faith they had in Christ Jesus. Even they wish that they could change the past or the present.
When the Book of Job began, Satan’s question was “Does Job fear God for nothing?” That was the gauntlet thrown down. The idea was that those who have it easy, those who “have it all” in this life find it easy to believe in God and to be nice to God because why not? Take all that away from Job and he’ll nix his faith in God and/or say nasty things to and about God.
Job proved that wrong, of course, but what was really taken away from Job in the end—and what was not really restored to him when the money and family was given back—was his rather simple faith, his rock-sure confidence that he knew what was what. At the end of this book, Job admits to how much he does not really know. Job discovers that easy answers and facile understandings of how things work in this universe before the face of God turn out to be less than the whole story. In fact, if a mark of true wisdom is knowing how much you don’t know, then Job ends up being a great example of a very wise person.
In a sense, Job has less to go on at the end of the book than at the beginning. Yet he still believes in God, still embraces God, still prays to God and follows God. Satan thought he could take away Job’s stuff and that would do the trick. God knew that was not so but also knew that what would really be taken away from Job was large chunks of Job’s theology and his certainty about old verities. God knew that that would be Job’s real test, all-the-more-so given that this change in theological viewpoint would not be able to go back to square one for Job the way maybe he was able to do with his money and children.
As New Testament people reading the Book of Job, we may find that some of the same things are true for us. Or they ought to be. After all, our faith has brought us to the foot of the cross, to that terrifying instrument of execution on which God’s own Son was impaled and murdered. Our theology ever since has said that the death of God’s beloved Son was necessary. It had to be that way. And we accept that and sing about it and talk about it often without batting an eye.
But if the death of God’s Son does not strike you as at least as wildly improbable and terrifying as anything you read in the Book of Job, then it’s possible you’ve grown altogether too accustomed to that symbol of the cross. The cross washes out a great many of our own certainties, of the things we might otherwise think are true about God, about life, about sin, about what is needed to fix what’s broken in this world. If sin and evil really did require Christ Jesus to go through all that, then matters are far more complex than we would have ever thought if left to our own devices. Things in this universe were a little worse than we may have guessed.
At the end of Job, despite what looks like such a “happy ending,” Job was forced to live with a whole new set of questions, a whole new outlook on life and on God, and without some of the certainties to which he had clung earlier in his life. But so are we.
The only hope for a truly “happy ending” for us all is that we truly do serve a God of all grace who is rich in mercy and compassion and kindness. And for all the ways the cross of Jesus knocks us sideways, that cross also tells us that our God is indeed exactly the God of grace we need to usher in one day a cosmic happy ending.
Whether we die old and full of days or in far more difficult circumstances, it is that gospel knowledge alone that leads to peace.
In the October 12, 2015, sermon starter on Job 38, I referred to Terrence Malick’s brilliant—but usually misunderstood—film The Tree of Life, which is in its own way an extended meditation on the Book of Job. The film is shot through with theodicy questions (albeit not about a set of circumstances as severe as Job’s) but those questions are consistently framed in the film by the glories of creation, by grace, by beauty, by the overwhelming grandeur that just is creation.
The final scenes in the film are the movie’s equivalent of Job 42. The tormented character played by Sean Penn arrives at a kind of New Creation, a “heaven” if you will. And although the questions he had asked in voice-overs throughout the film are not technically answered, there is a kind of resolution after all as the questions more or less evaporate in the face of God’s created grandeur and the renewal of all things, the reunion of all people, etc. (If you watch the film, pay attention to the soundtrack as an Agnus Dei piece is sung in Latin by a choir all throughout the final sequence—a more Christ-centered ending to a film has perhaps never happened! Watch the sequence here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFEuLx9OIvY ).
It really is pretty much what happens to Job. Life’s hardest questions may not get answered but somehow—in the face of divine grandeur and grace—they get resolved mysteriously after all.
Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22)
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 34 blends thanksgiving to God for answering prayer with teaching about the kind of godliness that’s the most appropriate response to God’s salvation. Yet as the NIV Study Bible points out, that combination makes this psalm somewhat unique. After all, most psalms’ thanksgiving leads to calls to others to join in that praise.
There’s certainly an element of that movement, particularly in verse 3’s, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” However, in Psalm 34, the poet’s thanksgiving largely leads her to instruct her fellow worshipers about how to live godly lives.
This psalm is realistic about the plight of even worshipers who love the Lord. There is no prosperity gospel in it. It speaks, after all, of the righteous person’s “many troubles” (19). Those troubles may come in the form of “fears” (4). The psalmist even alludes to such troubles by referring to the need for angels to surround the righteous (7), as well as speaking of the need for “refuge” (8). Such troubles leave people “afflicted,” (2) “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (18).
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect on the troubles some of God’s children experience. It can stimulate worshipers to open their ears and eyes to evidence of such trouble in the lives of their Christian brothers and sisters, as well as others. So often the trouble that is grief, fear, doubt or loneliness goes unnoticed by busy citizens of the 21st century. While God hears the cries of “poor” people (6), those cries all too often go unheard by their neighbors, family members or friends.
That natural human neglect and deafness is part of the reason why Psalm 34 offers such great news for those who experience troubles. The psalmist, after all, celebrates how God responded to his cries by answering him and delivering him from the troubles that caused him to cry out in the first place. The God of Psalm 34 is a God who graciously both hears and answers righteous peoples’ prayers in ways that bring them deliverance. This God is no blind and deaf deity like so many of Israel’s neighbors. The psalmist’s God is one who is very personal, who looks at and carefully listens to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the ways they’ve experienced God’s watching and hearing. After all, particularly in and immediately after the “heat of the moment,” it’s easy to forget God’s loving answers to prayers. Sometimes it requires a conscious effort to reflect on God’s goodness. Those who preach and teach Psalm 34 can help address such forgetfulness by helping hearers to more carefully reflect on God’s personal care.
Certainly the poet’s response to such care is very appropriate. She begins the psalm with a commitment to ongoing praise. The psalmist’s even invites those who are afflicted the way she’s been to both hear and join her in praise to the living God.
Yet the psalmist’s response to God’s mercy isn’t limited to praise. He alternates remembrance of God’s mercy with teaching. So, for example, in verse 4 he remembers how God “delivered” him from all his “fears.” Yet in verse 5 the poet immediately adds, in language that’s reminiscent of the results of Moses’ encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, “Those who look to him are radiant.” In verse 6 the poet recalls, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” Yet in verse 7 he immediately teaches, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,” suggesting that God sometimes answers prayers by erecting a kind of protective hedge around God’s sons and daughters. Because of that protection, insists the poet, God’s children are blessed.
In verses 9-22, which the Lectionary omits, the psalmist describes the appropriate response to God’s “hearing” that is the fear of the Lord. Patrick Miller calls such fear an “all encompassing term for worship and obedience” that make up “the proper relationship to God.” Such fear is something that can be both taught and learned. It’s comprised both of relying on God for every good thing and showing that dependence by loving our neighbors in very concrete ways.
The Lectionary pairs Psalm 34 with Job 42:1-6. That passage follows four chapters of God speaking to Job after allowing him to suffer so “many troubles.” God’s repeated questions have finally silenced both Job and his know-it-all friends. Yet in Job 42 God’s beleaguered adopted son finally does respond. In words reminiscent of Psalm 34:8 he admits, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” His words sound a bit like those of Thomas who, on seeing the resurrected Jesus, believes in him. Yet we don’t sense that Job is claiming that he has somehow seen God. Instead he seems to be admitting that he’s seen God’s majesty for himself and that it has shown him his arrogance in questioning and challenging God’s goodness.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 34 with Mark 10:46-52 where we read of a blind man who cries out to Jesus, asking him to have mercy on him by restoring his sight. Jesus graciously responds by healing from his blindness. That healed man gets to both see that the Lord is good and experience the blessing that comes from such recognition.
A number of years ago Alka Seltzer ran a television advertisement featuring a diner in a busy restaurant recalling a conversation with a somewhat aggressive waiter. He recalls the waiter insisting that he try something to treat his indigestion. The waiter’s words, “Try it, you’ll like it!” became a kind of catch phrase used by people all across North America.
Verse 8’s heart of Psalm 34 contains a similar kind of message. James Limburg notes that it’s as if the poet says about serving the Lord, “Give it a try! Look at it. Taste it. Try living it for thirty days. Try prayer and try praise. See for yourself that this religion that we practice is good!”
Author: Stan Mast
The Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and the recent sex scandals in the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church will make this text (and much of Hebrews) a real challenge to preach. With its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the Reformation made the intercession of human priests unnecessary. All believers can access God directly. Hostility toward the priesthood reached its bloody climax in the anti-clericalism of the Revolution. Priests were not only unnecessary; even more they were the enemy. And though democracy had matured over the years since that head chopping Revolution, so that priests once again held an honored place in society, the recent sex scandal in the Catholic Church has made priests objects of suspicion if not revulsion. The whole idea of the priesthood has three strikes against it. A discerning preacher will have to take account of this impediment to preaching on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ.
In the culture of the 1st century Jewish Christian churches, on the other hand, priests and particularly High Priests were all important because they were the indispensable intercessors between a thrice-holy God and his sinful people. Because the first readers of this letter to Hebrews were being tempted to return to their ancestral Jewish faith, the writer has focused intensively on this idea of High Priest. Beginning in 2:17 and 4:14-16, and continuing through 5:1-10 and 7:1-22 and even into the next chapters, our author argues that Jesus is a much better high priest than the Aaronic high priests. Our reading for today is the conclusion of that argument. I would suggest focusing on two eminently preachable phrases—“permanent priesthood” and “save completely.” Jesus is the superior High Priest because he is permanent and effective.
Using an argument of contrasts, Hebrews points out the obvious. “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office.” The ancient historian, Josephus, counted 83 High Priests from Aaron to the fall of the Second Temple. As anyone who has ever lost a beloved (or even barely competent) pastor knows, it is difficult to adjust to new spiritual leadership. The old one knew you and you knew that leader. Trust and love and loyalty take time to develop. The constant changing of the guard is unsettling to say the least.
You’ll never have to face that transition with Jesus, because he “lives forever.” He will always be there for you, full of sympathy, grace and mercy, making intercession for you. What’s more, he doesn’t have any of the flaws you see in your Aaronic High Priests, or your Irish Catholic priest, or your African American Assembly of God pastor, or your Dutch Reformed (that’s me) preacher. You’ll never need to replace Jesus because of a character flaw or a moral failure. Because he is “set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens,” he will never be moved to another church, suspended, deposed, or excommunicated.
Indeed, says Hebrews, unlike those other priests (the ones you find so attractive), Jesus is so “holy, blameless, [and] pure” that he “does not need to offer sacrifices day after day first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.” Our churches won’t have much of a feel for this assertion, so it might be helpful to outline the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement to which our author refers here. This list shows the absolute uniqueness of Jesus, our permanent High Priest, because he doesn’t have to go through all this.
According to William Hendriksen, “Aaron had to
1. offer a bull for his own sin offering to atone for his own sin and the sin of his household,
2. enter the Most Holy Place with incense,
3. sprinkle the blood of the bull on the atonement cover of the ark,
4. cast lots over two live goats brought by the people,
5. kill one of the goats for a sin offering for the nation, and sprinkle its blood inside the Most Holy Place,
6. place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the people, and
7. send the goat away into the wilderness.
The High Priest made intercession for his people by praying this prayer that God might forgive the sins he himself and they had committed: ‘O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.’” The High Priest had to go through that ceremony every year, generation after generation. Because Jesus is the perfect and permanent High Priest, he never had to pray a prayer like that.
The second major point in this conclusion of the argument about the superiority of Christ’s priesthood is that Christ’s work was completely effective. He is “able to save completely those who come to God through him….” That word “completely” is rich in the Greek precisely because of it ambiguity. Panteles can refer to extent (to the uttermost, in every way necessary) and it can refer to time (for all time, throughout the ages to come). However you conceive of the atonement, whichever theory of the atonement you think best captures the Gospel, Jesus is able to save you that way. Whether you think the Gospel is all about a penal substitution, or moral influence, or recapitulation, or “Christus Victor,” Jesus saves “completely.” Indeed, that word really means we don’t have to choose, because he saves in every way we need saving. And whoever we are, no matter where and when and how we live, Jesus’ saving work spans the centuries and the continents and the cultures. He is able to save completely.
There’s only one thing we have to do to experience and enjoy that complete salvation. We have to “come to God through him….” This implies that there is some gap or barrier between sinners and a holy God, and only Jesus can get us over that gap and through that barrier to God. One thinks of the cherubim and flaming sword God placed outside the Garden of Eden after the first humans sin, so that humanity couldn’t sneak back to the Tree. Or more relevant to the argument here in Hebrews, think of the thick veil that blocked the way to the Holy of Holies, so that sinners wouldn’t just waltz into the presence of God. Hebrews will later make the point that Jesus the Great High Priest has entered into the real Holy of Holies, making a way into God’s presence through his flesh, that is, his sacrifice on the cross. Apart from that sacrifice, there is no way to come to God. I know, that is a very unpopular thing to say today, but our text is pretty explicit. We need a High Priest, and we have one. Through him and him alone, we are able to come to God.
Our writer emphasizes the complete effectiveness of Christ’s high priesthood with two more pregnant phrases: “once for all” and “he always lives to make intercession for us.” “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” The Aaronic priests offered millions of sacrifices year after year in the temple, because those sacrifices were never enough. Jesus offered one sacrifice, himself, his body and blood, one time for all people. The Greek word is ephapax, a heightened form of hapax, which means once.
Some biographers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer tell us that the word hapax was printed on the altar of the chapel at the Hinterwald concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. It was a reminder of the once for all work of Christ in that time of immense social upheaval and inconceivable crimes against humanity. In the midst of the bloody history of the human race, God has done once and for all what needed to be done to stop all the bloodshed. “It is finished.”
The problem is that it is not finished. Blood is being shed all over our world today. If God has done what needed to be done, why isn’t it done? Well, of course, the answer is that God has given us the responsibility of coming to God and living for God and spreading his Kingdom of love and peace. And we haven’t done that well enough. But we aren’t left to ourselves in our efforts. That’s the point Hebrews makes when it says in verse 25 that “he always lives to intercede for them.”
The high priestly work of Jesus is not only past; it is also present. His sacrifice saves us completely, once and for all. And his intercession secures for us the grace and mercy we need for our times of need in this bloody world. Your former High Priest, your family priest, your beloved pastor has died and gone away, so he isn’t available to you anymore. Jesus is always available, because he lives forever. And he is always on the job for you. Even when you can’t pray for yourself, he prays for you. There’s nothing you need that he can’t provide, as the beloved hymn says. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided….”
That’s what the last verse in our reading means when it says that God’s oath “appointed the Son who has been made perfect forever.” As I said last week, that doesn’t refer to his becoming morally perfect. It’s all about his work and his role as High Priest. He was the perfect High Priest, permanent and completely effective. As E.K. Simpson expresses this with the rhetorical flourish of another era, “In one flawless Mediator we descry priesthood at its summit-level. His unique endowments exhaust the requisites of the office and invest it with ineffaceable validity.” Or as the NIV translates the beginning of verse 26, “Such a high priest meets our need [perfectly]….”
One of the New York Times bestselling novels is a science fiction tale entitled The Martian (now released as a film starring Matt Damon). Set twenty years into our future, it’s about a mission to Mars that goes terribly wrong. An international space mission has landed on Mars to further explore its hostile environment. When a terrible dust storm blows up, they have to return to their orbiting mother ship. But one of their fellow crew members is literally blown away in the storm and presumably killed. Except he wasn’t. Mark Watney is still very much alive, and very much alone.
The Martian chronicles his heroic and ingenious efforts to stay alive on Mars as long as he can, until, perhaps, he will be rescued. Using equipment from his own and previous missions to Mars, he manages to restore contact with Earth. In a line that seemed to resonate with the Christian Gospel, he says, “Sure, I might not get rescued. But I won’t be alone.” He might never get out of there; he will almost certainly die there. But at least he can communicate with someone human. He might not get “saved completely,” but at least he knows he has people interceding for him. Eventually,through a tremendous sacrificial effort, he does get rescued.
In a sense, we are all like Watney– trapped in a hostile environment and all alone. But Jesus does it all—rescues and intercedes, saving us completely.