March 2, 2008

Portraits of Jesus: The All-Sufficient Mediator
The Book of Hebrews (4:14-16)

A good bit of life involves figuring out how to get where we are going. Ancient nomads tracked the positioning of the sun, moon and stars to help them make their way across the desert. Polynesian sailors sailed to remote islands over a seemingly unmarked ocean by observing the type and direction of the waves. Eventually, ancient travelers began plotting familiar sites and distinctive locations, leading to the development of maps. And in the 11th century C.E., the Chinese revolutionized the art of navigation when they, after noticing the impact of magnetic fields, invented the compass. Today, many new cars come equipped with sophisticated navigation systems that help even the most directionally-impaired people find their way to wherever they want to go. A good bit of life involves figuring out how to get where we are going.

The book of Hebrews is about people like us finding our way—finding our way, like Abraham before us, to a place that we have never seen or visited before. Abraham, the writer informs us, “looked forward to the city…whose architect and builder is God” (11:10). In the same way, “we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14). We are all on a journey—we are all pilgrims on the trip of a lifetime—to a place beyond the reach of stars, waves, maps, compasses and navigation systems. How will we ever find our destination? Mapquest won’t help. I know, I tried. I typed in my home address as the starting point and “heaven” as the destination. Mapquest gave me directions to Heavenly, Oklahoma. I entered “City of God” and “Eternal City,” and the system went blank. As a last resort, I tried “New Jerusalem” and was directed to a place 81 miles east of here near my home town. How do we find our way to this city of promise? The writer of Hebrews tells us in one word: Jesus.

When we first open the book of Hebrews, we might be intimidated by references to angelic beings, bloody animals and mysterious people like Melchizedek. But soon we realize that the portrait of Jesus within this dusty frame is wonderful—he is everywhere. In chapters 1:1-2:18, we learn something about the nature of Jesus. He is, on the one hand, the Son of God, superior even to the angels. He has, on the other hand, temporarily taken on flesh and become human. Jesus, as a result, uniquely knows what it means to be both human and divine.

In 3:1-4:13, we read about the intent of Jesus’ mission. In the same way that Moses and Joshua led the children of Israel centuries before to the promised land—to “rest”—so Jesus has been called by God to lead sinful humanity to the “new” promised land—to rest in the eternal city.

But at this point, the writer slows down considerably. Our journey to the city, like the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land, is complicated by certain factors that the writer has to take into account. For one thing, the God who lives and reigns in the city is the same God who we at one time served, but are now estranged from. How will we ever work out our differences? And for another, we need to bring a gift to give him, but we own nothing of value. What will we do? Jesus, the writer assures us, has answers for both of these concerns.

With respect to the first concern, we learn in 4:14-7:28 that Jesus is our mediator—our great high priest. We are all familiar to one degree or another with mediation. Mediators help resolve contract disputes between companies and labor unions. Mediators assist organizations, including churches, to settle internal squabbles and conflicts. And mediators even work with individuals, whether spouses or friends, to mend broken relationships. Mediators serve an important role in various aspects of life.

The same is true of our spiritual lives. Our relationship with God has been broken through our sins and incessant thirst for independence. The intimacy we enjoyed with him at the beginning of time has long since been lost. Since then, God has been reaching down to his fallen world, speaking his words through poets and prophets. But who will speak for us? Who will represent us and help us resolve our differences and restore our relationship with God? Who will be our mediator? In the Old Testament, that role was reserved for earthly priests. They all came from the same family, and they were called by God to come into his presence on behalf of the people. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, priests worked at the temple to mediate between God and humanity.

But they don’t do that anymore. We still have pastors and priests like me, to be sure, but our role has changed. Now, you and I can come directly to the Father without human representatives. How? Through Jesus, our mediator. As the Son of God, Jesus understands what it means to be divine. And having taken on flesh, he knows full well what it means to be human. Jesus appreciates the power and privileges that go along with being God, but he has experienced as well the dreams, struggles and temptations that are an every-day part of life. He is the perfect blend, able to relate with equal ease to both parties in the dispute. Jesus is the great high priest who enables us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:14-16). Jesus is our mediator.

But, in terms of the second concern, he is also our sacrifice, as Hebrews 8:1-10:39 points out. Priests came before God on behalf of the people, but the people themselves did not come empty handed. They brought to the priest animals of one variety or another, but always a perfect male from their own flock. No one brought wild animals that they did not own—your sacrifice had to cost you something. When the person arrived at the temple with his animal, he, not the priest, put it to death. He had to realize that sin was expensive and brought with it a price. Then and only then, did the priest take the animal and offer it as a sacrifice to God.

But they don’t do that anymore, either. Neither do we drag goats and sheep to church like the early Israelites did to the Temple. Thank God! So what happened? Did the entire need for a sacrifice pass away? Did God change the ground rules? Not at all. Instead, Jesus has become our sacrifice. In laying down his life, he took upon himself, once and for all, the sins of the world.

We need to sit with this idea for a moment. Theologians have for a long time wrestled with this matter of Jesus dying on our behalf, and so have most ordinary people sitting in the pew. Why would Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God just forgive us and set the record straight? That is what we do, after all. If you genuinely ask me to forgive you for some wrong that you committed, I will. And I won’t kill my son as part of the process. What about God? Was he so angry with his fallen world that he had to take out his rage on an innocent bystander? Was he unwilling to forgive without extracting some sort of revenge? Was the death of Jesus a grotesque example of divine child abuse?

At the risk of oversimplifying an admittedly complex question, we must keep in mind one significant difference between the forgiveness that we humans extend to each other and the forgiveness that God extends to us. You and I are in fact made of the same stuff—we stand on equal ground and in similar positions. So, if you wrong me, my essential nature is not compromised. We are both human.

Clearly, that is not the case with God and us. We are intrinsically different. God is pure and holy, totally without sin. There isn’t a microscopic particle of evil anywhere within him. He is, in the words of our writer, a “consuming fire” (12:29). We, by way of contrast, are not holy. We are instead unclean, sinful and totally separated from God. And one thing is clear from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Holiness and sin cannot meet. When sin gets close to holiness, it burns up like stubble in a furnace. Something had to be done to tear our sin away from us if we were ever to stand in the presence of God. Something had to be done to shield us from the blazing fire of God’s glory. Something had to be done that could enable sinful people and a holy God to meet.

And that is where Jesus, our sacrifice, comes in. Insofar as he is God, he can withstand the consuming fire and live. And insofar as he became human, he could take the sins of humanity up on the cross with him and nail them there. God did not send Jesus into the world because he was so angry that he had to vent his rage on an innocent bystander. He sent Jesus because he cared about the world so much that he refused to allow his holiness to win out over his love. There was in the very heart of God a fierce conflict between his holiness and love, and in the cross of Jesus, both won. In his great love, God did not cease to be holy. Instead, he performed a miracle—he provided us with a way to abandon our sin and become holy as well!

Now, as we make our way to the promised city, Jesus serves as both our high priest and our sacrifice. When we sin and fall, Jesus speaks to the Father on our behalf. “Terry is here, Father,” he says. “Don’t let him in here,” the Father responds. “I love him, but he will be consumed.” “But Father,” Jesus continues with the wounds in his hands and feet in full view, “I took Terry’s sins upon myself!” Then the Father, seeing Christ’s blood rather than my sins, opens his arms and welcomes me in.

In a sense—only a sense—Jesus is like a lawyer, but a lawyer who only represents guilty people. How would you feel about a lawyer like that? One who defends only guilty people. “Did you commit the crime? Did you kill so and so?” he asks when someone seeks representation. “Yes, I’m afraid that I did.” “Alright, I’ll take your case.” And to make matters worse, Jesus gets everyone of the guilty people who comes to him off free! Totally free. He is our all-sufficient mediator, Hebrews 5-10 makes clear—our high priest and sacrifice.

So what are we to do? The remaining chapters of Hebrews, 11:1-13:25 answer that question as well: Jesus is our example. Like our many ancestors listed in chapter 11 who by faith continued on to the promised city, we too must live according to God’s promises. There is an entire stadium of people cheering us on, the writer informs us, rooting for us to join them in the city. If we want to do that, and I certainly do, we can’t rely on compasses, maps and modern navigation systems. Instead, we must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” and “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,” the writer assures us (13:8). He will lead us to our eternal home.