Hebrews 9:15–10:39. The Conclusion of the Priesthood.

Key Notes: The open ear. On deliberate sin. The confessional. The clear conscience.

The author summarizes the previous three chapters. This passage is remarkable for the repetition of ideas and phrases.

1)  Copy (9:23); Shadow (10:1); copy, shadow, pattern 8:5;
2)  Christ into Heaven itself (9:24); into the Holy Place 9:12
3)  Not to offer himself repeatedly (9:25); every priest offers repeatedly (10:11); does not need to offer sacrifices daily 7:27
4)  Cannot make perfect those who draw near (10:1); cannot perfect the conscience 9:9
5)  Blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (10:4); sacrifices which can never take away sins 10:11
6)  Once (9:27,28; 10:2); once (9:7) Once for all (9:26;10:10,12);  once for all (7:27).  For all time a single sacrifice 10:12,14
8)  This is the covenant I will make with them (10:15); this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel 8:10
9)  No longer an offering for sin (10:18); a second time not to deal with sin. 9:9.

Chapter 10 emphasizes the futility of the Old Covenant:

10:1 “…it can never by the same sacrifices continually offered year after year make perfect ;those who draw near”
10:3“…a reminder of sin year after year….”
10:11“Every priest stands daily at his service , offering repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sin.”
10:4  “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.”  This is another of the critical texts at the base of our teaching on redemption. It follows, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (9:22). It shows the sacrifice of Christ to be a necessity, rather than an accident.

10:5  "When Christ came into the world, he said, '... a body hast Thou prepared for Me.'" This gives us the idea that the Incarnation, Christ's human body, was intended to be a sacrifice. We think of him as The Logos--God's thought in human form, or as Son of Man--humble humanity and divine power, as the last Prophet, or as the Great Physician, but we do not often think of Him born to be a sacrifice.

10:5  There is also a puzzle here. If we read the citation from Psalm 40:6–8 the phrase, "Thou hast given Me an open ear", is quoted in Hebrews as, "a body has Thou prepared for Me". Hebrews is using the Greek translation (Septuagint, LXX). There seems to be little connection. The open ear is best related to Isaiah 50:4b-9:
"Morning by morning He wakens, He wakens My ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened My ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;  I hid not my face from shame and spitting."

Isa. 50:4–9 is a Messianic poem describing the Christ as listening constantly to God, obedient to the point of giving His life. Hence the sequence, "an open ear" ===> a person listening ===> a servant ready to offer himself as a sacrifice ===> "a body have you prepared for me."

10:7  "Lo, I come to do thy will, O God" was the theme of Jesus' life:
"My food is to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 4:34)
"I seek not my own will but the will of Him who sent me." (John 5:30)

10:7  "In the roll of the book it is written of me" is a reference to Isaiah 53:6, "The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."  The Old Testament prophesies Jesus' sacrifice.

Returning to the question of why so much repetition. The author made his first point that Jesus' priesthood is of a different order than Aaron's (Ch. 7), under a new covenant (Ch. 8), with a perfect sacrifice (Ch. 9–10). He repeatedly says that the sacrifice is once for all because, "If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (10:26)--a frightening thought.

We need to know what "sin deliberately" means, although it seems obvious. The text says,

"has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and outraged the Spirit of grace." (10:29).

Is that what is meant by sinning deliberately or does it mean any sin at all?

The Old Testament is informative:

"If one person sins unwittingly he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering." (Numbers 15:27)
"But the person who does anything with a high hand (defiantly) ... reviles the Lord and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off." (Numbers 15:30)

The next paragraph illustrates with the story of a man who was gathering sticks on Sabbath after Moses commanded the people not to cook Manna on Sabbath (Ex.16:29). He was acting with a high hand and he was stoned.

Leviticus 4:1–12 describes the ritual of sacrifice for sinning unwittingly.
Then Lev.6:2–7 tells us:

"If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor ... in any of all the things which men do and sin therein, when one has sinned and become guilty, he shall restore what he took ... and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs, on the day of his guilt offering ... and he shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty."

Robbery, oppression, etc. are all deliberate sins. David's sin (with Bathsheba, against Uriah) was certainly deliberate, but forgivable because it was a breach of faith, not rebellion against God. Although David was punished severely he did not lose his salvation.

I think the key word is "the person who does anything with a high hand ... reviles the Lord". The man who gathered sticks on Sabbath must have done so rebelliously, not as a breach of faith or because he did not know the rule.

The unforgivable sin is to renounce Christ, to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29) and profane the blood of the covenant. We "need to endure", "not shrink back... have faith and keep our souls". "So let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance", "hold fast the confession of our hope", "encouraging one another", looking for the "Coming One".

The fear of sinning after baptism so gripped the early Church that some would not be baptized until their death-bed (extreme unction). Then it was decided that one sin after baptism was forgivable. Later it became apparent that more than one sin must be forgivable so a system of penance and absolution was developed. Penance was at first public, part of the church service; later, private in the confessional.

Then the Church was divided about what to do with people who caved in and recanted under persecution, especially in the early centuries of the church.. Some said they had "spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified and outraged the Spirit of grace" and could not be restored. Others held out forgiveness even to these. Separate religious parties developed.

This painful aspect of early and medieval Christianity, requiring repeated confession, penance and absolution, persisted until the Reformation. Martin Luther comments:

“... with good and peaceable consciences we now believe in God the Father, we trust in Him, and have just cause to boast that we have sure and certain remission of our sins through the death of Christ Jesus, dearly bought and purchased. Who can sufficiently extol these treasures of the conscience, which everywhere are spread abroad, offered and presented merely by grace. We are now conquerors of sin, of the law, of death, and of the devil; freed and delivered from all human tradition. If we would but consider the tyranny of auricular (verbal) confession one of the least things we have escaped from, we could not show ourselves sufficiently thankful to God for loosing us out of that one snare. But seeing such freedom is obtained for nothing, by grace, it is not much regarded, neither give we thanks for God for it.” (Table Talk. M. Luther; T.S.Kepler, edit. Dover, 2005, p.101–102)

We have been promised a clear conscience:
 “...gifts and sacrifices were offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” (9:9)
 “...how much more shall the blood of Christ ... purify your conscience from dead works to serve the Living God." (9:14)
 “If the worshipers having once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin.” (10:2)
 “... our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience ....” (10:22)

God’s promise is, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more” (Heb. 10:17).

On the other hand, we must remember that Paul considered himself the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15). How can we reconcile that sense of sin with a clear conscience? Yet he could say before the Sanhedrin:
“Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1).

He also testified about his clear conscience in other places:
“So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men.” (Acts 24:16)
“... the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity…by the grace of God.” (II Corinthians 1:12)
“... the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart, and a good conscience and sincere faith.”
(I Timothy 1:5)

The words, “take pains”, and “aim”, tell us that the clear conscience is not built in or automatic, but something Paul thinks about and works at. It is our common experience that the clear conscience is impermanent and subject to renewal.

However, we know Christians who refuse God’s forgiveness, the first step toward a clear conscience. They may do so for several reasons:
            harboring old grudges; refusing to forgive others.
            indulging in secret sin.
            wishing to suffer—a kind of self-punishment for old sins.

Daily cleansing and abiding in Christ are the path to a clear conscience.